Monday, January 10, 2011

Applidium — News — Apple pulled VLC off the AppStore — iPad and iPhone application development

Applidium — News — Apple pulled VLC off the AppStore — iPad and iPhone application development

I've been a fan of the GPL for many years and have watched it evolve as the Internet has evolved. In my opinion Apple's App Store does not violate the spirit of the GPL, even if it is possible to argue that the App Store forces Open Source developers to violate the letter of the GPL if they want to distribute their apps via the App Store.

Instead, iOS and the App Store represent a new model of computing and software distribution that was far from the mainstream when the GPL was defined, and the GPL now should be updated to address this new model.

When the GPL was written, and for most of its existence, virtually all software was developed on the same type of computer on which it was used. Therefore, any use who might want to modify program was likely to do so on the same computer (or at least one the same architecture and operating system) where they used the program.

The exception is embedded software, such as avionics or firmware in consumer electronic devices. In those cases, developers write and compile code on some kind of workstation, but run it on an entirely different kind of machine that -- and this is the important point -- could not be used as a development workstation.

So, for the vast majority of cases where Open Source software has been created, distributed, and used, its made perfect sense that the source code and object code be distributed together. In fact, the dominant model for Open Source distribution (although not the only necessary model) is that it is ONLY the source code that is distributed.

iOS brings to the mainstream a model much more like the "embedded" model described above, where the target computer (e.g. an iPhone) is NOT a practical platform for making modifications to a program. The vast majority, if not all, users who might want to modify an open source program for iOS will do so on a "traditional" workstation running Mac OS, Windows, or Linux, and then install their modified program on their iOS device.

The claim that Apple's App Store is incompatible with the GPL arises from the fact that the App Store and iTunes together restrict how a user can install programs that they download from the App Store (specifically that they can only install each app on up to 5 authorized computers and up to 7 iOS devices), whereas the GPL explicitly forbids such restrictions.

However, I argue that this reading is unnecessarily narrow, and that the language of the GPL should be revised to eliminate the apparent conflict.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Free Software Foundation Loses Its Mind

I've always been a big fan of the Free Software Foundation, and these days its risky to disagree with anyone who criticizes Apple -- you'll almost certainly be labeled a "fanboy". But the FSF's recent attack on Apple's App Store is a stretch. There are so many problems with it that its hard to know where to start.

First, let's just say it. The the FSF, Gnu Project, and the Copyleft has been a godsend for software users. Without them we would be a decade or more behind where we are today in terms of innovation, and software would almost certainly cost a great deal more than it does now. But even friends overreach sometimes, and in this case I believe the FSF has done exactly that.

The guts of the argument being made by FSF is that Apple's Terms of Service violate the Copyleft by limiting what user's can do with any apps that they get from the App Store. The Copyleft clearly states that any developer who uses Copylefted software can't impose new restrictions on how user's can use and distribute that software.

In this case, Apple is an intermediary, and the App Store is providing an intermediate service. The specific restriction that Apple adds (at least the one specifically addressed in FSF's blog post about their complaint) is that users are only allowed to replicate each instance of an app on up to five compatible devices.

Of course, this is no restriction at all, since if that user has a 6 or more iOS devices, they can simply download another copy of any app the is free "as in beer" in addition to free "as in speech". FSF's complaint comes down to a nitpick about the way the App Store and iTunes manage installations on iOS devices, and not a threat to anyone's freedom or creativity.

In cases where developers are charging for Apps that have been written using Copylefted code, Apple's restrictions would force the user to purchase another copy of the software in order to use it on a 6th device. This might be a complain worth complaining about, but that beef would have to be with the developer, not Apple.

In my experience, the GNU project has done a fantastic job empowering developers and tech savvy users to do things that would otherwise be impossible -- the financial barriers would simply be too high. After decades of evolving, the community and movement are becoming more accessible to non-technical users.

Apple's "closed" operation of the App Store and tight controls over what can and cannot be distributed to iOS devices wrankle because they seem like the antithesis of what the "open" movement represents. But I disagree. If nothing else, Apple has created a system that shows everyone how things CAN work in the mobile world, and, as their success clearly demonstrates, this is an experience that a great many people want and are willing to pay for. Perhaps after decades or less evolving, the open movement will create a similar ecosystem that is as accessible to non-technical users and thus creates similar opportunities for developers.

Until then, however, FSF needs to back off. The end result of this current crusade will be nothing less than to exclude Copylefted software from the biggest mobile device ecosystem on the planet and deprive users the opportunity to use some really good software on at least the first five of their iPhones.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

iPad Will Transform Print Media, Not TV

That's right, folks. That cracking noise you hear is me, out on a limb, making a bold prediction somewhat publicly. Normally I would just think something like this to myself, so that I could later tell my friends "I saw that coming." However, just once, I would like there to be proof of my prescience. So here goes:

The killer app for iPad (and its ilk) is the printed word-- newspapers, magazines, and perhaps some books. Not video, and not games. Those will certainly be a big part of the iPad, along with music, email, and the web. But I think that iPad will ultimately rejuvenate and even transform organized journalism.

My argument was brazenly stolen by none other than Steve Jobs himself: "It has to do something better than a phone, and better than a laptop." And better than whatever else its replacing.

Blogs are great "long tail" outlets for journalism that would otherwise not see wide distribution. But there is much to be said also for the kind of editorial process that produces publications like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and The Smithsonian. These are what I like to read over coffee in the morning, or whenever I have a few quiet minutes throughout the day.

Physical newspapers and magazines have to be picked up or delivered, carried around, and then disposed of -- all wasteful, time and resource consuming activities with which I would happily part if there were some other way to get my reading fix.

Of course all of these pubs are available online, and I CAN get them both on my laptop and on my smart phone (an iPhone, if you must know). But I don't. Well, that's not quite true; I do pick up a few bits here and there, but not if I have to pay for it. Reading these pubs on a phone or laptop is just too awkward to enjoy.

But I can easily see myself flipping through virtual pages of pretty pictures and pithy words on an iPad, and happily paying for subscriptions. I may even feel a sense that I'm getting a bargain since I don't have to tramp through the snow to the end of my driveway or stop at the news stand, haul out piles of old papers, or feel guilty about killing trees. I have a feeling that I'm not alone.

So, in a few years, when we look back on the introduction of iPad (and similar devices) I predict that we will be saying that "iPad was to organized print journalism what iPod was to music".

Someone will be gloating. I hope it will be me.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Intelligent Design is not Science

The war between science and religion remains a popular topic on television, and a particularly fascinating battle is the stand-off between evolution and intelligent design.  So of course I feel obligated to weigh in.

Intelligent Design, as I understand it, is presented as a modification of theory of evolution. It says, basically, that although evolution happens, it is guided by the intentions of an intelligent creator.

Pure evolution and Intelligent Design are alternative ideas about how life on earth came to be as we see it.  This much of the debate is legitimate.

However, science is a process, not a theory.  This process is: come up with an idea, devise experiments to empirically test the idea, rethink your idea based on the results; and repeat until you lose interest.  Ideas that survive many such cycles and remain consistent with observation are, loosely speaking, "scientific theories" and, more importantly, if your theory doesn't work, keep looking.

Intelligent design, on the other hand, specifically rejects the process of science.  It says that certain body parts could not have evolved, and moreover that their origins are beyond the reach of science to explain: such parts could only exist if they had been designed by an intelligent creator who had the end result in mind.  In other words, literally, "and then a miracle happens...".

As any cook or doctor can tell you, the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, and yet this remarkable phenomena is never taught in mathematics classes, where the whole is always exactly equal to the sum of its parts.

So why would anyone want to teach intelligent design in a science class? Seriously, why?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Time for a Republican Party to Learn Tolerance

Somewhere between Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan the Republican party went from being the party that freed the slaves to the party of "traditional family values".

So where does that leave people who believe in small government, free markets, and privatization, but also embrace cultural diversity, alternative lifestyles, and personal responsibility?

I think its time for parties to re-align their platforms.  They way views are bundled now there is no comfortable fit, at least not for me.  I am probably most closely aligned with the Libertarian party... but this is a party whose brand badly needs to be remade.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dear Senator McCain

Dear Senator McCain,

My friend, I've got to be honest with you: you lost me.  I've been fan of yours since your 2000 speech when you declared that no candidate should be defined by extremists, be they religious, political, or ideological.  The "straight talk" made you seem authentic, and your back story is worthy admiration.  You were someone to whom I could relate.

What happened?

Its easy for someone like me to image that the evangelical right-wing conservative-dominated Republican political machine got hold of you and steered you inexorably and inevitably away from yourself.  But I'm sure the truth is both less conspiratorial and more tragic.

I can only say what it looked like. 

First, Sarah Palin?  Really?  I mean, sure, her record speaks of a talented, ambitious, energetic politician who is not afraid to shake things up.  But I am simply not persuaded that she could step in if something were to happen to you.  I mean, she staffed her administration in Alaska with high school buddies -- an unmistakable sign that personal loyalty and familiarity means more to her than competence.  Where is the evidence than she can recruit, organize, and deploy the best and the brighest?  I'm sorry, Senator, but I just can't imagine that you truly believe she was the best choice for America.  No, what seems far more likely is that you accepted her in a cynical attempt to appeal to a bloc of voters who may not otherwise vote for you.  If getting you into office requires that kind of sacrifice of principle, I guess I would rather have you stay in the Senate.

And that leads directly to strike two: what happened to "straight talk"?  You haven't seemed nearly as authentic in the months leading up to the election as you did in the decades before.  Its actually difficult for me to watch you speak now, mostly because it seems like you don't even believe much of what you say these days.  You seem to be selling a story, instead of speaking from your heart.  When you say "I don't care about a washed up terrorist... but we need to know the full extent..." Huh?  That's not straight talk, that's gossip, and its beneath you.

And that brings me to strike three:  the sum of what I've seen from you in the past few months paints a picture of someone who is scrambling to peice together an identity calculated to appeal to enough different groups voters to cobble together a victory.  But the difference between that fagile and fragmented identity and who I thought you were is unsettling.

And so I won't be voting for you.  If the pressure of a campaign can move you so far from away yourself, what would the pressure of holding office do to you?  All I can say is, I don't like what I've seen so far.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Our Enemies or Ourselves - What will define the next four years?

I just finished watching the first presidential debate between Senators Obama and McCain and, in my opinion, it succeeded in sharply defining the choice we face as Americans about to elect a new president: do we want to the next four years to be about defeating our enemies, or about making people's lives better here in America?

John McCain is a soldier, and he sees the world almost exclusively through that lens.  To me this was demonstrated by the contrast in the tone of his responses on economic vs. military issues.  When McCain said "the veterans know I will take care of them" it was clear from the way he said it that he feels this in the marrow of his bones.  Conversely, when he said, several times, "we need to have oversight, we need to have transparency, and all that..." I couldn't help feeling that he was disengaged.  It left me with the impression that, for Senator McCain, it all comes down to "winning the war in Irag is all that matters.  Everything else will take care of itself."

On the other hand, Senator Obama provided less direct evidence of what defines his world view.  For me, it seems to be that government serves the people, in the sense that, as a leader, you frame the issue, gather the best minds you can find, and insist that they craft a solution.

I have a great deal more confidence that Barak Obama will bring together and focus our govenrment on resolving the issues that define our times -- security, energy, the economy, and -- perhaps most importantly -- restoring the United States standing as a citizen in the world, than would John McCain.  I believe that a John McCain administration would continue to focus on winning fights.

I honestly believe that both candidates demonstrated themselves to be serious men who have strong visions for America's future, but I also believe they demonstrated that they are qualified for different jobs: Barak Obama should ask John McCain to be his Secretary of Defense.