Dear Matt Asay,

It is great that you are now COO of the worlds leading Free Software company. We look forward to Canonical growing and changing over the next few years. Canonical has a world class management team, an epic engineering staff and the support of a huge and amazing community.

LONDON, February 5, 2010 – Canonical Ltd., the commercial sponsor of Ubuntu, announced today that open source industry veteran Matt Asay has joined the company as chief operating officer (COO) — responsible for aligning strategic goals and operational activities, the optimization of day-to-day operations, and leadership of Canonical marketing and back-office functions.

Part of your role appears to be figuring out how to help a Free Software company make money (monetise is not a great word). We don’t think “Open Core” is the right way. That might work for a proprietary company that just wants to leverage a community to do free marketing for them. We would like Canonical to be a Free Software company – and for it to make money.

Here are some ideas we think offer good potential for a reasonably quick return on investment.

Please take a long hard look at the partner ecosystem and programmes. There has been staggering amounts of effort put into community building around Ubuntu, but really not much of this has been directed at companies who want to support and participate in Ubuntu. There is no Launchpad group for partners. No mailing list. No IRC channel. There are just three other partners apart from ourselves in the UK. We would like to see lots of UK partners, and we would like to see them talking to each other; doing joint marketing events, subbing business out to each other as they run out of capacity to meet the growing market demands, you know the kind of thing. Creating a community of partners is one sure way to get your messages across faster and more consistently.

We’d like Canonical to produce more business-focussed events where you show off some of the cool things you and your customers are doing with Ubuntu like Landscape and the Eucalyptus private enterprise cloud. Talk about some of the amazing business-centric applications that run on Ubuntu like OpenERP, Asterisk, Alfresco etc. With a strong partner network getting bums-on-seats is less of a chore and you are more likely to get quality delegates too.

Please encourage and promote the whole “opportunistic developer” thing that is going on with Quickly, Launchpad and Ground Control. This is really fantastic stuff and could be a big differentiator. Our opportunity is to show businesses how:

  • They can use Quickly to develop internal applications hosted on launchpad and then with Ground Control they can empower all their staff to improve the tools they work with.
  • Quickly and Launchpad and the Ubuntu One CouchDB back end can be used to develop internal applications that work online and offline and share information between desktopcouchdb instances.
  • Quickly and CouchDB have all the security and authentication and workflow of Lotus Notes without the clunky UI widgets and general user interface direness. Couchdb can do that at the back end and Quickly/GTK can take care of the UI.

One last thing, get Alfresco back in the repositories. It was in the partner repo for 9.04 and was nearly great, just a few minor issues. In 9.10 and 10.04 it isn’t present. Simply not there. As it is in the partner repo and not one of the Canonical or community maintained repos there is very little we can do to help, much as we would like to. You know how great Alfresco is, you know how great Ubuntu is. They belong together. Jump up and down until it happens. If Canonical/Alfresco will commit to not putting it in the partner repo that is a perfectly acceptable alternative, it is GPL licensed Free Software, we will work with others in the community to get it in the Universe repo and maintain it there.

Good luck Matt, we very much look forward to working with you and Canonical over the coming years,

Alan Bell & Alan Lord
The Open Learning Centre

BETT 2010 Review

It’s that time of year when around 30,000 educationalists from all over the world descend on Olympia in London for the annual edu-geek-out that is BETT.

I’ve been going to BETT now for 3 or 4 years as an exhibitor or just helping to promote Open Source and Free Software with other like minded members of our amazing community.

This year we helped our friends and colleagues at Open Source Schools and Open Forum Europe on the Open Source Café. The simple objective of the show was to inform the education sector about Open Source and where to find help, advice and common ground with peers who’ve “been there” and “done that” already.

This year was, frankly, quite exceptional.

The stand received financial sponsorship from Red Hat, Linux IT, University of London Computing Centre and The Learning
Machine (Ingots)
for which everyone is very grateful. Canonical, the commercial entity behind Ubuntu very kindly provided us with 600 Ubuntu 9.10 CDs (500 Desktop and 100 Server) to give away (thanks Larry) and there were a similar number of CDs containing a great collection of Education-centric Open Source desktop applications for Windows from Free Software for Students that was compiled and produced by Peter Kemp and David Wilmut. That’s around 1200 CDs in total full of completely Free goodness and fun. We encouraged all the recipients to copy, share and pass them on too! At the end of the show we had only a few (quite literally) of each remaining.

An interesting sum was carried out: The value of equivalent proprietary software was estimated to be over £4000 for the pair of CDs – I actually think that is rather low considering the volume of stuff in the Ubuntu repos including several real Enterprise grade applications such as OpenERP and Alfrescoso we have potentially delivered a net saving to the education sector of at least £2.5m. And of course this does not include all the free copies that will be made and passed around!

The Open Source Cafe at BETT2010

The Open Source Cafe at BETT2010

I noticed a real sea-change between this show and last year’s. I don’t actually recall speaking to one school or Local Authority this show that had no-idea of, or that wasn’t aware that they were using, Open Source Software. Most were really proud of their achievements, many were rolling out or had completed roll outs of OpenOffice.org rather than waste many thousands of pounds on unnecessary & proprietary Office Application Suite Licenses. Many more used and raved about Audacity – the ubiquitous audio capture and editing tool. No one I spoke with was reticent toward Open Source and many were keen to talk and share their experiences. This is what the Open Source Schools project is all about: using the principles of FOSS; of community, collaboration and sharing, and providing a location for this to happen. If you are involved in education and have any interest in Open Source, or even better are an expert, get involved and share your experience and knowledge gained.

We also found time to meet up with friends and colleagues from Sirius, Mark Taylor and John Spencer. Sirius has been very successful in the education sector, they are the only Open Source vendor to be on Becta’s “approved supplier list”, and were nominated for an award this year for the work they and North West Learning Grid put in to the National Digital Resource Bank.

The national digital resource bank will deliver a vast range of publicly funded resources under a creative commons licence and populate your learning platforms, preparing them for effective use.

It will also create a sharing community of educators who will identify, review and improve a common set of national digital assets.

The world is really changing very fast. I go to parties and find people in all walks of life (i.e. not IT professionals) who are aware of Open Source, Governments are (some faster than others admittedly) waking up to the reality that FOSS provides significant benefits over proprietary software in many ways more than just money, and Enterprises are adopting not just Open Source Software but the principles behind it too to make their own businesses better.

BETT 2010 confirmed this trend in spades. Roll on BETT 2011.

Miles from Open Source Schools and one of the organisers of the event has also posted a review of the show that you can read here.

More book reviews and what I’ve been up to…

I just noticed that I hadn’t posted anything here for what feels like ages – since August the 15th.

So I thought, hmmm, better write something.

But what? A quick update on what’s been going on perhaps? That’ll do…

I’ve been working quite a bit with the brilliant free and open source vtiger CRM recently. Looking at some of the less widely used features and updating our training materials for the recent 5.10 release. I’ve also just submitted a small patch for the Customer Portal feature, to do with its web layout and have been thinking about how best to improve this, and the Webforms modules, to make them easier to customise.

I am also really enjoying using a great little python application called “Getting Things Gnome“. It one of those simple applications which does one job, does it very well and is easy to use. It’s basically an app for jotting down your todo list and making sure you get things done… Here’s what it looks like on my Ubuntu Jaunty desktop:

Getting Things Gnome

Getting Things Gnome

I also had a mail from those nice people at Packt Publishing suggesting two new books to look at and review for them, In fact a co-author of one of them actually requested that Packt contact me to do a review :-) Flattery indeed.

So, we now have four books in the pipeline in no particular order:

Joomla! and Virtuemart

Joomla! and Virtuemart

Building ecommerce sites with Joomla! and Virtuemart. I haven’t started on this one yet, but if you want to buy it direct from Packt just follow this link and we’ll get a few pennies in commission.
Alfresco 3

Alfresco 3

My partner-in-crime at The Open Learning Centre, Alan Bell, is reviewing this book on the also brilliant Alfresco ECMS (Enterprise Content Management System). We’ve just set up a 3.2 community install on one of our own servers and the new interface – called Alfresco Share – is really very cool indeed. Once again if you can’t wait we have a link to Packt’s on-line store where you can purchase the book.
FreePBX 2.5

FreePBX 2.5

Here’s one of the new ones we’ve been asked to take a look at. FreePBX is a very popular GUI to the even more popular Asterisk telephony platform. I am very much looking forward to reviewing this one and the next book. FreePBX 2.5 is available now from Packt’s on-line store.
The Professional's Guide to Asterisk 1.4

The Professional's Guide to Asterisk 1.4

I really like the sound of this one:

Implementing, Administering, and Consulting on Commercial IP Telephony Solutions

  • Written by four Asterisk Professionals, this book brings their years of experience together in an easy-to-understand guide to working with Asterisk in small, medium and larger Commercial environments
  • Packed with hints, tips, and best practice – learn to avoid the pitfalls that can hinder an Asterisk implementation
  • Focused chapters provide thorough, comprehensive, and self-contained instructions on how to deploy Asterisk across different commercial scenarios

This will probably be the first one I read when they arrive next week. It’s hot-off the press, just been released and can be ordered from Packt’s web site here.

My little Asus 1008HA netbook is running very happily with the Alpha build of Ubuntu Karmic Koala. I was at the swimming pool yesterday (not in it but taking my son to his lesson) and using 3G mobile internet to get on line. Battery life is good although not as long as is quoted by Asus. I reckon I get about 3 1/2 to 4hrs of good use. But that is mainly when powering a 3G dongle too – and they get hot. Karmic is shaping up to be a great release I think although to be frank I am really not sure about the new Gwibber interface, and the Empathy IM client hasn’t really floated my boat yet. But hey ho, never mind, at least we have a choice folks.

We are planning some new marketing activities over the coming months, what with the forthcoming release of the best desktop OS of all time and Microsoft releasing their rewrite of Vista, October should be a fun month. Hopefully we’ll have lots of interesting stuff to write about.

In fact I want to share with you a backup script I’ve written in Bash for my home office network and what may well end up being expanded and developed to support some of our commercial systems too. Well I think it’s pretty cool anyway. It wakes up machines in the middle of the night, uses – currently – rsync to back them up, then turns them off again. Configuration is easy and it seems to be working fine. When I get a mo I’ll publish the script source and let you all comment on my terrible bash skills. But I like it…

So there!

Alfresco says UK FOSS adoption growing fast

Well, well, well.

I am mightily pleased that it looks like, finally, the UK is waking up to FOSS. According to this press release from the Enterprise Content Management company Alfreso they have seen a rather dramatic swing:

Alfresco Software today announced that despite the global economic downturn, it has witnessed record levels of customer adoption in the UK as businesses rethink their proprietary software strategies, turning to more cost effective and scalable open source alternatives.

They go on to describe some the new customer roll-outs and just what a significant chnage they have witnessed in the recent past [emphasis mine]:

“The world is undergoing serious economic turbulence, but at a time when businesses know they cannot simply terminate IT projects, open source software provides the perfect solution,” explained John Powell, CEO, Alfresco Software.  “By resisting the demands of monopolist proprietary vendors, organizations in both the UK’s public and private sectors are reaping the benefits of creating flexible and scalable infrastructures while lowering their overall IT spend.  Open source powers the internet today and that low cost scalability is coming to UK enterprises. Today the agenda is reducing cost and improving productivity with the resources you have. Alfresco has just recorded its most successful ever quarter and we’re looking forward to continuing that success through 2009.”

That’s great news. I’m really pleased for Alfresco, who release their excellent product under the GPL and have built a solid community behind them. And I’m also even more pleased for the businesses who are seeing the true value that can be obtained from Free Software.

Their competitors, who haven’t yet discovered the value of FOSS, could be getting a very rude awakening over the coming months and years as those that have begin to reap the rewards of massively reduced costs, freedom from vendor lock-in and the upgrade-treadmill the proprietary vendors so love you to run on start to pull away. How much more flexible and agile will a business be when it gets the freedom to decide from whom, and what software products, to purchase or use?

Just perhaps, the times they are a changing…

Crunch Proofing Your Business?

I know I’m kind of preaching to the converted here but I have been thinking about ideas to promote OSS, and our company’s services, here in the UK. And I’m particularly thinking about this with regards to our current economic climate, i.e. very dodgy.

For most of the readership of this blog it will come as no surprise that Open Source is a bloody great way to avoid spending money on software. That’s a very simple argument and one that has merit. But clearly capital cost isn’t the only answer and replacing existing infrastructure with something new, even if it is free, can be costly in other ways.

So are there other benefits and factors where Open Source Software solutions can be of distinct benefit in these rather troubled times?

Well I think there are, and I’ve dumped some of my rather random thoughts down here. I’d love to hear your opinion on them and get any other suggestions you may have too:

  • To me, a major benefit of OSS to a business is when they are looking to deploy a new solution or service. Be it a CRM, or ERP, or perhaps their business model has changed and they need to actually do something fundamentally different to survive. Deploying OSS in this scenario is almost a no-brainer. You will have to pay to integrate this new service to some degree whatever solution you select; so why not use a free one and one that gives you an ability to adapt and change features in a far simpler way than with a proprietary system?
  • But now, cash is really tight. It is even more important that your business gets every penny it can from any investment it makes. So there may be an even simpler argument: If you can’t afford to invest in a proprietary software solution but you can get similar functionality from a free OSS solution, can you really afford NOT to go down the OSS route? Your competitors probably will.
  • Is OSS now the ONLY choice for the cash-strapped business? You can’t stand still. You have to do something to generate more leads/revenue/cash flow or improve operating efficiency etc. Standing still in our current climate is equivalent to going backwards in a growth economy.
  • Vista bashing? Many firms will probably be getting close to needing an upgrade cycle on their desktops. Do they go Vista? There are a whole world of reason why not too, including performance, reliability, security and the need to upgrade hardware. Is OSS ready for the Desktop. Personally I think so; but does Joe Blogs? Can they be convinced? We are certainly hearing more positive noises in this direction but is it a step-too-far? The costs of replacing your desktop licenses is going to be pretty steep.
  • How about bringing certain tasks back in-house? Many businesses will outsource to external companies specific jobs or functions that they use on a regular basis. By deploying OSS in-house, could they do some of this work themselves and save money, speed up the process, become more efficient? I’m thinking of these sort of things: basic graphics work, PDF creation, page layout, web design/maintenance. There’s no cost to download and install The Gimp, Inkscape, OpenOffice.org or Scribus. Moving a web site to a decent CMS like Joomla! from a hard-coded site (that you have to go back to your web designer every time you want content changed) could provide longer term benefits although this would require some up front cost.
  • Security. Is it a big deal for most SMEs? It doesn’t crop up that much in discussion. So I don’t think it is an area to major on. Do you? Clearly there are big advantages to using OSS (Linux) on the desktop for protection from almost all malware. But with existing infrastructure protected by AV, Firewalls, filters and IDS etc, is it worth changing? For it’s own sake probably not, but as part of a bigger overhaul, probably.
  • Servers and networked services. With M$’s release of Windows Server 2008(tm), is there an opportunity to promote the OSS alternative? Again, upgrades are not going to be cheap. Current VAR expertise will be limited with the new platform so where is the downside to using OSS based servers instead? Free, secure, immensely flexible and scalable. We have just seen Alfresco announce that their Open Source ECM now fully supports Microsoft’s Sharepoint stack. The big benefit here is in keeping your businesses’ documents on an open platform. Not locked inside a proprietary M$ one where you will be forever asked to pay to get continued access to your data.

That’s it for now. If you got this far, thanks!

I’d like to think this might become a short series of posts if we can get more and better ideas from you too.

Alfresco, a bit like Quickr but Bettr

Quickr, for those who are lucky enough not to know, is the morphologically challenged relative of Lotus Quickplace. In reality it is Quickplace with two new themes, two new placetypes and two versions of dojo dumped on the filesystem to make things look a bit more “Web 2.0″ and some windows-only integration with Microsoft only applications. So why I am I telling you about proprietary software here on “The Open Sourcerer”? Well I have a bit of a background in the IBM/Lotus area and I have been developing corporate themes for Quickplace since sometime in the last millennium. It hasn’t changed much, but there is a very serious Free and Open Source alternative now.

In brief, Quickr is a website creating tool, each site is known as a “place” and within a place you can have folders and rooms. Rooms are like sub-places, they can have their own access control rules and a different style. They can contain rooms as well so you can have a hierarchy of places. It looks quite pretty, and 10 years ago it was 5 years ahead of its time. It has now got a client install, which integrates with some legacy Windows applications, more on that later.

Alfresco is an Open Source Enterprise Content Management System, which runs as a J2EE application on Linux and other platforms (I would stick to Linux+Apache+Tomcat+MySQL for preference). Like Quickr you create areas for storing stuff, in Alfresco they are called “Spaces”. Spaces can contain files, folders and more spaces.

Inheritance of security to sub-spaces/rooms

So in Quickr you create a place, you add members to that place, you create a room within the place, you carefully check the checkbox labeled “inherit members from parent place” as you create it so that all the members of the place can get into the room. Lovely. Now add another member to the place. You would expect them to be able to access the room wouldn’t you?

No. Inheritance is a one shot deal when you create a room, it just copies the access control list from the parent room as it creates the subroom. Now imagine an place in an enterprise with 100+ rooms and managing user access to this lot. It gets messy.

In Alfresco, inheritance works just like it should. You can set a space to inherit from the parent space, and override it at will. Nice, friendly and fit for the enterprise user/administrator.

Access as a file system

The big new feature in Quickr (the pretty skins don’t count as they are only skin deep) is the Quickr Connectors. This Windows only program installs as a Windows Explorer extension and sits alongside the network neighbourhood, it sort of works like a filesystem.

You can’t do linked spreadsheets (OpenOffice.org or Symphony, or the other one) because the files don’t reside at a resolvable UNC path.

Folders are deeply broken. You can create folders, and nested folders, but they look rubbish in most of the web themes which are designed for a single level of folders. If you do use a web theme with a hierarchical folder tree and then use the web interface to move folders between rooms, they break in the connector. Moving them in the web doesn’t update some important UNID field somewhere, I couldn’t figure out which, but I reported it as a bug.

Personal spaces (aka Quickr Entry) were supposed to be a wonderful thing, when you send an email with an attachment from a proprietary email client (Lotus Notes or the other one) it asks you if you want to store the attachment in your Quickr place and send a link instead. This sort of works. With no security. Your place is public, anyone can see stuff you put in it (with a lame security-by-obscurity option which I haven’t figured out how to get to yet). So you want to organise your space, putting stuff in folders etc. well you can’t. Folders aren’t allowed in personal spaces. Tough.

So how does file system access work in Alfresco? Well it will act as a WebDav server or a CIFS server or both. There is no mucking about with locally installed connector clients and Windows Explorer extensions to make it look a little bit like a network filesystem. It is a network filesystem. WebDAV is well supported on Linux and Mac and it works on Windows too. Once you connect to your server via WebDAV it just looks like another bit of your filesystem. You can drag and drop documents into and out of it, double click things to open them etc. Linked spreadsheets work fine, and in fact every application that expects to be storing or accessing data on a regular drive works just fine with your remote content management system. It isn’t just any remote drive though, it is still a content management system, if the business rules for a space where you drop a file dictate version control then that is exactly what happens.

Version control

So lets say you have a document in Quickr created with a form set up for optional version control (which is a bit of a sloppy concept in itself). You are doing some edits and what started as correcting a few typos turns into a major re-factoring session. You now want to save your document as a new version. Tough. Too late. You have to create a new version before you start editing it, otherwise you are just editing and overwriting the existing version. Quickplace always had a published version + working draft system, it now has a sort of revision history stuffed into it. The two models don’t seem to like each other very much.

Version control in Alfresco is somewhat more thought out, it has a very powerful Advanced Versioning Manager, which can track back not just individual files, but directories, it can show you the state of the whole repository at a particular point in time. Very useful for the multiple linked spreadsheets example. It can do way more than this, it is configurable as

So what does work Bettr in Quickr?

Well Quickr has a truly sickening theme/skin engine. It only works in Internet Explorer with ActiveX and you can upload 6 files (stylesheet + 5 HTML files) which it scoops up along with any referenced images. The HTML files basically duplicate each other, or you can upload just one HTML file and have it guess what the others should look like. There is no community site to share and sell Quickr skins that I know of, unlike Joomla! and WordPress etc. However, rubbish as the theme engine is, it is better than Alfresco which doesn’t yet have a skinning capability (you can edit the stylesheet and all the .jsp files, but that isn’t the same as a facility for uploading a package of skin elements so that places can be individually styled.)

Quickr isn’t just for storing files, it has a nice calendar that can show custom forms on it. I haven’t yet seen a calendar view for Alfresco. The Gantt chart view in Quickr isn’t very sophisticated at all, I wouldn’t miss that, but the calendar is useful.

When uploading files though the web interface from some Microsoft Office applications it does an ActiveX/COM control thing that gets the application to save as HTML as well as the native binary format and it uploads both the HTML version and the native format. It then serves up the HTML version to browser clients, which would be a nice trick. If it worked a bit better. It doesn’t do this trick if using the windows explorer integration, so if you use a mixture of the Quickr connector and the web client you get a great big muddle and a mess.

In conclusion

If I had to do a 15 minute sales demo, on Windows, I could easily make Quickr look fantastic, but when comparing Quickr against Alfresco as a serious tool for long term use in a modern business, Quickr falls short and Alfresco is the one I would choose.

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