Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Review: Biella Coleman's "Coding Freedom"

Feb 23, 2013 GMT

Studies of hacker culture are rare. Serious studies untainted by hype are rarer still. For both these reasons, E. Gabriella Coleman's Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking is a welcome contribution to the subject. The result of over a decade of participant observation, Coding Freedom may not always be a precise survey of the free and open source software (FOSS) communities, but at least the resulting map bears some resemblance to the territory it is supposed to represent. For that reason alone, it has met a friendly reception since its publication early in 2013 (appropriately, under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license).Coding Freedom is...
"I'm looking forward to seeing your code"

Feb 14, 2013 GMT

When a non-developer criticizes free software, sooner or later a developer will respond with, "I'm looking forward to seeing your code," or something similar. It's a reflex response, but one with increasingly less validity today.Fifteen years ago, such a response made sense. Non-programmers were a minority in free and open source software (FOSS), so expecting someone to reinforce their criticism with code seemed reasonable. The chances were that the person making the criticism could reply to the challenge. They might not get their code accepted if they had annoyed too many people in the project or lacked connections -- those being the limits of the FOSS meritocracy -- but they...
Rethinking the Office Suite

Feb 08, 2013 GMT

I've spent much of the last week exploring the recent releases of Calligra Suite and LibreOffice, and listening to the unlikely rumors of a Linux version of Microsoft Office. I haven't concentrated on office suites so intensely for years, and, as I examined Calligra Suite's and LibreOffice's very different layouts and approaches to productivity, I found myself thinking: What should a modern office suite consist of?That isn't a question you hear any more. The great days of innovation in the office suite were the early 1990s. Since then, ideas about office suites have stagnated. Oh, Microsoft Office introduced the ribbon interface, and Google Docs has made collaboration and syncing files...
GNOME Gets Formal, Public Usability Testing

Jan 31, 2013 GMT

By definition, usability testing is difficult in free software. The reason is obvious: usability testing typically requires face to face observation of users, which is hard to arrange when most developers are interacting remotely. That's why Aakanksha Gaur's recent blogs about GNOME 3 usability caught my attention -- to the best of my knowledge, the last major usability study of GNOME took place twelve years ago, although small, informal studies have been done since.Gaur is graduate student studying interface design at the National Institute of Design in Bangalore, India. She is also currently an intern in the Outreach Program for Women, mentoring under Allan Day. With Day's assistance,...
More thoughts on the GNOME 2 reaction

Jan 25, 2013 GMT

Last week, I suggested that the continued interest in GNOME 2 handicaps desktop innovation.  Since then, a proposal has been made that Fedora's next release should default to Cinnamon, Linux Mint's GNOME 2-like shell. My guess is that the proposal will find many in favor.The popularity of GNOME 2 remains widespread and growing. In the social sense, it qualifies as a reaction -- an attempt to return to an earlier state of affairs, like the Counter-Reformation in the Catholic Church. It's a topic that has drawn more responses than most I've written about -- enough that, at the cost of being too meta, I want to answer back.However, before I do, I should emphasize that I'm far from a fan...
Does GNOME 2 nostalgia harm the future of the free desktop?

Jan 21, 2013 GMT

For a desktop that was supposed to become defunct two years ago, GNOME 2 remains surprisingly alive. Linux Mint offers a direct fork in Mate, and recreates GNOME 2 with a series of extensions in Cinnamon. A new distribution called SolusOS now offers Consort, a fork of GNOME fallback, which resembles GNOME 2. Meanwhile, the GNOME project prepares to support a set of core extensions to reproduce the GNOME 2 experience. Hardly a week goes by without some distribution announcing a release that includes some form of GNOME 2.All this activity is understandable, and even admirable to a degree. It's testimony to users' anger over GNOME 3 and the ability of free software to empower users.However,...
Taking the pledge a little bit further

Jan 10, 2013 GMT

One of my main critiques about feminism in free and open source software (FOSS) is that it has failed to engage large segments of the community -- especially men. Any movement for social change needs popular support, but too often FOSS feminists have taken a top-down approach, keeping directions and even the right to comment in the hands of a self-proclaimed intellectual vanguard.That's why I welcome Rebecca J. Rosen's recent suggestion that people do their bit by pledging not to speak on all-male panels. True, "taking the pledge" sounds like something that teetotallers did in the early twentieth century when they promised not to drink alcohol. But the idea is practical, and...

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