Fosdem 2012 or Why Open Source is Still Revelant

Fosdem is the place where you’ll find a Google engineer who as a “full time hobby” is lead developer for WorldForge an open source Massive Multiplayer Online game, or where you have a beer with a developer who has a hard time finding a job, because all the code he write has to have a free software license: “you don’t ask a vegan to have a little bit of meat do you?”. It probably is the world’s biggest free software conference: More than 5000 people show up yearly in Brussels, there is no fee to attend and there is no registration process.

I really enjoy going because there are few other events that have this few barriers to attendance and to approaching the event the way you want to approach it. I like wondering around and thinking about how these are the people that actually keep the Internet working. Below some notes about the different talks that I attended (very little educational technology to be found, beware!).

Free Software: A viable model for Commercial Success

Robert Dewar from AdaCore had an interesting talk about how to use free software as a true commercial offering. There was no ideology in his talk but only a pure commercial perspective. They usually sell free software as “open source” and focus on convenience and utility in their selling proposition. They tell the customer they get the source code included without locks and with no limits on the number of installs.

The business model is based around subscriptions (for support, testing, etc.). What he really likes about that model is that the interests of them and the customer are fully aligned: they only make money when the customer renews. Often companies have to get used to asking for support though, they have not been “trained” to value support in the past.

He considers commercial versus open source a bogus distinction. In many ways he would consider AdaCore to be very similar to what Microsoft in what they do. The main difference is the license of the software. The AdaCore is much more permissive as you are allowed to copy and do with it what you want.

He also spent some time thinking about whether AdaCore’s approach would work with other companies. Could Microsoft open source Windows? He thinks they could without it affecting them badly: people would be willing to pay for timely updates and support. Could a games company open source their games? Copryright protection is one way they currently protect their very large investments. It might be hard for them to open source, but in general the model could be used much more widely. Every company is in the business of giving users what they want and open source licenses are that much more convenient for users.

A New OSI For A New Decade

Simon Phipps has joined the board of the Open Rights Group and the Open Source Initiative (OSI). He talked about reptiles: they have no morality and are very old and only react to fear and hunger. Corporates are reptiles too. Corporations don’t have ethics, people have ethics. OSI tried to find a way to show large organizations that the four software freedoms (use, study, modify and distribute) are important for them too. A pragmatic rather than a moral perspective on open source software helped the OSI to be able to get corporate involvement. Their initial focus was very much on licensing. They have been succesful: OSI has become the standard for open source in government and the fear around the term has been turned around: other processes are now appropriating the term.

We are now in a new decade: Open Source is the default and digital liberty is moving to centre stage. OSI has lost some of its relevance, so they decided to reinvigorate the organization with a member-based governance which should include all stakeholders. They now have new affiliates (other open source non-profits like Mozilla or Drupal) and the next stage will be government bodies and non-entities (whatever that might mean). Later they will get personal associates and then corporate patrons. All of this should enable a bottom-up governance. Members will decide how OSI will operate, they will create OSI initiatives, they can use OSI as a policy venue and they will co-ordinate initiatives locally and globally.

A new OSI project will try and help educators educate the world about open source: FLOSSBOK. I am personally not sure the world is waiting for another project like this. There are quite a few alternatives already.

Mozilla Devroom

Tristan Nitot, Principal Mozilla Evangelist kickstarted the Mozilla Devroom. He told us that six European organisations have gotten significant grants from Mozilla (one of them being Fosdem). Mozilla strives to create an Internet that is benefiting everyone. The Internet that is being built currently does not benefit everyone. He focused on a couple of trends on the net:

  • App Stores have good sides (app discovery and monetization), but also very bad sides: they create vendor lock-in and prevent people from switching platform (I have personally felt this when contemplating switching away from the iOS platform) and occasionally inhibit free speech through “censorship”. Mozilla believes you can get the good of the app stores without the bad.
  • Social networks have obvious good sides, but also profile users, prevent users from porting their data to other services and identity providers can even lock people out of their digital lives. Using Facebook is ok, but don’t use it exclusively to interact with others. When you use something for free, then you can assume that you are the products. He showed us a great cartoon about Facebook users:

    The "Free" Model by Geek&Poke

    The "Free" Model by Geek&Poke

  • Newer devices (tablets, smartphones and netbooks) are increasingly convenient and popular. Very often they force users to a specific browser (e.g. Chrome on the Chromebook or Safari on iOS) making them definition the opposite of the web.

What is Mozilla doing about these things:

  • Open Web Apps are based on open web technologies, cross-browser and available in multiple app stores. You can even host your own apps on your websites for others to install in their browser. WebRT brings this a step further. It is a runtime for web applications that makes web apps look and feel like native apps on multiple platforms. Things like a Media Capture API will really change what is possible to do with Javascript in a browser. Other surprising APIs are the Battery API, the WebNFC (Near Field Communications) API and the Vibration API(!). More documentation is available here
  • They are trying to solve identity in a decentralized, browser agnostic and privacy respecting way. The codename for the project is BrowserID and it is based on using email addresses to provide identity.
  • Boot2Gecko (B2G) is a complete operating system build for the open web. Check out the Frequently Asked Questions about the project.

In my book these three projects (especially the last one) make Mozilla a group of absolute heroes. Donate here!

There was an interesting talk about how Mozilla organizes its own IT services. Currently that is done by paid staff, but they strongly believe they can get this done through the community (MediaWiki does something similar.

Kai Engert talked about a very important topic: “Web security, and how to prevent the next DigiNotar“. He has a let’s say “unconventional” presentation style: instead of slides he used a piece of written text that he displayed on the screen and read out loud. Maybe this should be called something like “live visual podcasting”. His points were good though. He explained how it is a problem that every Certificate Authority (CA) has unlimited power and he listed the alternatives. You could maybe use a web of trust like the CAcert community. This still doesn’t solve the problem of a single root key. Another proposed solution was Convergence using notaries that would monitor certificates. Kai see too many problems with this as a solution for general users. One suggestion could be build on top of DNSSEC. Again that has problems. How do you know who has signed the the DNS? Google has also proposed something called Certificate Transparency which might work, but also might create some problems. His proposed solution builds on what is in existence using the existings CA combined wit the notary system. This talk was bit dense (I got lost half way if I am honest, obsessibely reading Megan Amram), so if you want to read it yourself find it here.

Michelle Thorne is the global event strategist for Mozilla. She is currently very focused on creating communities of “webmakers” and they are starting with children, video makers and journalists first. She presented three tools/projects for these webmakers:

  • Hackasaurus let’s anybody edit the web. Kids are suddenly empowered to remix existing web pages. Check out the hacktivity kit if you want to use this in the classroom.
  • Popcorn.js is a HTLM5 media framework that allows you to connect web content with video.
  • OpenNews (formerly called knight-mozilla) puts web developers in newsrooms building tools that help journalistic challenges.

One thing I noticed is that she used htmlpad to present a few slides. I need to check this out as it is probably one of the simplest ways of collaborating around text or getting a quick HTML page online.

The focus for Mozilla in Fosdem is very much on the technology side of things and less on the broader themes that the Mozilla foundation is tackling. I had a hard time finding somebody from the Mozilla Learning team to talk about Open Badges, but did get some good connections to have this conversation later in the year.

Wikiotics

Wikiotics did a very short lightning talk of which I only managed to catch the tail end. Their goal is to make a site that allows anybody to create, update, remix interactive language lessons.

The Pandora

The Pandora is a small Nintendo DS sized open Linux computer designed for gaming. It has a 800×480 touchscreen, wifi, bluetooth, two SDHC card slots, SVideo output, two analogue controllers, a DPad, L/R buttons, a QWERTY thumb keyboard, 256/512MB RAM and 512MB NAND Storage. It has about 10 hours of battery life (full use).

It comes with its own repository (an app store) allowing for easy installation and updating of games and other applications. One thing that will appeal to many people is the amount of emulators that it can run. If you want to relive the days you spent on the Amiga 500, Commodora 64, Apple II or the Atari ST it will work for you.

Because the device is so open, the possibilities are limitless. For example, you could connect a keyboard and mouse using a USB hub and connect it to a TV to turn the Pandora into a small desktop PC or connect a USB harddisk and turn it into a web- or fileserver. The price price will be €375 (ex VAT). What is great is that the device is produced in Germany and so does not have any sick labour conditions for the people building it.

Balancing Games, The Open Source Way

Jeremy Rosen has been working on Battle for Wesnoth, a turn-based strategy game, since 2004. He talked about how to achieve balance in a game. When you are talking about multiplayer balance:

  • No match should be decided by the matchup
  • No match should be decided by the chosen map
  • The best player should win… usually

Single player balance is different, in single player game fairness is not important anymore, it is just about having fun:

  • The AI won’t complain if the game is unfair (Jeremy on the AI: “By the way our AI doesn’t cheat, but is very good in math”)
  • Players want the game to be challenging
  • Each player has different capacities, we need to decide who we balance for

Balance problems can occur in many places (e.g. map balance, cross scenario balance, unit characteristics) and aren’t easy to find. One way of finding them is by organizing tournaments as people will do their best to exploit balance weaknesses to win. Balance will always be a moving target and new strategies will appear. User feedback is not so useful because players think they never make mistakes and that all their strategies should work. Sometimes you can find some good providers of feedback: “These persons are important, and like all of us, they are fueled by ego. Don’t forget to fuel them”.

His recommendation is to find somebody in your game’s community who can make a balance a fulltime job.

Freedom Box: Out of the Box!

 

The FreedomBox Foundation

The FreedomBox Foundation

Bdale Garbee, gave us an update on the activities at the FreedomBox Foundation. According to him it really is a problem that we are willfully hand over a lot of personal data to companies to manage on our behalf without thinking much about the consequences. Regardless of the intention of companies, for-profit companies have to operate within the rules of the jurisdictions that they operate and can lead to things like Photo DNA.

Freedombox’ vision is to create a personal server running a free software operating system and applications designed to create and preserve personal privacy that should run on cheap, power-efficient plug computers that people can install in their own homes. That will then be a platform on which privacy-respecting federated alternatives to current social networks can be build. These devices will probably be mesh-networked to augment or replace the current infrastructure.

The foundation has to do four things:

  • Technology
  • User Experience (this is very important if it is going to be useful for people who are not “geeks”)
  • Publicity and Fund-Raising
  • Industry Relations

They have had to bound the challenge by focusing on software, rather than custom hardware and on servers and services rather than client devices. They have also decided to use existing networking infrastructure where appropriate while working to move away from central infrastructure control points (like the Domain Name System (DNS)). Another decision has been to build all elements of their reference implementation on top of Debian which is a completely open volunteer based International organisation. This means that regardless of how successful they will be as a foundation all of their work will survive and remain available. Their goal is that new stable releases of Debian should have everything needed to create FreedomBoxes “out of the box”.

The first “application” they want to deliver is a secure chat service. They have based this on XMPP with Prosody on a single host (by chance I was sitting next to one of the Prosody developers).

They have also decided to make OpenPGP (GnuPG) keys as the root of trust. It is great technology, but it is hard to establish initial trust relationships. One interesting idea is to take advantage of smartphone technology (that we all walk around with) to facilitate initial key exchange (see the work from Stefano Maffuli).

They have done some investigations into plug computers. They focused mostly on the Dreamplug (which gave them quite a bit of GPL related headaches), but you also have the Sheeva and the Tonido.

He finished his talk by quoting Benjamin Franklin:

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

What I should have written last year: distributed and federated systems

There is an overarching trend at Fosdem that I could already see last year: the idea of decentralisised, distributed and federated systems for social networking and collaboration. There is a whole set of people working on creating social networks without a center (e.g. BuddyCloud or Status.net or distributed filesystems (like OpenAFS), alternatives to GoogleDocs (LibreDocs) and mesh networking (like Village Telco with the Mesh Potato). There are even people who are trying to separate cloud storage from the cloud application (Project Unhosted). These are very important project that have my full attention.

If you have reached this far in the post and still want to read more (with a little bit more of a learning perspective) then you should check out Bert De Coutere’s blogpost. Through him I learned about Open Advice, an interesting approach to capturing lessons learned.

Why I Have Deleted my Facebook Account

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. Some people would consider Facebook a threat to the open Internet (e.g. Tim Berners-Lee), whereas other people see it as a key tool for promoting democracy in this world (e.g. Wael Ghonim). We decided to each argue both sides of the argument (300 words “for” and 300 words “against”) and then poll our readers to see which argument they find more persuasive. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Facebook or no Facebook?

Facebook or no Facebook?

For a couple of months now my pragmatic side has been battling with my principled conscience. The matter of contention: whether to keep my Facebook account.

Why I will delete my Facebook account

There are three main problems with Facebook:

  1. It creates a silo-ed version of the web . A big reason why the web works is the way you can link to other pages on the web: you don’t need anybody’s permission. The Berners-Lee video that I linked to earlier gives some great arguments about why this is important. Facebook is a closed silo from this perspective, creating an alternative network that does not have the same characteristics as the Internet. For some young people around me, the web (if not computing) is nearly synonymous with Facebook: they hardly leave the Facebook browser tab. If they do, it is usually to buy something. I am sure that soon you will be able to do that from Facebook too (e.g. Did you know that you can get somebody a Amazon gift certificate to be given to them on their Facebook wall on their birthday which they have registered with Facebook?)
  2. The social graph is too important to be under the governance of a single commercial US-based company . Knowing how you are connected to other people can lead to powerful applications (see below). In fact, the social experiences that this allows are so important that we would be crazy to accept that all this relational data is in the hands of a company that can do with it whatever they want and might even be forced to share this data with the US government. There is no easy way to migrate this social graph into another system and Facebook displays a very proprietary attitude to it. What would happen if Facebook was forced to stop doing business or would decide to start charging people for their services?
  3. Their sphere of influence is not transparent and ever-increasing . Facebook is all over the web now. What news site does not have a “Like” button? If you have a Facebook account and you don’t log out after you have used it, then Facebook is able to see the URLs of the pages you are reading, even if you don’t ever click on the like button. Your attention is mined and commercialized by Facebook. Even if you have very restrictive privacy settings your data will be still be given to any third party app that has managed to seduce one of your many Facebook friends. More and more sites are cropping up that will only allow you to log in using the Facebook login mechanism making it harder to use multiple identities the net. Facebook is becoming so pervasive on the net, that it requires tools like Disconnect or Abine’s TACO to make sure you are staying out of their clutches. Does this feel like a positive development in the way that you can use the web?

Why I will not delete my Facebook account

There are a couple of good reasons for me to keep a Facebook account:

  1. They are past the tipping point . The network effect has come into play. Why should you be on Facebook? Because it is the one and only (global) place where everybody else is! Two years ago I organized a reunion of the very first class I mentored as a teacher. It took weeks of searching using all kinds of media before we got about 50% of the class together. This year we are doing another reunion: within a week we found 95% of the class on Facebook. Facebook facilitates this so-called ambient intimacy with people that you don’t regularly see or talk to, but still want to stay in touch with. What other means of communications has transaction costs that are this low?
  2. They deliver an incredibly innovative service. Facebook deserves a lot of credit for the ideas that they have implemented and for the pace at which they keep innovating their mind-blowingly large scale service. They were the first company that decided to create a web platform for which third parties could write applications, they were the first to see and deliver on the true power of the social graph (turning it inside-out) and they have been creative in the way that they appropriate and add to ideas about activity streams, sharing in groups and even privacy controls (what other web service gives you that level of control over what you want to share?). For somebody like me, fascinated if not captivated by technology and looking through an innovation lens, there is an immense amount over ever-changing functionality to explore.
  3. Having a centralized social graph leads to powerful applications. The first time I realized this was when I played Bejeweled on my iPhone. It allowed me to connect to my Facebook account and suddenly I wasn’t playing against other people at Internet scale (how can anyone score 20.000 points?!), but I was engaged in battles with family, friends and colleagues. Soon there will be a time where every piece of content we consume (books, news, magazines, videos, podcast) will be enriched by this meta-layer of your friends opinions. I call this the social contextualization of content. Facebook’s integration with Pandora was one of the first examples of how this will work. This meta-layer assumes a persistent social graph: you don’t want to keep finding your different groups of relations again and again do you?

Anyway, for me it is clear: I don’t want to be a part of Facebook’s success and would prefer it if we all would be using a differently architected solution in the near future. Fully decentralized and distributed systems are in the making everywhere (e.g. Diaspora, Pagekite, StatusNet, Unhosted and Buddycloud) and I will invest some time to explore those further. As I also personally get very little value out of Facebook, it is not hard to act principled in this case: I will be deleting my account.

Update on 10-11-2012: As I still don’t have a Facebook account I’ve deciced to change the title of this post.

Learning 2008: Wrap up of day 1

I have already written two posts about the Learning 2008 conference. This last post about day one will just be some random things that I noticed and want to highlight:

  • The session on Mobile learning with industry leaders from Chrysler, Accenture, Microsoft and Merril Lynch was surprising to me. Mobile learning was mostly used by these companies to make their learning more efficient and thus drive down costs without losing effectiveness. Basically a matter of ROI. Existing learning materials and courses are converted into on- or offline materials for the Blackberry or Windows mobile. Their employees can then do some of the required business curriculum while they are on a plane, on the way to their car or while playing with their child (yep, that last example was actually used). They were after the holy grail of learning designers: design once and deploy everywhere. The problem with this is that they do not take the affordances of the mobile device into account. The fact that this is a cell phone which could be used for audio, that it is a communication tool that has rich possibilities (e.g. location awareness through GPS) was not taken into account. To me that is a shame.
  • Richard Culatta works for the CIA and gave a presentation titled: “Two Brains are better than one: Leveraging social networks for learning”.  He talked about a whole bunch of free tools which can be used for social learning. The CIA uses these tools in different ways (e.g. the Intellipedia, a Mediawiki implementation). What I liked about Richard’s presentation was his enthusiasm and his energy: he covered a lot of ground in a short time and was very interactive with the audience. Maybe because he is well aware of the concept of the attention economy. I wish all presenters would take the cost of my attention into account!
  • Wayne Hodgins is working with Erik Duval on a book about the Snowflake effect. His job title is “Strategic Futurist” and works from his sailing boat in which he sails around the world. He talked about how everybody is a snowflake, a metaphor for the uniqueness of everybody. Different music services (e.g. Pandora and Last.fm) already take this uniqueness into account. Why don’t we apply these principles to learning activities? Finally he talked about mashups as a generic concept. Why don’t we use the unique qualities of humans and mash them up when we create a project team?
  • Sue Gardner, the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, talked about the Wikipedia in general, which is currently the number four website in the world. Masie asked her about how neutrality is ensured. Her idea is that transparency is the answer to everything. By being clear that someone thinks A, but somebody else thinks B, you actually add to knowledge and make things clear. The foundation will be working on improving the interface for editing articles which can be quite difficult for complex pages. They might also try to look at what they can do with video and audio, although we have to realise that they are not as easily collaborated with as with text. Masie wondered about students using information from the Wikipedia for their assignments. Is that something we should encourage while the information might not be correct? Sue answered by talking about the most accepting country for Wikipedia: Germany. Professors in Germany are starting to see it as their duty to make sure that Wikipedia is correct and updated.
  • Finally an interesting link: Learning for International NGO’s (Lingos).

On to day two!