Tuesday, January 30, 2007

3rd Week: Beyond Vista (or, how to cream your customers for every cent they own)

More than six months ago, I mentioned the possibility of Microsoft moving to a modular, and pay-per-module, basis for operating systems after Vista. The idea was met with a general feeling of doubt that such a thing would happen, from all on #CompSci (including my aforementioned technically-adept contemporary MSHV).

Now, a short time after withdrawing a patent application for an idea they copied from BlueJ, Microsoft have filed for a new software patent. What could the subject of this patent possibly be? Why, it's entitled "System and method for delivery of a modular operating system". From the abstract:
An operating system and method for use include a core function module, or basic kernel, providing fundamental operating system support and one or more add-on modules that allow customization of the operating system as desired. Add-on modules may provide support or extended capability to the computer including hardware, applications, peripherals, and support. ... By withholding certification, a service provider may manage illegal or undesired modifications to a provided computer. Digital rights management may be used to enforce terms of use of the add-on module in keeping with licensing arrangements.
I'm not an expert on patent law, and especially not US patent law. Lucky for me, someone at Groklaw is. Their analysis?
The patent relates to a method of delivery of an operating system where you start off with a very basic operating system, a kind of crippled starter edition, and then you pick and choose (and purchase) additional functionality, with DRM used to make sure you don't self-help. It's like modular copyleft, turning the advantages of GNU/Linux -- modularity there increases what you can do and what you can add and how well everything works -- and instead turns the concept on its head by using modularity plus DRM to restrict and contain and enforce.
The article is quite a lengthy exposition of the patent application, and I won't try and further summarise it here - go, read for yourself. Most interesting, though, is the fact that some of these "add-on modules" are there to provide functionality that you would expect - nay, should demand - from the most basic installation of the OS. Plugging in all your peripherals, for example. Or having a network connection at the speed your hardware allows. Or having as many different programs open as you want, and that your computer can cope with. All of these things are flagged in the application as things available in addition to the basic kernel (eg with the possibility you have to pay for them).

As for the DRM... I believe I have my views already well-recorded on that shocking scheme for consumer manipulation and exploitation.

It's worth pointing out, of course, that "Microsoft doesn't need a patent to use this business model, nor does a patent application prove it will use the model." But who can argue that they're not headed that way?

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Monday, January 29, 2007

3rd Week: OK, brace yourselves...

The BBC News website reports on the story that's going to be everywhere in the world tomorrow: Windoze Vista's launch. Luckily for my sanity, they've avoided (so far) the Redmond whitewash by inviting proponents of the other two members of the Big Three OSs to give their pitch alongside two pro-Microsoft folk.

We can all but discard the first pro-Windows comment, obviously from someone who's never seen anything but Windows first-hand and focuses almost entirely on eyecandy (nothing wrong with an OS having eyecandy - but when you're paying £170 minimum (or £80 for an upgrade), it can't be the only thing going for it).

The second pro-Windows comment is more substantial, so I'll grab a few quotes and deal with them in turn, occasionally sarcastically.

A huge amount of research has been put into this new version which is evident in everything from the user interface right through to the new security model.
This would be the 20+ people it took to design the shoddy "shut down" options menu? And the new security model based on the philosophy of "annoy the hell out of everyone so they turn it off" (as instantiated by my technically-adept contemporary MSHV). You can't really defend against users with the mindset of "click OK just to get rid of the damn things", mind (hence why not everyone is cut out to be a superuser - don't take the name of root in vain).

This latest update provides many new components but the one which will provide the greatest change for windows users is the Windows Presentation Foundation - a set of components which allow graphics designers to produce visually stunning user interfaces.
I have to say, I wasn't blown away when I first saw Aero (I know - "Linux fanboy!!!!111") but I can't deny that it looks... nice. It's certainly a big improvement over XP's default Fisher Price settings. And I suppose the big difference here between Windows (and Mac for that matter) and Linux systems is choice, or lack thereof. A Windows developer making a GUI application is almost certainly using Visual Studio, and (for Vista) will be using WPF to make their app look and feel like every other Windows app - like it's part of the system.

Linux is different. Not only are there two competing desktop environments in KDE and Gnome (yes, there are more than this, but these are the big two) but the way they draw elements like buttons, scrollbars etc is different from the ground up. KDE uses the Qt toolkit, while Gnome uses the GTK one. Somehow, I get the feeling whenever I use an app designed for GTK, that it's not quite looking how it should - and while integration with KDE themes is there, it's not watertight. It doesn't (usually) affect the functionality of the app, just the look and feel. Oh, dear, we're talking eyecandy again...

I also like the way that all my existing hardware just works (although I am aware many other people have had problems).

Well, at this point I could give the usual "if-more-people-used-Linux-more-hardware-people-would-release-drivers-for-it" spiel but I won't. Fact is, I think of the Big Three, Linux has the absolute widest hardware support of the lot. Vista only seems available on x86 and x86_64 processors... no SPARC, no PPC... Ever tried to find drivers for an old printer on XP? Chances are it'll be already waiting for you in Linux. Reading through the list of drivers in the Linux kernel sources is a mammoth task - but, of course, we can't compare it since OS X and Vista are closed-source. Apple OSs, it's worth pointing out, only ever come with Apple-built hardware and are only designed for Apple machines, so Apple loses the hardware compatibility race from the off.

So we get to the Linux-user's comments (interesting that the Beeb would put Linux above Apple in the article). And going through this closely... I can't really fault it. It makes all the right points (though it does only dedicate two lines to eyecandy... shock horror). It doesn't make a big song and dance about being completely free; it doesn't deny the weak points (as the other three comments do - any OS will have weak points!); and it does briefly discuss the fact that the whole ethos behind Linux as an open-source project is a different one to that behind Windows and OS X:

What really sets Linux apart is its social significance provided by the free software license. It encourages users to share the software they love with their friends, rather than making the act of sharing illegal and branding it piracy.

Also it encourages programmers to be better people, working in the open and allowing other programmers from across the world to help improve their software, rather than locking up their work with restrictive licences which prevent programmers from working together.

So to the Mac-user... and I have to admit, I have too little experience of Mac OS to be able to raise many comments. Most of the points he raises - security, maintenance, productivity and interoperability with Windows users - could equally be applied to Linux too.

I now feel like I am in charge of my computer rather than it being in charge of me.

And yet you can still only do things that Apple let you do, Mr. Tilney. You only own a license to the OS, not the software itself... and still, you're tied to the Apple hardware+software+soul combination.

My bottom line? I think it's been well-stated elsewhere that I'm a Linux user through choice, and see no reason to go back to Windows. Sure, I keep it around for the odd spot of gaming (or playing Lucy at MSN Games into the early hours) but would I ever use it as my primary OS again? Not through choice. And, let's not forget, that both Apple's OS and Vista are defective by design, and include software "features" to limit your freedoms with digital media. But when the Penguin sets you free, you will be truly free... ;-)

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Monday, January 15, 2007

1st Week: Hooray for Kingsway

Kingsway are offering individual song downloads for 99p each - and, more importantly, the downloads are MP3s and without any Digital Restrictions Management. I've just bought a copy of Matt Redman's "Never Let Go" - we sang this at St. Aldate's last night and right now it's just so spot-on for describing my life.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.

(Psalm 23: 4)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

1st Week: A Copied Quiz Thing - Soundtrack To My Life

I never ever do these things, but I'm doing this one because a) I haven't posted on this blog for nearly two months, b) it's quite a good one as it gives you an insight into a person's music collection, c) I'm bored, and d) it's one more thing to distract myself from everything that's happened in said last two months, if only temporarily...

So, here's how it works:
1. Open your library (iTunes, Winamp, Media Player, iPod, etc)
2. Put it on shuffle
3. Press play
4. For every question, type the song that's playing
5. When you go to a new question, press the next button
6. Don't lie and try to pretend you're cool..

Opening Credits:
Pink Floyd - Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Waking Up:
Mr. Mister - Welcome To The Real World

First Day At School:
Pink Floyd - Is There Anybody Out There?

Falling In Love:
Delirious? - Message Of The Cross

Breaking Up:
Star Wars VI soundtrack - Ew*k Celebration and Finale (now there's irony)

A few bars of the BBC News theme... don't ask why

Life's Ok:
Delirious? - Solid Rock

Mental Breakdown:
Fight, Win, Prevail (from the soundtrack to Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn)

Delirious? - Now Is The Time

Phatfish - There Is A Day

Getting Back Together:
(Мне все еще жаль, что это не может случиться, with apologies for the translation)
Matt Redman - King Of This Heart

Birth of Child:
Delirious? - I Was Blind

Wedding Scene:
The Itchy and Scratchy theme from The Simpsons (again, don't ask why)

Final Battle:
Tim Hughes - Jesus You Alone

Death Scene:
Sean Callery - LA At 9:00AM (from the 24 soundtrack)

Funeral Song:
Spring Harvest - How Great Is Our God (ironically enough, I hope this will genuinely be at my funeral...)

End Credits:
Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb

So what have we learned? Well, that my collection contains a lot of weird clips of television themes; that Ew*ks and the Rebellion are ultimately responsible for the events of the last two months; that a recurring theme of my life has been, and will be, Jesus; and that right now, I may not be comfortable, but I've certainly been feeling numb.