Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Music players for free software users

Oct 18, 2016 GMT

The sales of music players, like those of ereaders, have fallen in the last decade. No doubt all-purpose phones and tablets have replaced them. However, if you have a large digitalized music collection and want something better than the tinny speakers on most mobile devices, then music players still make sense. And these days, I found recently, even free software advocates -- that is, those who choose to store their music is in Flac or Ogg Vorbis format -- can find something on which to play it, although the choice includes more problems than I had imagined.At first, the list on XiphWiki of music players that support free formats seems healthy enough. It lists fourteen manufacturers and...
Has Linux lost the Unix Philosophy?

Oct 11, 2016 GMT

Whenever a technical dispute breaks out in Linux, someone is sure to condemn a solution for not following the Unix Philosophy. The argument makes sense, because, although GNU may be short for GNU's not Unix, the structure of GNU/Linux remains an obvious derivative of UNIX. But is the Unix Philosophy even relevant to modern GNU/Linux, with its emphasis on the desktop and efforts to attract disaffected Windows users? In some ways, definitely.The Unix Philosophy  is a design aesthetic describing how programs and operating systems should interact. It exists in several versions, many of which are expansions or summaries of others. However, the versions remain roughly consistent with each...
Criticizing Less Than Free Hardware

Sep 29, 2016 GMT

With a boost from crowdfunding, efforts at free hardware are becoming a reality. Inevitably, though, most of these efforts are criticized as not being free enough, usually because of proprietary firmware. I sympathize with the criticism (and, in fact, I have been frequently offered it myself), but, the more I learn about the realities of manufacturing and of the semiconductor industry, the more I am becoming convinced that it is criticism with neither knowledge or responsibility.A case in point centers on ORWL, a physically secure computer being developed by Design Shift  that, as I write, is winding down an already successful crowdfunding campaign. ORWl includes an encrypted hard...
Defining Free Hardware

Sep 25, 2016 GMT

Most Linux users have heard of the Four Freedoms that define free software. But where is the corresponding free hardware definition?The Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) has tried to develop one, but it is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, it is too verbose, and like many documents written by committee, somewhat disorganized.Second, as I realized when writing about Len Leighton's EOMA68 laptop, a free hardware definition needs to be oriented towards giving all users control over their computing. Free software's Four Freedoms can ignore this aspect, because only programmers generally exercise them, but free hardware will be used by people with all levels of expertise.With these...
The pi-top revisited

Sep 12, 2016 GMT

Publication schedules mean that reviews are rarely the result of more than a few days of testing. Should the product develop long-term problems, they remain undocumented. Such is the case with the pi-top, the do-it-yourself laptop powered by the Raspberry Pi. Nine months after I reviewed it, I realized that I was spending more time trying to get it to run properly than I was using it, and could no longer recommend it with a clean conscience.No one could have been more excited than I was about the pi-top. I not only gave it an enthusiastic review, but also wrote an article to help people assemble it with fewer problems, and interviewed the company founders a couple of times. Financed...
OpenOffice: A Project in Search of an Exit Strategy

Sep 07, 2016 GMT

In theory, I should be all over the story about Apache OpenOffice's struggle for survival. Over the years, I have written dozens of articles about, OpenOffice, and LibreOffice, and, although I titled my book Designing with LibreOffice, it includes some mention of OpenOffice, too. Yet now as OpenOffice tries to revive itself, my main thought is:Could someone please put OpenOffice out of its misery? The time for heroic measures is past. All that is left now is to shut down with whatever grace can be mustered.I understand the historic reasons why OpenOffice and LibreOffice exist. I understand that the developers who wanted a faster development pace and...
LibreOffice's Legacy Debt

Aug 30, 2016 GMT

LibreOffice has had so many changes of name that its age is hidden. However, go back through Oracle OpenOffice and, StarOffice, StarDivision and StarWriter, and the word processor is over thirty years old. Probably, very little of the code written in 1985 remains in use, but many of the features do -- and that means that LibreOffice is carrying a legacy code debt that is becoming increasingly irrelevant.Obviously, some features never age or go out of fashion. Character and paragraph styles, for example, should always remain useful. However, to understand why this legacy debt matters, you have to have survived the 1980s.The 1980s were when word processors first arrived on...

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