Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

The Parallel Evolution of OS/2 and Free Software

Apr 05, 2012 GMT

Earlier this week, you might have noticed Esther Schindler and Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols writing about the twenty-fifth anniversary of OS/2, IBM's operating system of the 1990s. So did at least half a dozen others.Why bother, you might ask? OS/2 still exists today as a hobbyist operating system under the name of eComStation, but it's been a long time since it had any influence on the direction of mainstream computing. Nor is eComStation free software, although many of the applications it runs are. You might be tempted to attribute the interest entirely to the nostalgia of the middle-aged. In my case, that would definitely be a factor; I not only ran OS/2 for six years, but the first...
Inaccessible hardware

Mar 31, 2012 GMT

Free and open source software has no shortage of spinoffs. There's the OpenBIOS project, which tries to make the firmware that runs computers free. There's the open hardware movement, which applies FOSS concepts to the machines it runs on. In academia, there's the open access movement, dedicated to sharing the information usually restricted to journals Increasingly, however, I'm starting to think we need an even more basic spinoff -- something that might be called the hardware free access movement.What I mean is, we need advocacy for hardware that can be opened and repaired by anyone. Right now, it's a concept that is not just going out of fashion, but barely exists.Look, for example, at...
The Strange Case of Sexism and Sqoot

Mar 20, 2012 GMT

A few years ago, reactions to sexism in free and open source software (FOSS) took a few days to circulate. People were surprised, and unprepared to respond. Now, however, experience has encouraged preparation, and the responses are instantaneous and unforgiving, as Sqoot, the organizers of the upcoming Boston API Jam  hackathon  found out.As near as I can tell, this is what happened:Sqoot is a two-year old startup that describes itself as developing a "local deal layer [that] empowers sites and apps to build with deals." In other words, it's a center for organizing discounts for services and events. No license is posted on the company's site, but its API appears to be...
GNOME, Unity, and mobile devices

Mar 14, 2012 GMT

I've often said that recent desktop environments are heavily influenced by mobile devices. However, it was only last week, when I switched to a Nexus S phone, that I examined that claim in detail and realized that the statement was incomplete.The fact that all three interfaces share some common assumptions is too obvious to question seriously. The relationship shows in details like menus and windows that are either without titlebar buttons and menus or else hide these items until users search for them. In Unity, it also shows in windows that be dragged up and down without scroll bars.However, the most obvious similarity is that complete screen changes are an inescapable part of the...
Watching the Future of Canonical

Mar 06, 2012 GMT

Is it just me, or is there a whiff of desperation these days around Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm? By that I mean that Canonical increasingly seems to focused on reaching profitability, and nothing else. The de-emphasis on community, the constant introduction of new services, and the increasing market speak are all in marked contrast to the Canonical of five or even three years ago.Since Ubuntu is a privately-held company, its financial position is a matter of speculation. In 2009, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth stated that the company was "creeping toward $30 million," the point of profitability, but that was before many of its current services were introduced....
LinuxQuestion Vote Shows Fragmentation of the Desktop

Feb 24, 2012 GMT

In the last couple of years, I've spent much of my time observing the Linux desktop and its growing fragmentation. However, accurate figures are hard to come by, and often I can only give my impressions. That's why LinuxQuestion's Members Choice Awards for 2011 interest me so much -- they're the first confirmation that what I'm observing is actually happening. Of course, the awards can be criticized on a number of grounds. Voters are self-selected, and, considering LinuxQuestion's role and age, probably represent reasonably experienced users; my impression is that new users may visit the site, but are less likely to hang around long enough to participate in the survey. Still, with 627...
Living with Statistics

Feb 20, 2012 GMT

One of the prices of software freedom is the impossibility of getting accurate figures for usage. As a user, I consider that a small price to pay for not having to register or activate software. However, as a journalist I'm often frustrated, because accurate figures can be useful for establishing a point or debunking rumors.The questions for which I would like accurate stats include: how many GNU/Linux users are there? Has Linux Mint really overtaken Ubuntu as the most popular distribution? Has GNOME gained or lost users with the start of its third release series? All these questions and more would benefit from reliable figures, yet we don't have any. Instead, we have a series of...

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