Software Patents: The new MAD

With the recent news of Microsoft being told to stop selling MS Word in the US due to it’s infringement of a patent owned by i4i I am really hopeful that perhaps, just perhaps, someone will start to realise just how MAD this all is.

Reading the first story I linked to, there is a reasonably understandable explanation of the patent in question but lets be honest here. Does this sound like an truly new and innovative invention?

“What we have developed at i4i is what’s customarily referred to as ‘customer-centric’ or ‘custom XML,’ which is allowing people to create customer-driven schema — we’ll call it templates or forms. So, while XML is used to tag and to mark the data that’s created, our technology is used to create the whole schema and the management of the data.”

They’ve managed to patent the ability to create your own schema by the sounds of that. Isn’t that what XML is for?

Anyway, I can’t see the good ‘ole boys really winning in the long run. I’m sure it will get over turned when hopefully someone shows up with some prior-art. But it seems to me that with this ridiculous system in the States, they are building their own new version of the Cold War. Remember Mutually Assured Destruction? That’s where they are now.

Businesses like Microsoft, IBM and others build vast portfolios of patents on the most ridiculous things not for their inherent value, but mainly as a safeguard against being sued for infringing someone else’s equally ridiculous patent. ‘If you sue me for patent xyz, then we’ll sue you with zyx’. Then we have the other wonderful group of [ahem] businesses known as Patent Trolls who bring nothing to the party except litigation. Nice.

Who wins out of all this in the long run? The worst group of parasites on the planet (yes, even worse than estate agents): Lawyers.

Surely, the US Government must see the stupidity and waste that this daft situation has created? I really hope that this is the litigious straw that will break the back of the patent camel.

Finally, get this. The last paragraph of that story reports on a patent that Microsoft has just been granted, which they applied for several years ago.

Word-processing document stored in a single XML file that may be manipulated by applications that understand XML

A word processor including a native XML file format is provided. The well formed XML file fully represents the word-processor document, and fully supports 100% of word-processor’s rich formatting. There are no feature losses when saving the word-processor documents as XML. A published XSD file defines all the rules behind the word-processor’s XML file format. Hints may be provided within the XML associated files providing applications that understand XML a shortcut to understanding some of the features provided by the word-processor. The word-processing document is stored in a single XML file. Additionally, manipulation of word-processing documents may be done on computing devices that do not include the word-processor itself.

Hmmm – this appears to have far reaching implications. OOXML, ODF, any word processor supporting XML file formats… Jeez. How the f**k can you call this an invention?

Please, UK Government and the EU Commission, don’t let the patent trolls of the world make you think that software patents are a “good thing”.

IBM, Canonical/Ubuntu, Novell, Red Hat Deliver Microsoft-Free Desktops Worldwide

I was going to write a bit about this MAJOR announcement myself today; but there’s not much point.

Glyn Moody has covered most of the bases in his usual eloquent style.

I’m in complete agreement with Glyn here. This is a really big deal. Perhaps not today or tomorrow, but it is making a HUGE statement to the business community at large that there are credible alternatives to M$, and, with IBM’s help they can choose from Novell, Red Hat or Canonical for their desktop IT.

Of course, we [ the enlightened ones 😉 ] have known this for sometime. But the dark-grey-suit brigade didn’t really have a clue. They simply believed what they were told.

Now they are being told something new.

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 ( 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.

Big Blue on OOXML

Some will probably say “it’s about time too”…

IBM has made public an article written by Peter Seebach called “OOXML: What’s the big deal?”.

In it Peter explains in clear and unambiguous language why Microsoft’s OOXML document format (also know as DIS29500 or ECMA-376) is not fit to be an international standard.

Stating what has already been said many times before might be construed as boring or repetitive, but in this case Peter gives a refreshingly concise review and summary of the main issues. Many of which have been lost in the verbosity and plethora of opinion and conjecture that abounds on the web regarding OOXML.

Here are couple of salient comments from the piece:

There have been a number of technical complaints made about OOXML. Every one of them comes down to the same base complaint: Rather than specifying a reasonable common interchange format, OOXML specifies the whole feature set of Microsoft Office, down to bug compatibility. This creates a burden on other implementers which is simply unreasonable (and in fact impossible) to meet, while conveniently being precisely what Microsoft is already shipping. That raises a lot of concerns.

He goes on to examine three categories of “showstopper problems” and gives examples in each. The final category, “Unique Features”, is quite damming in it’s final analysis…

Probably the most famous example is one of the optional settings provided in OOXML. The setting is called “useWord97LineBreakRules”, and it specifies to use the line-break rules that were used in Word ’97 for East Asian documents. Much like the previous examples, this is of course impossible for anyone else to do, as no specification of these rules is provided. In fact, the OOXML standard even warns implementers not to implement this:

The OOXML standard’s guidance for useWord97LineBreakRules

[Guidance: To faithfully replicate this behavior, applications must imitate the behavior of that application, which involves many possible behaviors and cannot be faithfully placed into narrative for this Office Open XML Standard. If applications wish to match this behavior, they must utilize and duplicate the output of those applications. It is recommended that applications not intentionally replicate this behavior as it was deprecated due to issues with its output, and is maintained only for compatibility with existing documents from that application. end guidance]

This guidance is excellent. Given that there is no specification available of this feature, and it is deprecated, it makes all kinds of sense for people not to implement it. But wait; if it shouldn’t be implemented, why is it in the spec? Compatibility with existing documents is not a reason to add a feature to a standard aimed at interchanging data; users are worried about whether their text can be opened at all in another program, not whether every line break is in the exact same location!

This feature is in the spec because OOXML is not a document interchange format; it’s a careful, bit-for-bit, replication of Microsoft’s historical binary formats, wrapped up in angle brackets.

That’s a cracking analysis. OOXML is NOT a document interchange format. It’s MS Office binary wrapped in XML

Peter’s conclusion says it all.

OOXML is a credible effort to solve a real problem: The problem of how to replace completely opaque binary files encoding ten years of accreted behaviour with partially-legible XML files encoding the same behaviour, down to the last bit. That problem, unfortunately, is not the problem of providing a usable, implementable, exchange format for office documents.

OOXML should not, and must not become an ISO standard. It is, as we have been saying all along, a proprietary vendor’s implementation of their proprietary document format. There will be only one beneficiary if this becomes a global standard, and it isn’t you or me…

Linux: Is 2008 The Year Of The Desktop?

It’s right about time; and the time is about right…

It really does appear as though we are approaching that point of critical mass, where something other than Windows could become a dominant desktop OS.

Apple have just recorded their best ever quarter and so have the legions of converts to OS X. As there is almost no condescension about their slick and user friendly Operating System. Oh yes, the core of OS X is Open Source, built on Mach 3.0 and FreeBSD 5. But you still have to buy a MAC to run it so it is not the least expensive alternative and let’s not forget we have hundreds of millions of Intel/AMD i86 compatible PCs out there.

But now we have that bastion of conservative enterprise solutions, IBM saying

In an announcement this week at the Lotusphere 2008 conference in Orlando, IBM said that it will provide full support for Ubuntu Linux with Lotus Notes 8.5 and Lotus Symphony using its Open Collaboration Client software, which is based on open standards.

Antony Satyadas, chief competitive marketing officer for IBM Lotus, said the Ubuntu support for Notes and Symphony were a direct response to demand from customers.

Support for Ubuntu. From IBM. Just think about that for a moment…

“We’re doing pilots with customers now,” Satyadas said. “Some of the requests came from big companies” with as many as 100,000 users that are interested in moving to Ubuntu Linux on the desktop.

100,000 users moving to Linux on the desktop – wow. Just how much will that save MegaCorp Inc.? Who knows, but I bet it is a pretty sizeable truck load of cash.

IBM have endorsed Ubuntu. This is, actually, really big news. For a firm the size of IBM they don’t do things like this lightly or “just for fun”. This means there must be serious demand from their enterprise customers for a change; and it’s a big change. Their own press release for this entitled “IBM Accelerates Desktop Customer Choice With Support for Ubuntu, Red Hat and Novell Software” just shows how far we have come. Three alternative Linux operating systems. All with support from IBM.

“All the stars are lining up,” he said. “Everybody has been saying that since 2001 except IBM. We never said that, but we are saying that now.”

In the past, IBM has said Linux on the corporate desktop wouldn’t happen until the operating system was good enough to allow companies to have all the functions they need to run their businesses. At the same time, an adequate supply of critical business software that would run reliably and efficiently on Linux would be needed.

“We are putting our money where our mouth is,” Satyadas said. “We think now the time is really [here]” and the needed business applications are available to make it work for corporations.

“Linux is cool now,” he said. “We use it ourselves. We are able to offer a secure, rich and cost-effective Microsoft alternative.”

We also have seen reports of very large scale deployments happening all over the world where tens of thousands of desktops are moving to free and open operating systems. Here’s a recent one from India. This is a really good read and shows just what can be done with OSS in the enterprise, and at some speed too! I especially enjoyed his comments on the complete non-issue that anti-virus and malware problems are since their migration to Linux.

…A year later, Umashankar and his team had moved 30,000 computers and 1,880 severs belonging to some of the state’s schools to Linux — creating possibly the largest Linux rollout in India.

And here’s the very simple “why” this made so much sense:

The decision to migrate to Linux was driven primarily by cost. It was hard to escape the cold figures before Umashankar: Elcot saved Rs 5 crore1 on every 20 servers it set up with Linux. And they had over 1,800 servers.

In addition, Umashankar says that the shift saves them about 25 percent on any general hardware purchases — and as much as 90 percent on the high-end servers.

Umashankar says that his office uses the suite. This saves them close to Rs 12,000 on each desktop, he says.

“We buy Intel dual core desktops with 19″ TFT monitors for Rs 21,600 including the Linux OS. If we bought a proprietary office suite at Rs 12,000 for each desktop, the cost of commissioning infrastructure would go up to Rs 33,600 — a 55 percent increase,” he says.

55% uplift on every desktop. Just for your Office Application suite. If only more people realised this…

When you realise the kind of savings that are to be had, and knowing that there are now several free and excellent Desktop alternatives such as:

  • Ubuntu and it’s derivatives (I have heard very good things about Mint recently),
  • OpenSuse,
  • Fedora,
  • And many others. See Distrowatch for a up-to-date list of what’s hot and what’s not.

it really makes me angry that our UK government are so blind to the opportunities.

With all of these Linux desktop distributions come, literally, thousands of free applications which provide an almost total replacement for available commercial products, and also offer many more that are not present in the commercial domain at all.

We now have top quality products that fulfil most of the mainstream business requirements. I’m thinking, Firefox, Thunderbird (or Evolution),, The Gimp and Inkscape. There are multiple offerings in back-office and network/desktop management solutions, again, free and open and there are numerous excellent development environments, libraries and integration tools to enable unlimited customisation.

There are now plenty of big companies like Novell, IBM, Sun HP, and even Oracle, providing Linux desktop products and enterprise level support services. For the smaller business there are now companies that provide the support services, knowledge and skills that suit the SME sector (like our own business, The Open Learning Centre), there are huge numbers of students leaving University having worked on and engaged in the Open Source community which should help to round out the support side. And of course there is the Open Source community itself. I know of know other place where I can drop a quick email about a problem I’m having, or a question about configuration for example, which gives me consistently, fast and accurate assistance. Bugs are generally caught, logged and fixed with frightening speed and courtesy too.

Is Linux ready for the Desktop? Undoubtedly yes.

Will 2008 be the year it really takes off? I don’t know but I really do hope so. The only reasons it might not are fear and ignorance. Two issues which are easily surmountable.

Fear? Just show them, or better still give them a copy and don’t forget to tell them that they are free to copy and redistribute it too.

Ignorance? Just tell people about Open Source…

“Ignorance is bliss” the old adage goes. I think as far as OSS is concerned, that should be “Ignorance is expensive”.

1 According to the Wikipedia a Crore denotes 10 million and you get about 40 Rs to the US dollar. So they are saving a huge amount of money however you look at it.

SCO, Novell, IBM, Microsoft

“May we live in interesting times…”

On Friday last, the judge in the extraordinarily long court case brought by SCO (The SCO Group Inc. formerly the Santa Cruz Operation) against Novell gave his judgement. SCO lost.

The basics of the case, which is both complex and long-winded as only the American legal system can, was that SCO claimed they owned the copyright for UNIX and that Novell didn’t. The implications of this fairly simple claim went much deeper however. If SCO had won it could have opened the door for massive litigation against IBM and other vendors of UNIX and also had serious implications for Linux as they also claimed that Linux contained copyrighted UNIX code…

And more succinctly put by the Washington Post

Software company Novell owns the copyrights covering the Unix computer operating system, a federal judge ruled, deciding against the company that bought certain rights to Unix from Novell 12 years ago. “The bill of sale is clear: all copyrights were excluded from the transfer,” U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball wrote in his 102-page ruling. SCO Group Inc. is seeking billions of dollars in royalty payments from hundreds of companies that use the Linux computer operating system, which is modelled on Unix. The ruling means SCO probably cannot successfully sue Linux users for copyright violations.

The ruling given last week should now clear the way for the legally challenged/scared corporations of the US to use OSS/Linux with much less fear about potential law suits. This can only increase the pace of growth and adoption of these disruptive technologies.

Here’s my Recommended Reading list for this story.

Well – this looks like the main legal barriers for adoption of Linux (especially in the USA) have been removed, the SCO v IBM lawsuit is groundless and SCO will probably go bust as they will have some very BIG bills to pay.

Following note added 20:30pm (15:30 EDT) 13/08/2007:

Just before the USA markets closed I thought I’d see what the investors made of the judge’s decision. Not good. SCO (NASDAQ: SCOX) was down by a whopping 73% from $1.56 on the close Friday. It opened this morning at 0.45c and dipped during trading to a low of $0.35. Ouch….