Computer programming centre-right lovers of Swedish meatballs


English: YouGov logo
English: YouGov logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to YouGov (the UK’s largest polling company) that is what typical lovers of Linux are – though it’s based on just 272 individual profiles (out of 200,000 or so members of YouGov’s panel). Oh, and they are blokes. More at https://yougov.co.uk/profiler#/Linux/demographics

(YouGov made at least some of their profiling data available online this morning and it has kept British internet users amused all day.)

Windows lovers are, apparently, somewhat more numerous – there are 744 of them – but also typically younger, less well off and even more right wing. And are also men. Apple pie is their favourite dish and perhaps unsurprisingly they are not as keen on programming. Yes, it’s true: Windows lovers are lusers through and through. See https://yougov.co.uk/profiler#/Microsoft_Windows/demographics

Admirers of the Microsoft brand, though, tend to be older (still male) and rather more centrist – and numerous. Perhaps this is the Bill Gates effect? People admire his creation in the abstract but there is little concrete love. See https://yougov.co.uk/profiler#/Microsoft/demographics

But what of your favourite hipster computer brand – Apple? Turns out they are centrist, female and middle class and like grilled halloumi cheese. It’s harder to make a direct comparison though as (surprise, surprise) Apple users don’t seem to identify their operating system. See https://yougov.co.uk/profiler#/Apple/demographics

There is lots more to look at – for instance Android users are seemingly very left wing while computer scientists are middle aged men who eat a lot of chicken.

Lousy wireless on OS X Mavericks


To be honest I have not noticed any improvement on upgrading to OS X Mavericks on this laptop, but I have noticed a significant degradation in the performance of the wireless networking – notably dropped connections and long re-connect times. Not impressed.

And, of course, it is proprietary software so there is little chance of a community-originated fix appearing.

Microsoft versus Linux: did we win after all?


At the end of John Le Carre’s Smiley’s People George Smiley is congratulated for having triumphed in his life’s struggle with Karla, the eminence grise of the KGB and told “George, you won”, to which the British spymaster, perhaps shamed by his need to adopt his opponent’s tactics of threat to the innocent replies “Did I?”

It feels a bit like that this weekend when I look back what is surely Microsoft’s humbling in the face of Android’s triumph. (I don’t claim to be any sort of central figure in this – I just mean I know we have won, but I don’t know what we have won given the compromises required to secure victory).

Free software made the victory possible – but the freedom that counted was the ‘as in beer’ one: Linux proved to be a cheaper platform for the hardware manufacturers to use. I do not detect any greater public understanding of the ideas of the free software movement than a decade ago – even if so many of the old arguments against its use have been killed by the onrushing Android juggernaut.

Indeed, the fact that Apple, whose business model is even more fundamentally hostile to free software than that of Microsoft, are doing so well suggests that no sort of ideological battle has been won at all – for so many consumers it is “shiny thing make it all better” (and Apple do do a fine line in shinnies).

And the site of the great battles of the past – the desktop – has become something hardly worth fighting over. Windows 8 stinks – I replaced it on one of my daughter’s computers with Ubuntu recently – but I suspect what has made it such a turkey for Microsoft is not the tiny numbers who, like me, are getting rid of it, but the falling sales of desktops and laptops in the developed world’s markets.

We lost more than our record shops because of the MP3


HMV
HMV Oxford Street, London, public domain photograph

Today HMV, once His Master’s Voice and still one of the UK’s leading retailers of CDs and DVDs, went into administration (one step away from going bust). Hopes are high that at least some of the shops can be saved – not least because the record labels and the DVD manufacturers want something that will compete on scale with Amazon.

There has been a lot of online commentary on the company’s failure to realise the scale of competition it faced from both online retailers of CDs and DVDs and from downloaders – with particular attention being given to the fact that a one-time chief executive told their advertising agency that downloading was “just a fad” early in the new millennium. LOLZ all round.

Well, it is worth recalling that this was once a fairly common feeling and was not entirely based on ignoring the evidence – MP3 players took a long time to get going, and I remember extolling the virtues of the compressed download for a few years before anybody took any notice – indeed things only really got going once Apple swung their marketing budget into action. Then the herd stampeded. But for a while there appeared to be nothing inevitable about it (of course this ignored the fact that NAND memory was doubling in density in an even shorter time scale than Moore’s Law suggested for CPU transistor numbers).

Things could have been different – a dozen years ago the MP3 as a format was even being shunned by some manufacturers because it was (and is, at least in some jurisdictions) encumbered by a patent. There were even commercially available OGG (an open and free format) players out there. But along came the people’s favourite jailers in the form of Apple and the moment when we could have struck a small blow for user freedom was over.

A GUI for Metapost?


English: Three examples of metapost output
English: Three examples of metapost output (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have sort-of abandoned my Apple Air Book for serious work this last week – going back to a 2008/9 Toshiba laptop (another Morgan Computers purchase) running Linux.

The Apple is a lovely device to travel with and is beautiful, if extremely expensive, device with which to browse the web, but a decade of conditioning to Linux and its command-line power and orthogonal tool set means I am much happier even with a slower machine when it comes to doing things like drawing figures with Metapost.

But having extolled the power of the command line I am wondering whether I should build a GUI for Metapost – essentially an editor panel coupled with a EPS display panel.

Metapost users seem thin on the ground – though maybe that is because a GUI tool doesn’t exist – but anyone who does use it care to comment?

The year of Linux on the desktop?


KDE 4 Current version: 4.7 Older versions: 4.0...
KDE 4 Current version: 4.7 Older versions: 4.0 beta 2, 4.0 beta 3, 4.0 beta 4, 4.0 RC2, 4.0 final, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, 4.5, 4.6 (see file history) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many who work or research in the industry, desktop computers have an “end of history” feel about them.

The improvements in technology that allow chip makers to double the number of transistors in a given area of silicon every 18 – 24 months are still there but “Moore’s Law” as we understand it – ie., that computers will get twice as fast every 18 – 24 months – has broken down. We simply cannot power the chips (or rather keep them cool while supplying them with the power they need) and while parallelisation (ie “manycore”) means manufacturers can lower power demands and, to some extent, keep the speed of machines rising, it too is hitting a fundamental barrier – the inability of commodity hardware to supply instructions and data from memory fast enough to serve many more than 4 – 8 cores.

All this suggests that we might be close to “peak desktop” or to put it another way, the desktop computer you have now is not much slower than the one you will have in ten years time (unless, that is, you shell out quite a lot more for some fancy memory architecture or some other technological advance changes the rules.)

But what I think is clear is that you will have a desktop computer in a decade’s time, though it may look a bit more like today’s laptops: smaller, lighter, devices are going to be easier to deliver than faster ones. Tablets and other small form factor devices are useful for browsing the internet or writing a 140 character message, but who they are not the ideal devices for writing a 5, 10 or 100 page document on.

But if we are only going to buy one or at most two new desktop devices in the next decade then the business model of Microsoft Рwhich still utterly dominates this space Рis broken. No new desktops means no new sales of Office, the big money spinner for Microsoft.  Their response has been to compete for tablet and phone sales with Apple, though they start from a long way behind and, now, to lever their near-monopoly on general-use operating systems to seize control of all of the software on desktop.

Their plan to demand complete control over the desktop may yet fall foul of the regulators – it is difficult to see the European Commission nodding this one through, for instance. But there are other responses available.

Microsoft got clobbered in two ways when they previously tried to lock up one aspect of the software ecosystem – the browser. For sure, regulators put the squeeze on, but long before then users developed a far more effective way of breaking free – they switched to Mozilla Firefox.

Now the battle is much bigger. Microsoft are not just trying to control your browser, but all the other software on your machine. They will say they will still let others manufacture software and they are just supplying quality control – but would you really agree to the only books being available for sale those that were approved by Amazon (sadly, the evidence from the ebook market suggests that many of you would!)?

And what if Windows 9 removes all support for non-approved software (no doubt in the name of virus suppression or trojan elimination?) The behaviour of Apple fanatics shows there are plenty willing to welcome their new all-controlling overlords. But there is an alternative – whisper it – Linux on the desktop.

Now that very phrase – “Linux on the desktop” – has an internet meme-like jokey feel to it. It’s the gallows humour phrase of the free software world. If Linus Torvalds were ever to be led to the scaffold for crimes against intellectual property robber barons his last words would no doubt be “this is the year of Linux on the desktop” – but maybe the moment has come to find a generation of “second adopters” who are willing to break out of Microsoft’s jail?

The pace of development of the Linux kernel has not slowed, but there is a less excited feel to it all these days: Thermidor came to this revolution some time ago, but that is also a sign of its maturity.

After all, there is still no stopping an idea whose time has come.

Stopping the patent madness


The BBC’s lead story in Britain today is about a decision of a US court which no direct or immediate applicability in Britain at all – over Apple’s victory over Samsung in a US patent case.

The fact that the case, at least in theory, matters not a jot to Britain seems to have rather passed the BBC by. It is not even the case that Samsung’s behaviour is likely to impact on how European regulators might see the company, as the plain fact is that software patents have no legal standing in European lawand in Britain it is unlawful to grant a patent based on a mathematical procedure, which is what an algorithm (a software procedure) is.

English: United States Patent Cover from a rea...
English: United States Patent Cover from a real patent issued (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The basis of the British law seems sound to me. No one makes an invention when they discover a new mathematical procedure – the maths is universal and has always existed (I know that there are philosophical arguments to the contrary, but I’m not buying them!).

But thanks to the BBC Apple have now won half the battle in the UK – many consumers will now think a Samsung product tainted or perhaps even illegal, thanks to some pretty poor journalism.

Yet there is an even deeper threat. Politicians, of all parties, in the UK are subject to some heavy-duty lobbying and pressure from “rights holders” in all fields to extend and deepen the patent and copyright regime. The problem is not one of corruption – politicians, in my experience at least, are not being paid or even offered money to advocate this position.

Instead, with the economy weak, they are being told that extending patent and copyright is the best way to protect jobs and build exports. It’s garbage, frankly: the best way to protect jobs and extend exports is to innovate and create, not to rely on rent from past creations – but it is being listened to.

Already this year European governments and legislators sanctioned stealing property from consumers by retrospectively increasing the copyright protection period on performances. Items which had entered the public domain were simply stolen back from the public – hardly as outrageous as the Enclosures Acts, but exactly the same principle with the state acting to unilaterally enhance the financial health of the largely already wealthy.

From my time working in government and for the Labour Party in government I know this was a long term aim of the music industry and that Labour ministers who ought to have known better were seduced by the argument that as Britain had been such a pioneer in the global popular music industry it was in the ‘national interest’ to legislate in this way. The alternative argument – that it was in the national interest to encourage innovative ways to use works created half a century ago – was dismissed out of hand: having had their hands badly burnt when the dot com bubble burst ministers were not keen to listen to another bunch of ‘new economy’ arguments. The current government seems similarly bewitched.

But there is a deeper argument here too. Copyright and similar protections (such as patents) are privileges granted by the state to encourage innovation for the benefit of the public. There is no ‘natural’ basis for copyright – if I perform something in public I should expect people to copy it. But because such copying might discourage me from subsequent public performances I am granted a special legal and time-limited protection. The law exists not to benefit me, but to encourage me to act in a way that benefits the public. Extending copyright protection from 50 to 75 years has no such public benefit – it merely benefits the copyright holder, and it is simply not credible to suggest that there will be new works created today because protection has been extended that would not have been created because previousl protection only lasted 50 years.

So too with patents. These should exist to encourage genuine invention (ie., not to privilege the discoverers of that which already exists) in such a way that benefits the public. If patent law allows one company to establish a monopoly on a vital technology then it is time to rethink it all.