Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Overcoming disbelief

The hardest part of escaping from the beast is believing you can do it. Really.

Most people have been taught that Microsoft Windows is the default and everything else is a variation. Which means the only thing you don't have to know anything to use is Windoze and its branded applications. (Of course Macintosh users know that's not true...) Most people have been taught they don't know anything, and that computer literate people are weird and unattractive. Face that indoctrination for a second, it's nasty. For Greens, it's disrespectful of diversity and antifeminist. For everybody, it's profoundly disempowering, yet we take it for granted.

This awful fact of the culture is a trap. It's one of the strongest parts of the MSFT monopoly. Most people don't believe they can get free, and they believe it down on an emotional level where you can't argue it down with mere facts and logic. They don't believe the alternatives really work, or are usable by people like themselves who know nothing. They're in prison in their own minds.

There's a way to break the spell. You just get one of the alternative programs and try it. It's a lot harder to believe in an imaginary cage when you've taken one small step out of it. (If you've already done this, and millions of people have, congratulations. You're ready for a later step.)

I'm going to recommend a program from the non-profit Mozilla Foundation. Their programs for MS-Windows install easily and work better than the MSFT programs they replace. Mainly, they're safer and more reliable. First, is this your computer? If it's someone else's, get permission to put a new software program on it. Is the disk drive almost full? MS-Windows doesn't run well when the drive is more than about two thirds full. And don't do this if an older Firefox is already there. Some of its add-ons might not work with the new version yet. Then click on this link. You're downloading a program for MS-Windows called Firefox-2.0.

It comes in a file whose name ends in .exe. Your current Web browsing program will ask if you want to save it or run it. Save the file on your desktop. When it's done downloading, it will show up as a little icon. It's a fox with his tail wrapped around a tiny Earth, and a box to show you this is the box Firefox comes in. Double-click on it to start up the Firefox Installer. It will ask if you want to import your bookmarks from Explorer. That's harmless. It will want to know if it can make a shortcut on your desktop. That's a good idea. But don't make it your "default browser" yet. Take baby steps. When it's done, you'll have a Firefox on your desktop. Try it. Visit your favorite Web sites with it. Chances are you won't get far before it want the Macromedia Flash plugin, and maybe Apple Quicktime. Just follow the prompts and it will obtain and install those for you.

Firefox is the tip of a very large iceberg. There's lots of trustworthy free software and we really want you to have it. Some files belong to corporations and it's illegal for us to decrypt them for you even if we could figure out how. That Flash plugin is corporate. The people who create Flash content think it's worth it. Nobody expects you to get completely free of corporate software. But you can do most of the things most people do with computers using truly free software. You've just taken the first step and seen the first thing.


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Novell the new Apple

It occurs to me there's another aspect of the very noisy MSFT-Novell deal. MSFT is paying Novell hundreds of millions of dollars, right?

The last time it (I'm gonna call that corporation it, not they, 'kay? A corporation isn't just a set of people, it's a system of people and other assets) paid a nominal competitor tons of money to do not very much the "competitor" was Apple. An eighth of a billion dollars to port MS-Word to Mac OS Classic. Then more to keep Internet Explorer going.

The reason MSFT did that is obvious. It was getting sued for being an illegal trade monopoly. It subsidized the only thing around that vaguely looked like a competitor, to keep it alive. Having something that looks like a competitor makes the argument that it's an illegal monopoly slightly less than completely obvious.

These days, Apple is mainly in the music business, but still sells (really nice) boutique computers to artists and students. MSFT is getting sued in the European Union for being an illegal trade monopoly. As far as general purpose computing is concerned, Apple can't be taken seriously as a competitor to MSFT. (Which is why it pulled the plug on Internet Explorer. It'll pull MS-Office as soon as it figures nobody will notice.) According to MSFT's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, "open source" is MSFT's competion now. MSFT is subsidizing the new nominal competitor.

Monday, November 20, 2006


We warned you about that kill switch

Suddenly even the most obsequious "tech" pundits are talking about MSFT's "kill switch." Office 2007 won't edit or create new documents if it isn't convinced you've paid for your license.

"Well, duh!"

Of course MSFT would eventually do that. Software freedom advocates have been warning software users about that danger for about thirty years now. It's one of the threats the GNU General Public License was invented to neutralize.

And the Rand Corporation warned the Reagan Administration it was coming. Reagan's Department of Defense (DoD) hired Rand to identify hidden threats to national security, and proprietary software was one of them. A kill switch could be used to hold a government's documents hostage or worse. It was one of the reasons Reagan's DoD and General Services Administration (GSA) kept unix alive through the 1980s.

And Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka warned us about it in their amazing novel Nature's End. In that story, the hero uses an "IBM AXE" computer, which has a credit card swiper on it and demands payment each time you open a document. The AXE also has a kill switch, built in government censorship, and a back door for espionage agencies. Of course the bad guy hacks in through that back door.

And Bruce Schneier and Peter G. Neumann (among others) have been warning for years how kill switches would be magnets for malware. Imagine a Ukranian (Internet connected but beyond law enforcement) phishing/spamming gang gets tired of stealing bank and retirement accounts and moves into extortion on the same scale. They could hold whole nations for ransom.

Monday, November 13, 2006


Sun frees Java, of course

Sun Microsystems has announced they will release Java under the Free Software Foundation's General Public License Version 2. That's the copyright that made the Linux kernel so successful.

This had to happen. No other company in a MSFT-dominated market can announce a proprietary "standard" and make it stick. The only way Sun or anybody else can prevent MSFT from declaring itself the standard is to make something clearly better truly free.

The reason that's true goes to the heart of how a proprietary software monopoly works. Businesses that depend on information technology ("IT") cannot function without standards. For the same reason railroads can't really work when each one uses a different coupling between cars. Having interoperability standards is so vital that these businesses are willing to put up with the tremendous day-to-day costs and long-term risks that come with a proprietary monopoly like MSFT. They want standards but they'll settle for a trade monopoly if that's the only choice. Customers don't want "innovation" in a platform or a programming interface, any more than they want an "innovative" new wall socket. They want their programs to run the same on any Java, just as you want a table lamp to work in any wall socket.

Making a core technology like Java free means companies whose business depends on Java don't have to settle for the monopoly, with all those risks and costs, any more. They can be sure Java's developers will stay on a constructive and stable track, because if Java runs off in some weird direction the customers can fork it and their branch will be the standard. Democratizing the software business works for customers. No room for billionaires, though.

Friday, November 10, 2006


worlds worst unix clone

This morning I explained the unix file permission model to one of my users. A file belongs to a user and a group, and you can set read, write, and execute or search for user, group, and others. (An executable file can have "set User ID" and/or "set Group-ID" and it will run as its owner instead of as the user and group that invoked it. That's the ingenious basis of the whole security model, and it was the patented feature whose expiration made free unix clones legal.) Unix has had this since the beginning in 1969 or '70.

Windoze NT had something like it, which was almost usable in Windoze 2K, in theory. But most Windoze developers ignored it and most Windoze apps won't run right as a regular user.

Windoze Vista will finally start enforcing it. They'll tell you it's for security, but we know MSFT regards user security as nothing but a public relations issue. MSFT now needs a security model to protect intellectual property. They'll use it to make it even harder to copy your system to a new hard drive or back up certain copyrighted files. A generation of computer users who know no other system will think MSFT invented it, when it has really taken them twenty years to try to copy it and they still haven't gotten it right. More than ever, Windoze is little more than a really bad unix clone.

"Those who do not understand unix are doomed to reinvent it, poorly." -- Henry "utzoo" Spencer

"Windows NT will be a better unix than UNIXTM!" -- Wm. Gates at some long-forgotten trade show

Friday, November 03, 2006


What the MSFT - Novell deal means

Microsoft (stock ticker symbol MSFT) can't buy Linux. They can't steal it. They can't imitate it without damaging their monopoly. (More about that later.) They're having a hard time competing with it.

What's left? They can confuse people about what Linux is. I think that's what the deal with Novell is about.

Linux isn't just an operating system kernel, or a gaggle of software distributions that would more respectfully be called GNU+Linux+X. It's not just a trademark that belongs to Linus Torvalds. In every day use, "Linux" has come to mean the movement to democratize the software industry and make it accountable to its users. It's all the people who contribute code and bug reports and documentation and give away Knoppix CDs. The first Linux email list I was ever on was called linux-activists. That's what we are, activists. Most of us never thought about it that way, and might even deny it, but we're a radical movement for social change, and we're succeeding.

And when MSFT quit sneering and took a serious look, we scared the bejeezus out of them. We're the only real competition they've faced in two decades. They deny it in public relations, where lying is standard business practice. But they admit it in their SEC filings, where you go to prison for lying too concretely.

So it's bafflegab time! MSFT is trying to position one particular Linux distribution (one that's owned by a software company that buys things it doesn't understand and kills them) as the Linux distribution. The audacity is mind boggling. A hundred gushing pundits announce the utterly absurd notion that MSFT has somehow legitimized Novell SUSE. It's not just one of the leading distros any more, it's the serious business Linux for people who wear suits and fly first class. <Bill Cosby voice>R-i-i-i-i-i-ght.<end BC voice> But that's how "journalists" are these days, stenographers to power. Any power.

That's all it means, folks. Move along, nothing more to see here. Just business as usual.


Escape from (or just avoid) Microsoft

I've been using computers since 1977. But somehow I never became dependent on Microsoft Windows, nor any other proprietary operating system. It was always obvious to me that open systems just met my needs better.

Through the years I've tried to show my friends and colleagues how open systems often met their needs better, too. This made me a commentator on the Microsoft monopoly, and how to avoid or escape it. But my writing has been scattered across dozens of newsgroups and mailing lists. Recently folks are bugging me to collect it in a weblog. That's what this blog will be about. I hope it's a perspective you haven't seen before. I hope you find it useful.

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