CEOs this week: who can lie the best?

This week saw a cornucopia of disinformation from the big software companies. We started out with Steve Ballmer of Microsoft claiming that Linux violated 235 patents held by Microsoft. People soon pointed out that the same argument had been used in 2004, and that the original author of the study originating the claim had concluded that it did not pose any great threat of litigation. Finally, one commenter surmised that the reason Microsoft had revived the abandoned initiative now was because it wished to disrupt the Red Hat Summit and the Open Source Business Conference, and force Red Hat to sign an agreement similar to Novell’s. However, it all came to nothing when Eben Moglen pointed out that the GPLv3 contained terms (“the patent license you grant is automatically extended to all recipients of the covered work and works based on it”) that could be used to indemnify all Linux users when the GPLv3 comes into force. Since the vouchers that Novell is now handing out to its Linux customers, intended to indemnify them against patent litigation and covered by an appropriate agreement with Microsoft, have no expiration date, Linux is likely to soon be free of all patent violation problems. The vouchers can be handed in after GPLv3 is used across large parts of Novell’s Linux distro, and so can entirely absolve Linux of any existing violations of patents – although new code could bring new vulnerability! Nonetheless I heartily congratulate the people who are queueing up to get that little bit of fame, and be the first to get sued by Microsoft. Thanks for bringing the humour back, guys!

Soon after the news broke of Microsoft’s patent litigation threat, Jonathan Schwartz of Sun wrote a blog entry that outlined his company’s strategy, including a bit of history about how one company had approached them to see if they were interested in suing their users for patent violations. Some thought the unnamed company was likely to have been Microsoft. However, in the same blog entry, Schwartz also claimed Sun had written more than 25% of code in a typical Linux distribution – a false claim, as is clear from his source (see Figure 28 on page 50).

So here we go, another week of CEOs lying through their teeth, and the consumers keeping their head above the FUD. Is Steve Jobs really the only genuine guy out there?

Dell vs. HP – who “gets” consumer Linux first?

As I’ve outlined in recent posts, there is a race between HP and Dell for being first to market with a consumer Linux computer that receives the consumers’ blessing. I have a hunch that Dell will win this one, because they are completely focused on doing whatever pleases the consumers most at this point. Dell will find out that Ubuntu is the currently popular kid among Linux distributions, and they will collaborate with Ubuntu and Canonical to bring consumers the distribution they love on a computer that works. HP, on the other hand, may rely on its in-house Linux expertise. They may therefore be more accepting of the idea initially, but may realise too late that their in-house expertise is for the server market, and is not the kind of expertise they need in order to produce a compelling consumer laptop or desktop. Take my comments with a pinch of salt because it’s early days and HP’s cards aren’t really on the table yet. They may end up doing the right thing, and their existing ties with the development community (the kernel, particularly) may serve them well in preparing better software support for their chosen hardware components.

Adobe’s Linux problem

Adobe has a problem. Dell customers have strongly voiced their opposition to pre-installed proprietary software, both the operating system and applications. After painful consideration, Dell will give in to their customers, and see a landslide of sales. HP is going down the same track. Of the big brands favoured by the tech elite, Sony will be last to go, who apparently make a special effort to include their own proprietary software with their PCs in an attempt to draw level with Apple’s functionality (my recent VAIO purchase contains the equivalent of iLife in Adobe products). When all this happens, Adobe will have only begun to port applications to Linux – a platform on which they know it will be hard to compete because the free offerings are competitive. Direct competition from a set of Adobe products that all integrate rather better with each other than existing free Linux products do (I’m discussing price here, not openness) will lead those Linux products to draw even. Note, for instance that with Adobe Atmosphere discontinued, Adobe has no product to compete with Blender, meaning that open source products could conceivably become better integrated with each other than Adobe’s line-up.

Microsoft’s quagmire is deeper still. While Office 2007 is an epiphany in office product usability, it will take years for the Wine project to catch up and let 2007 run on Linux, barring direct involvement for Microsoft (we know they’d rather die, at least while Ballmer is CEO). In fact, a full productivity suite for Windows now exists in open source: OpenOffice, Scribus, GIMP, Inkscape, and PDFCreator. The emergence of freeware Adobe Reader replacement Foxit shows that an open source equivalent can’t be far off. Nothing will stop users from leaving the Windows tax behind once they have embraced platform-independent open source applications such as the aforementioned. Open source software for Windows is already being distributed in several downloadable CD formats, such as OpenCD, and the Open Source Software CD; the Ubuntu install CDs for at least some releases have also contained open source productivity software for Windows.

The Adobe brand lures consumers with the free Adobe Reader and cheap Photoshop Elements, but Google’s free Picasa will be welcomed by many that use even fewer features than Photoshop Elements provides, and the feature-laden Adobe Reader may also be too much for some.

The only remaining disadvantage for open source software is the virtual absence of a marketing budget, meaning that it will spread at the product of the speed of word of mouth and the rate of convincing.

I believe that the reason former developing nations in Asia are emerging as ferocious competitors in the technology arena is that they have less red tape, less vendor lock-in (aka inertia), and strong recent rates of natural selection in the absence of government benefits for the unemployed and sick; therefore selection for intelligence may have been stronger in those countries. By this reasoning, South America and Africa will be next to emerge from the shadow.

Dell’s imaginary Linux problem

Dell has a problem. On the IdeaStorm website, many customers have supported the idea of Dell computers being sold either without an operating system or with Linux pre-installed. They have also asked for Firefox and OpenOffice to be pre-installed, and for an option not to have extra software pre-installed. So Dell has a problem. They have to decide to either satisfy their customers, or to become able to negotiate more favourable terms with Microsoft. The solution to their problem is going to be… er… what was the problem again?


Right, I was going to tell you the other thing that Linux developers don’t get about OS X. The problem starts with the fact that most Linux developers haven’t read Jef Raskin’s equivalent of¬† Mein Kampf (in the sense that Hitler laid out what he was going to do in Mein Kampf, but most liberals in Germany did not read the book and so came up against an avoidable surprise). Microsoft would have only needed to read Jef Raskin’s book thoroughly and develop quicker than Apple – which they were well poised to do – in order to edge ahead on usability (avoiding certain patents such as having the application menu on the screen edge).

Here’s a quick hint:

  • Expose: Zoom
  • Spaces: Zoom
  • Time machine: Zoom

Okay, I think we’re getting the idea here. And did you know that the green button on the title bar was called a “zoom” button? It’s not for maximising, it’s for zooming. And then there are the zoom sliders on apps such as iPhoto and Yep. What chronology is to storytelling, zooming is to work environment visualisation. Google Earth? PhotoSynth? Bingo. And zooming is extensible indefinitely. As an aside, this is also how the iPod works: you zoom into the artist, then the album, then the song. Hierarchical layers. And the column view in Finder is the same idea broad side on. I would really, really like to see this clarity of paradigm in Linux.

How to get Linux up to scratch

I’ve been watching the recent competition between compiz, beryl and metisse with some worry, as Linux developers seem overly keen to make the case that their graphics are at least as good as those of Windows Vista or Mac OS X, while aspects of the Linux desktop that would actually improve productivity get left behind. Is Linux stagnating? Are we really copy dogs after all, and while Microsoft isn’t improving their product in ways that go beyond what Linux already has, and Steve is not letting on what the new features in OS X are, we can’t make any progress on the core product? I’ll be posting more about this in a while, but here are some suggestions of how to improve Ubuntu (as an example…)

  • ¬†Bluetooth support, esp. a GUI
  • WiFi GUI that allows discovering networks (it’s silly that I have to use a separate program, kismet, to do this!)
  • expand the screen resolution GUI to support external monitors and screen spanning

So the old saying that Linux is no use for laptops, doesn’t die…