Not sure what to say about the sudden death of Aaron Schwarz, idealist, freedom-fighter-extraordinaire and friend of open access to information for all of humanity. Aaron spend his life fighting for humanity's highest ideals, contributing to technologies most of us use every day (even if we don't know it). It just feels like something is very, very wrong is the so-called 'free world' is killing its best and brightest for living up to its highest ideals. We've got big problems and cannot afford to lose people like Aaron.
Cory Doctorow has written a eulogy here, Prof Lawrence Lessig had an overview of the case the US Department of Justice (ha!) saw fit to launch against Aaron. Glen Greenwald wrote about his heroic work in helping to defeat SOPA over the last years. A digital memorial to Aaron will be here for as long as there is an Internet. The files that started the case can be found here. Spread them around as wisely as possible.
But mostly just watch Aaron's speeches and interviews, as many times as needed before you understand his ideas and ideals fully.
Gartner, IT-journalists and even former employees of Microsoft agree: Windows 8 will be a disaster. The Metro interface designed for tablets (a market that virtually does not exist in relation to MS-Windows) is unworkable on a desktop with a vertical non-touch screen, keyboard and mouse. Most office spaces still have this and most run legacy applications with interfaces that rely on a Windows PC using a keyboard and mouse. It is precisely the ongoing purchase of desktop PCs with the combination of MS-Windows and MS Office that has kept Microsoft financially afloat over the last 15 years
The combination of legacy applications (mostly proprietary) and familiarity with MS Office, led many IT organisations to automatically buy the new Windows platform, despite the high cost of licences and support. The inevitable result is a world of pain, with new interfaces, a lack of compatibility and the sudden cessation of support for critical components. IT policy is organised around coping with these problems instead of focusing on sustainable alternative solutions. And solving or mitigating these problems requires so much time and money that there is often little left over to plan further ahead. Thus, in many organisations the perfect vicious circle has existed for so long that many IT people can not even see it.
Eben Moglen explains the biggest and most important fight for civil liberties in the next decade. Nothing the Free Software Foundation has not been saying for over 20 years but now more important than ever. Freedom requires freedom of thought and this requires freedom of media and communications. These cannot be guaranteed if private interests, controlling or controlled by governments can interfere with the functioning of the information networks and devices. Freedom requires free technology (where free means free as-in-freedom) where the people using the technology control what is does for them and how it does it. I talked about this in 2010 and many times before and after on this blog.
Doublethink is a concept that was introduced by George Orwell in his famous novel '1984 '. It is a mental mechanism that allows people to believe sincerely and simultaneously two completely opposing ideas without a problem.
In the ten years that I have been involved with open source and open standards in the Dutch public sector, I have encountered many double thinkers. So for years I have endured “experts” and insiders patiently explaining that the migration to open source desktops within that community would be impossible, because civil servants could not work with other platforms. Asking non-techies to use anything but the Windows + Office desktop they were taught at Dutch schools would lead to disaster. It Just Could Not Happen.
The certainty with which this (to this day) is mouthed as an aphorism everywhere has always amazed me. Previously, the Netherlands had migrated from WP5.2 in DOS to Windows Word 6, yet the Earth kept turning, children went to school and there was water from the tap.
Multiple migrations, mostly outside the Netherlands, have also demonstrated that ordinary users can do their work well with alternative platforms, provided they are given some training and support (something, indeed, that is perfectly normal when migrating to new releases of the usual proprietary systems).
The same people who for years have claimed with great certainty that "It Just Could Not Happen” have been busily rolling out iPads to the many managers and directors, who for many and varied reasons discover they need one. Apparently the adoption of an entirely different platform with a totally different interface is not as problematic as was asserted for all those years. Huh?
Socially aware people are, often justifiably, very good at moral indignation, but they just as often display a touching naivety. I recently watched with some surprise the American Occupy activists who were shocked (shocked I tell you!) as policemen (or university rent-a-cops) launched unprovoked attacks using batons and pepper spray.
It is indeed despicable that these officials use so much violence. But if people are still shocked by this in 2011, one has to wonder where they've been hiding for the last 10 years – have they not watched the news? Did they think that they could let stolen elections, illegal wars of aggression, shooting children with anti-tank weapons and the torture of innocent civilians happen without the ultimate consequence of their govenment using the same force against them?
But even the naive indignation of some Occupy activists about their government and its boot boys, is nothing compared to the childish surprise of the IT press about ACTA and SOPA. The copyright industry has for decades lobbied for the length of copyright to stretch to the end-of-time-plus-a-day extra.
Sony has no problems with infecting computers of their customers with what amounts to a virus. A torrent of writs has poured forth from the offices of copyright enforcement. Babies and the elderly without a PC, deceased persons, and even a HP laser printer have been falsely accused of copyright infringement (labeled as “theft” by the lawyers of the industry). Surely we all know the kinds of organisations we are facing now?
<originally a Webwereld column - in Dutch>
In 1996 I got my first MP3s. Storage was expensive, so I burned files onto CD-ROMs. There were 10 to 12 audio CDs on a CD-ROM. Conversion of an audio CD to a series of MP3s lasted hours using an encoder from the command line. They could only be played on a PC (or a very expensive laptop) so I had no good answer to the frequent question from family and friends: “why do you bother?”. Except that I was confident that bigger hard drives and smaller, cheaper laptops would evolve. I first had an audio PDA in 2000 – with a 256Mb memory card that could hold a few albums. I've forgotten what all that has cost, but probably quite a lot.
A year later, Apple came out with iTunes to make it easy to manage digital music collections. The first iPods with graphical software came along soon after, and MP3s were accessible to a wider audience. The result is that virtually all music can be downloaded from somewhere. It is up to the individual whether to pay for it, because downloading is not illegal in many countries and even where it is, there has been little noticeable effect on people's behavior.
What is a document? It started as a flat piece of beaten clay, onto which characters were scratched with a stick. 8000 years later it was found and after years of study, archaeologists concluded that it said: 'You owe me three goats”.
Through papyrus and parchment scrolls we arrived at mass production of paper and book printing in Europe in the 15th century. Our sense of the nature of a document is still derived from this previous revolution in information capture and distribution. When computers became commonplace as a tool to create documents, there was therefore a strong focus on applications to produce paper document as quickly and nicely as possible. The creation had become digital, but the final result was not fundamentally different from the first printed book in 1452.
Most word processors in use today cling to this concept. There are hundreds of functions for page numbering, footnotes and layout to achieve a legible final result - on paper. Many IT tools around the management and access of documents are directed to the concept of a digital document as a stack of paper. Ready to print for 'real' use. The modern ways of working together for various reasons no longer apply to a paper-oriented way of recording and distribution. Paper is static, local, and now much slower and more expensive to transport than bits. It is this combination of restrictions has led to new ways of creating documents where both the creative process and the end result is digital. A famous example is Wikipedia, the world's largest encyclopaedia with millions of participants continually writing and rewriting about the latest insights in technology, science, history, culture or even the biography of Dutch folk singer Andre Hazes.
Over nine years ago, I was talking to Kees Vendrik <Dutch MP) about the broken Dutch software market. Not only was it impossible to buy a top brand laptop without buying a Microsoft Windows licence, it was also impossible to visit many websites (municipalities, Dutch railways and many others) without using Internet Explorer. The latter area has greatly improved and I can lead my life using my OS and browser of choice. Only occasionally do I have to just swallow a Windows licence when buying a new laptop. Not much has improved in that area. Our national dependence on products such as MS Office has not really diminished either, despite all the wishes of our Parliament and its related governments policies.
Meanwhile, the technological seismic shift that frightened Bill Gates so much back in '95 (the web makes the operating system irrelevant) is fast becoming reality. Almost all new developments discussed by IT power players and specialists are web-based or based on open specifications and the most commonly used applications are running quite well as service in a browser.
A MP stumbles, coughing, into the doctor's surgery. There is blood pouring from the ears and nose and left eye. “Doctor, doctor, I've just had a bad fall and I think I've broken my wrist” gasps the MP. The doctor has a look and briefly feels the pulse. “Does that hurt?” “A little bit” mumbles the MP. “I don't think it's that bad” says the doctor. Unfortunately I can't check it today as the digital X-ray machine is broken”. The MP is swaying back and forth. “It's probably just a bruise, the nurse will give you a sling. Take it easy for a couple of days and come back if it's still painful.” The MP staggers out of the surgery, still bleeding from the ears, nose and eye. The doctor is already focused on the file of the next patient, because doctors are very busy.
The process described above resembles the way the Court of Audit went about answering MPs questions about our national IT strategy. The MPs asking those questions were not experts and the Court provided simplistic answers without providing any context or stopping to consider whether the symptoms might be part of a broader problem. The newly-published report failed to respond even to the superficial questions and, moreover, based its answers on minimal data. Which is a disgrace, as it is precisely the role of the Court to delve into the deeper issues.
For decades throughout the Western world houses were built with asbestos. The material is affordable, durable, insulating and also has excellent fire resistant properties. All this - and the low price – made it the ideal stuff to use for everything. Which is what we did.
As long as the asbestos remains safely in place, nothing much happens. It does its job and you don't need to think about it. The problems begin when changes are made, such as a conversion. The demolition of a such a wall releases microscopic asbestos fibres, resulting in enormous danger to the health of anyone who has the misfortune to be nearby. Consequently the processing of asbestos is very strictly regulated. Despite these regulations, asbestos has for decades caused twice as many deaths as road accidents.
Because the long-term consequences of the use of asbestos is so damaging, its use is now prohibited. All this, despite the fact that the original reasons for using still exist: asbestos is still cheap, strong, durable, insulating and fire resistant. Yet we now don't use it because the social price is just too high. Strategic and social reasons are more important than practical and technical advantages.
The Lower House of the Dutch Parliament has asked the Court of Audit to investigate the problems and opportunities related to the adoption of open standards and open source software for the government's information systems. The Court has invited various experts to give their views. This blog post is my contribution.
The questions are being asked to the highest supervisory body of the country, rather than the departments responsible for implementing this policy - the Ministries of Home Affairs, and also Economic Affairs, Agriculture & Innovation - eight years after the government's first unanimous vote on this issue and the expenditure of about 5 billion euros on licensing fees. The impression given to the outside world is that Parliament is not impressed with the progress of the last eight years and believes that the relevant government departments could benefit from the external scrutiny of a neutral and objective body.
Each of the following five questions implies a series of unspoken assumptions. In order to answer the questions, it is necessary to identify and, where neccesary, challenge these underlying assumptions in order to reach a sensible answer.
In a recent column (Dutch), Frank Benneker of Amsterdam University explored the consequences of the rapidly growing use of cloud computing. The shift of computer applications from PCs and servers to a single "service" provided through a worldwide network is probably as fundamental a shift as the earlier one from mainframe computing to PCs.
Given the objectives of the Dutch Open standards and interoperability policy plan, cloud computing seems the quick and easy-to-implement solution: I hear Web 2.0 enthusiasts say “put everything on Google Docs and we are all interoperable”. But just as in the case of the "liberation" of PCs from mainframe managers/suppliers, there are problems with cloud computing – potential snakes in the grass.
In December 2004 the Dutch government decided that the dependency on dominant software providers was a problem and had to be addressed. The Dutch action plan from 2007 was the first, tentative step in dealing with this.
The Dutch Journal for Surgeons, publishes an article written by my collegue Younass and myself. We wrote this article to further explain some of the points we made during our keynote at the natinal Convention of Surgeons last month. The entire article here in English and Dutch, the PDF of the journal here. Background links and articles here (mostly Dutch).
Dutch IT magazine 'Webwereld' (1, 2) asked me to comment on the news that Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu Linux, is offering legal protection against potential patent claims of Microsoft on Linux. Red Hat provides a comparable service and refers to it as a 'necessary evil'
The vast majority of software patents are not legally recognized in Europe, making this one of those typical American problems mostly designed to make lawyers very rich. But leaving that aside, how solid are the claims anyway? 2003 Microsoft invested in the anemic software provider SCO to sue IBM on the basis of alleged ownership of crucial Unix/Linux components. The case lasted many years and achieved nothing. Except of course a lot of confusion in the marketplace amongst IT buyers who were considering moving to Linux, thereby sometimes delaying a firm decision. It would seem that this was the primary original objective.
In a recent speech EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes stated that badly functioning IT markets and high vendor dependence have far-reaching consequences for the functioning of public bodies and companies in Europe. There is much to be gained, both economically and functionally, by focusing on open standards and open source software. 'This is a waste of public funds no government can afford any longer.'
A short summary of my talk for the 2010 CCC SigInt conference in Cologne, Germany.
Most European governments are busy migrating important components of their IT-systems to opensource alternatives. The Netherlands was the first western country to develop a comprehensive policy for its entire public sector in 2007 but is lagging its neighbors in working implementations. The comprehensive policy in the Netherlands is focused on the practical advantages of open systems such as interoperability and lower cost and no vendor-lock, these reasons are also shared by policies in the UK and Denmark.
German, Spanish and French policies seem to have a more political dimension by also stressing national independence of critical systems and the possibility of code-audits as important reasons for going the open route. By comparing Dutch progress (and sometimes lack thereof) with our neighboring countries some lessons can be learned about what policies work and what some of the required conditions are for them to work in different political and IT-legacy environments.
In 2002 Peru had a coherent action plan for open standards and open source. That went way beyond the Dutch action plan of five years later and was probably far ahead of its time. Where the strengths of the Dutch plan lie in focusing on practical operational goals such as interoperability, market forces and strengthening the local economy, the Peruvian plan made no attempts to hide its political mission.
Had fun doing talk this afternoon at HAR2009. While I was taking a nap afterward someone wrote a very nice review on the HAR wiki.
To spice things up a bit I added a new aspect about areas of public sector IT that should be under ultimate control by public sector organisations. I'm still refining these ideas but this is the gist of it:
Imagine that all the modern communication tools of today are not be available to you. No mail, no chat, no Twitter, Facebook or phone. Now imagine that you are a company with 50 employees who need to be in daily contact. How do you solve it? With them all working at the same location. Simple puzzle, right?
Now let us turn the question around: all these modern tools are available to you, so why are you going to the office every day? And as a bonus question: are you aware that a hundred years ago we were driving around with a horse and carriage?
Our computers remind us daily of old-fashioned working methods: we neatly arrange our files and folders in our digital filing cabinet every evening before we go home. To share information with colleagues we make a copy of the folder and forward it on. And if we make changes, there are suddenly two versions of the document. Colleagues can also modify the file, and then there are three.
On april 7th Aldert, Brenno and me had the pleasure if dining with Sunil Abraham. Sunil used to work for the UN Development Program and is now Policy Director of the Indian Centre for Internet and Society. We discussed the difficulties of bringing technology to rural places in India and the impact of product-oriented IT-education. After dinner Brenno interviewed Sunil for his weekly podcast (pocast in Dutch, interview in English from 05:15). Sunil also wanted to interview me about my experiences lobbying for open standards and opensource in the Netherlands and he did so by mail. The result can be read here.
Last week I was visiting the Dutch Caribbean by invitation of the local government to do the opening keynote (ODF 1 2) on their conference on open standards and opensource. Curacao, one of the islands of the Dutch Antillies is about to become fully independent nation state and that means a lot of re-design of the local IT systems of the government and public sector. The government is determined to maximise the opportunities offered by open standards and opensource software to move the new governemnt, the local educational system and economy forward. For education an OLPC project is being considered because 3 PCs per school is not the way into the 21st century. Hopefully the new Internet Exchange (based on the Dutch one) will bring down the cost of bandwith so that all those OLPC's will be able to go online.
On Saturday May 31st Gendo presented its experience on changing national policy on open standards and opensource at LinuxTag 2008. The slides are here in ODF and PDF. LinuxTag is Europe's largest opensource conference with over 11.000 participants from 31 countries. Doing a talk there was a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to next year.
Linux Magazine Germany has a writeup of the talk here. and reported on the Dutch opensource policyplan earlier this year. The presentation was not recorded but an earlier (similar) presentation was taped last december at the CCC congess, also in Berlin.
Twenty years ago my economics teacher told us 'Economics is the science of human choice under conditions of scarcity'. This definition always stuck in my mind because economists seem to invest all their energy in vain attempts to model the choice bit and assume the scarcity bit is a given. Material scarcity may seem a given (like the speeds of light or the fact that a peanut butter sandwich always drops on the floor with the wrong side down) because until now it has always been there. It used to be that hand axes were in short supply and now there's a permanent shortage of the latest generation of mobile phones. Making stuff takes effort and this effort has to be compensated by either a goat or digits in the memory of a bank computer.
But what if we were to take on the scarcity problem, instead of spending endless TV-news business sections discussing the behavioural consequences that are caused by it. Would that not be a much better use of our time? On the Internet nowadays scarcity for most people is not a problem, too much of everything is more of an issue. Selection and filtering of available information, news and media is the challenge, not its production, reproduction or dissemination.
Conservative party leader David Cameron held a speech at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts on April 3rd. Aside from the usual criticism (not all undeserved) at the current government he talked about the network society and bottom-up collaboration enable by ubiquitous access to IT. He (or his staffer) had obviously read "Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win" by William C. Taylor and Polly G. Labarre. And a good thing too since it is filled with good examples of how to innovate by sticking your neck out and doing things differently.
About three quarters through the speech Cameron very explicitly stated that his government, if elected, would actively seek a greater use of opensource software and mandate the use of open standards for public IT systems. According to him this will enable faster innovation in the public sector while avoiding repeats of the very expensive NHS disaster.
The Dutch national government is proceeding with its new implementation of 'GOUD' (Gold), its new plan for a 'standardized desktop' for ministries and other governmental institutions. After the much publicized new Dutch National IT-policy of last autumn this might sound wonderful. It's not.
The problem with the 'standardized desktop' is that it uses very few real standards. Instead it uses products and pretends they are standards. The difference between 'standards' and the idea of 'standards products' is widely misunderstood, often confused and this is where projects such as 'GOUD' go off in troublesome directions.
On January 1st, 2002 I tried to use the website of the Dutch national railway (www.ns.nl) using Linux. The site refused me access, it was IE-only. This sparked a conversation with members of parliament about the need for open standards. Over a five year period I progressed from talking to opposition-MP's to meeting the economics minister directly and was able to significantly influence national policy despite total lack of funding or any specific mandate.