Lessig on Free Culture and Digging for Mistakes

Lawrence Lessig most definitely has a way with words and an exceptional presentation style – I blogged previously about one of his videos in The Bazaar of Spectrum . The video below is a new version of an older speech Lessig did about Free Culture and the impact of copyright law on access (or lack thereof) to culture. The old version was fantastic, and this updated version is even better. As a teaser – stay tuned in the video for some great George W. Bush parody’s.

In addition to the great content around copyright law, another aspect which I found fascinating about this presentation was his analysis of what he considered to be the ‘mistakes’ of their effort in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case. Clearly, the identification of these mistakes was not something that came about easily for them and I believe that throughout our lives this process of ‘mistake identification’ is something that is continually short-changed. It is just way too easy to chalk up some failure to a cause beyond your control, rather than to dig deep into it and find any mistakes or changes in direction that could have been taken that would have led to a completely different outcome.

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State of the Empire – #3 Open Document Format (ODF) Standardization

Historically, another immense barrier to alternative Operating System adoption was Microsoft’s stranglehold on the Office document formats (DOC, XLS, PPT). These formats have become the de-facto standard in business, education, and personal computing – most definitely one of Microsoft’s great success stories.

Until recently, the dependence on Microsoft for Office and its associated file formats had not been broadly questioned. Companies and open source projects have made large scale efforts to break this dependence by way of trying to support the Microsoft formats as much as possible. It is unfortunate, however, that despite great work by projects like OpenOffice and AbiWord the level of compatibility achieved is not to the point where one can freely swap documents between them with no risk of losing any aspect of the original document. This being said, even if document parity was achieved this ultimately only breaks the dependency on having no choice but to buy your office software from Microsoft, it does not change that Microsoft controls the format of the document and thus how it lives and dies in the future.

Large companies and government organizations have started to see their older documents ‘expiring’ as a result of losing backwards compatibility in newer versions of Microsoft Office products. This has raised concerns about how to deal with long-term archival of information to ensure it is not lost as Microsoft changes file formats and ends support of old versions of Microsoft office. To this end, a push for a document format standardized by ISO has increased to the critical point where both Microsofts Office Open XML (OOXML) format and the ODF format were presented to ISO for evaluation as a standard. In a landmark decision ISO has initially turned down Microsoft’s application for ISO standardization and approved the ODF format. This approval as an ISO standard paves the way for widespread adoption within large organizations who need to ensure that their documents live on indefinitely and their fate is not dictated by product decisions within Microsoft.

If this standardization does prove to drive the switch-over to ODF within governments and other organizations it is also possible that this would produce a trickle-on effect to the average user as this format becomes increasingly more common and supported within most Office applications, both client side and web based. It remains to be seen whether Microsoft will take the step of supporting this format natively within Microsoft Office but it will definitely be interesting to see how things progress here as this is one of the critical barriers today in keeping people locked into the Windows platform.

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State of the Empire – #2 Cross Platform Development

Being the only operating system to support as many applications as possible is very important to Microsoft. It used to be that companies could build for Windows and be happy that this would serve 90-95% of the market. However, as the variety of devices we use on a day to day basis expands, and the operating systems used on these devices becomes more fragmented software vendors will no longer be able to focus entirely on Windows to reach this large a market.

With more devices, such as phones, MP3 players, UMPC’s, etc, coming into the market everyday we are seeing other platforms emerge which companies are increasingly aware they need to support. As these companies adjust their development to support a 2nd platform, such as OSX for example, they are also seeking out ways to build their applications or services in a more platform independent manner. Many of these companies are looking to incorporate web based applications or advanced containers such as Adobe AIR into their product design in an effort to lower (or eliminate) the cost of porting these applications to different platforms in the future.

Companies can no longer depend upon reaching 90-95% of the market simply by supporting Windows. More applications will be built to support many platforms and the old barrier of consumers not being able to switch to Linux, OSX, or anything else due to a lack of application availability will begin to be a thing of the past.

We need only look to Steve Balmer screaming on stage “Developers, Developers, Developers” to understand how important it is to Microsoft to be the only operating system that developers think of when they decide to build an application.

…and, just in case you forgot about this video, here it is..in all its glory.

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State of the Empire – #1 Apple/OSX Market Share Growing

So to start things off – Apple/OSX and the risk they pose to the Microsoft empire.

There are obviously a number of reasons why Apple’s market share has started to grow, probably the most quoted one is the popularity of the iPod driving the so-called ‘halo effect‘ onto other Apple products and services. Apple started to gain significant publicity while conquering the music player space but more importantly they have continued to enhance and add new products and services which build upon the same successful elements of the iPod – elegance in design, and simplicity. Apple has been so successful in this regard that many computer users have been convinced to leave the safety of their known world in Windows to explore the apparently more hip and happening Mac world.

Some recent statistics point to much of Apple’s growth occurring in the US right now. This article identifies Apple computer sales moving into 3rd place amongst all US computer makers, in addition to now occupying an overall market share of 5.9%, up 1.1% from the previous year. While on a global scale this is still a largely insignificant share of the market it highlights what I believe is the beginning of an important trend – that people are starting to use and buy devices for everyday use which do not have Windows on them. Of course, the reasons why this is happening, and is even possible today, is not entirely to do with Apple but more importantly it is a function of convenient timing in relationship to a number of other events we will cover off later in this series of articles.

Going forward this increased Apple market share will also grow the more general non-Windows based device market so it will be interesting to see what impact this will have on devices running operating systems like Linux. As an example, will software vendors having to support > 1 operating system result in more platform independent software being built?

Depending on how successful Apple ends up being, there is always the risk that one monopoly simply gets replaced with another. However, with any hope the Apple success story will simply inject some healthy competition into a market that has desperately needed it.

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State of the Empire

How long do Empires last, and what are the signs of one falling?

From the time I installed my first Linux distribution (good ol’ Slackware, when I was probably 12) I was fascinated with the question of why Linux wasn’t as widely used as Microsoft Windows. Obviously, for my rather unsophisticated mind of the day, this was a simple matter of what *I* thought was better. Back then the idea of considering broader market dynamics as a way to analyze why Windows was more popular than Linux was clearly not the top thing on my mind, and aside from the fact I didn’t even know what “market dynamics” meant I was much more interested in trying out new versions of the Linux kernel. It is kind of quaint (or sad, depending on how you look at it) to recall myself actually thinking “I don’t understand why more people don’t use this!” at precisely the same time I was in the midst of downloading the bootdsk.144 file from the internet over my 14.4 modem. Ahh Memories.

Sixteen years later much has changed, while many things have stayed the same. No more DOS or Windows for Workgroups 3.11, no more bootdsk.144 or floppies for that matter, we have Vista and Ubuntu, and that other guy Apple has returned with a vengeance. No doubt, if I showed my 12 year old self the Ubuntu of today he would be certain of the fact that it must now be winning the war against Microsoft. However, he would be quite surprised to hear that Microsoft, more than 20 years into their monopoly, after multiple anti-competitive legal challenges, and after missing such “minor” technological shifts such as the internet, still manages to maintain a 90%+ market share.

Remarkable stuff for Microsoft, but alas all good things come to an end and even the strongest empires have lost their way at one point or another. Now that I am infinitely wiser than my old self I thought it would be a good idea to revisit those market dynamics I so foolishly left out of my analysis when I was 12. Over the next few weeks I’ll write up some of the most interesting current trends and market events which, when taken together, I believe pose the most imminent threat to the Microsoft empire and the greatest opportunity thus far for Linux.

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Duplication Duplication

I came across Tristan Rhodes’ blog today while browsing through some recent posts on Planet Ubuntu, and his recent post about the benefit of open source seemed quite timely (at least in my life!). Specifically Tristan’s comments here were noteworthy:

“I believe that the open source development model is the most efficient way to create software. In the traditional software development model, each software company creates an isolated software silo. Meanwhile, their competitors are spending resources to create software that does almost the exact same function! Compare that to the open source model, where worldwide resources can be shared to develop an application.”

In this case Tristan is speaking specifically about duplication of effort between competitors, though I would argue that this is just as likely to happen between two companies working together. Of course whenever you run across this it definitely makes you look to the open development and free code re-use that is ubiquitous in the open source community as a model of how things really should work to avoid such pointless re-inventing of the wheel. After all, companies the world over are already re-using code (anyone who needs a database in their application is not recreating it everytime!). My suspicion is that there is often uncertainty within an organization regarding what components of their development projects need to be developed entirely on their own vs those for which it is better to give up some control and work on them in a more collaborative way – whether that be with competitors, partners, or the open source community. Those pieces of a project which do not provide any long term strategic advantage (a database for example) but which merely support getting to the end result would be a great place to start for many companies.

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Sprint, WiMAX and the Nokia N800

Interesting news from Sprint/Clearwire that they will be launching a WiMAX enabled Nokia N800 sometime in 2008.

It’s great that Sprint is pushing the envelope by launching this new wireless network, as I think the wireless marketplace in North America needs someone to shake things up a bit. Unfortunately with such new network technology the need for devices to support it does provide a significant barrier. The Nokia N-Series devices do provide a place to start in advance of the technological advancements required to fit WiMAX onto more mobile phone sized devices or until it is more readily available in laptops. Though with the practical use-cases for devices such as the N800 and other Ultra Mobile PC’s still hard to pinpoint I wonder if this might be a bit of a case of the cart before the horse for Sprint? or will the availability of this network and the existing developer support for this lineup of devices lead to the discovery of a home for this device and thus broader adoption? Maybe it is stroke of genius from Sprint that we just can’t see yet!

As an aside, I think the Linux based N800/N770-series devices are a fantastic example of the potential for individual innovation and platform development. I don’t know the exact figures (lets be honest, I can’t even offer a ballpark figure) but for arguments sake I would be surprised if Nokia has sold more then 100,000 of these things (anyone have any idea?). Despite this, the amount of development, and experimentation going on with this platform is staggering when you compare it to the state of things on the other more closed platforms mentioned previously.

All in all a job very well done by Nokia to provide the framework and encouragement which has fed the fire of the open source development community. If only the same effort/investment was put into creating a similar open development platform for mobile phones one can only imagine the excitement, innovation and community involvement that would erupt all over the world.

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Open access

Here’s a quick update on what Google is requesting of the FCC to encourage growth of an open access platform. This would definitely make things interesting! Is it possible that it could actually happen? and would Canada be willing to follow suit?

  • Open applications: Consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire;
  • Open devices: Consumers should be able to utilize a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer;
  • Open services: Third parties (resellers) should be able to acquire wireless services from a 700 MHz licensee on a wholesale basis, based on reasonably nondiscriminatory commercial terms; and
  • Open networks: Third parties (like internet service providers) should be able to interconnect at any technically feasible point in a 700 MHz licensee’s wireless network.

The Bazaar of Spectrum

In Eric S. Raymond’s fantastic book The Cathedral and The Bazaar he compared the way open source software is developed to a Bazaar and the way corporations developed their software to the regimented and controlled nature of a Cathedral. It is this uncontrolled, bazaar type mentality that has led to extraordinary advancement in everything from software to hardware to web applications and services in the open source world. The wide array of off-the-shelf tools that people around the world can freely use, tweak, and mold into whatever they are trying to build has lowered the barrier to innovation, and we see the results everyday in new products and services like Google, Slim Devices‘ line up of Linux powered audio equipment, Linksys networking devices, and new telephony services like Truphone.

The efficiencies and advantages of this open bazaar model of development can be seen even outside the world of software. Transposing the model onto the field of wireless communications reveals an extraordinary recurring pattern in the way that technology, not just software, can advance provided it is given the right catalyst.

When a small amount of spectrum was de-regulated in the 2.4 GHz band we suddenly saw groups of people around the world pooling their knowledge to create a number of new standard wireless protocols. Varied in their purposes, these included Bluetooth for short range device-to-device communications, WIFI technology built around interconnecting all of our portable computing devices to the internet, as well as other things like newer cordless phones and lesser known technologies like ZigBee. This development occurred quickly and involved an extremely diverse set of companies whom we would not normally associate with wireless communications. But given the open access to this spectrum the barrier was sufficiently lowered in order for them to get involved and bring their unique set of knowledge to an area which previously would have excluded them.

Shortly after the development of these technologies we saw a similar effect again – a mass influx of entrepreneurs, large businesses, and individuals all equally working to develop new ways of leveraging these new technologies for unique purposes of either personal interest or new business opportunities. We’ve seen a massive growth of devices such as Music players, Cameras, laptops, and phones which include Bluetooth, WIFI and sometimes both at the same time. With these new devices came new services – the growth of internet service in planes, trains and your local pub or coffee shop is a market previously non-existent prior to the introduction of WIFI. Expanding beyond basic internet service we are just seeing the beginning of new value added services that leverage the ubiquity of this access to provide such things as telephony services in a convenient and low-cost manner.

Open Source software development teaches us a great deal but probably the most fundamental thing of all is that when we, as a communal group of individuals, entrepreneurs, and businesses are given open access to innovate the results can be enormous.

In order to culture more of the great innovation we’ve seen here it is fundamental that, at least in the wireless communications space, the commons is provided with more open access to spectrum and this is why Larry Lessig’s message in the following video is so important. As he normally does, Larry sums up the message very clearly and I encourage everyone to take the 27 minutes it takes to hear it.

Ubuntu Mobile and Embedded Initiative

Interesting announcement coming from Ubuntu/Canonical last week, one that probably came not a moment too soon! There are so many open source projects with mobile activity right now that it is timely to have someone with a proven track record like Ubuntu to help bring everything together into a complete package.

Looking through the announcement, the wiki, and launchpad site, my impression is that it will be oriented towards the Nokia N800 class or Ultra Mobile PC markets (UMPC). Intel seems to be involved, and with their general push into development of chipsets for ultra portable devices this could be a really promising joint effort.

On the flipside to all of this I have had some rather negative experiences recently with these UMPC’s – I had the chance to play around with the Sony VAIO VGN-UX1XN, as well as another no-name machine the other day and in my brief use of the devices I was surely struggling to find a valid use-case for the two. Both devices seemed like a compromise in all respects and offered nothing truly beneficial other then a ‘cool’ factor which wore off in about 5 minutes of squinting trying to maneuver the mouse over a Windows Start menu – bleh.

The great thing about the Ubuntu Mobile effort is that they are going to leverage technologies (such as Maemo) which were originally designed for this form factor as opposed to attempting to shoehorn a desktop OS onto a 6″ screen. I have not had the opportunity to get my hands on a Nokia N800 or N770 so can’t speak to whether or not you get the same feeling of trying to find a use-case or not but at the very least I would expect the device-oriented operating system to make it easier to use — for something. I’m curious as to what people out there with these devices find themselves using them for right now? If there was existing tighter integration between IM, VoIP, and your home and/or mobile phone would this be a great all-in-one communications device or would it be a jack-of-all trades master of none?

It wasn’t completely clear from what I have read so far whether the objectives of Ubuntu Mobile and Embedded include scaling down to OpenMoko size devices. With both platforms building off of a similar set of components (Gnome Mobile and Embedded) they are at least complimentary in their efforts to shrink down the size of many existing Linux/Gnome components. Perhaps Ubuntu for Mobile phones is a phase 2 development for now.

All of the work happening in the open source community towards mobile and embedded devices is critically important. Many of the proprietary operating systems on mobile devices are more closed to end users than even their counterparts on the PC, limiting even further what you are and are not allowed to build. The network operators are leveraging this level of control as a further way to inhibit innovation and competition by users and businesses around the world. With mobile networks becoming so pervasive the opportunity is there to connect more people together in a single network than ever before. The potential for new ideas or methods of communication to bring the world closer together with such an immense group of users is infinite – so long as those connected are given the permission to do so.