Software design choices and the Vista shutdown menu

Windows Vista is Microsoft's very delayed 'next-generation' operating system finally shipping to consumers this December/January. Whilst aesthetically similar to Windows XP it offers a host of new functionality. One new piece of functionality that has drawn a lot of criticism has been the overly complicated shutdown menu. You would think shutting down your computer would be simple but Vista now offers nine different ways of ending your Windows session from the 'start' menu. The result is confusing, ugly and a pain to use. Joel on Software has a well considered article on how too much choice, whilst good in theory is bad in practice and uses this new shutdown functionality as an example of the problem.

Simplification and a healthy dose of logic is usually the answer to these problems but this can only come when the decision making process is clean and crisp. Unfortunately in the case of Windows Vista the decision making process was far from this. Moishe Lettvin was part of the shutdown UI team on Windows Vista and in a blog posting he describes the painful process behind this little piece of functionality (comprising of just a couple of hundred lines of code). The feature is the ultimate example of design by distributed committee as it received input from 43 different people. The consequence of this? After one year of development the 'team' produced a traditional, option packed menu. If his post is an indication of the software development beuarcaracy and process issues within Microsoft then they are in serious trouble. Without significant changes Windows Vista will symbolise only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to overdue, feature-incomplete products emerging from Microsoft development labs in the coming years.

Richard Stallman on GPL version 3

On November 21st 2006 Richard Stallman addressed the 5th International GPLv3 Conference in Tokyo Japan. A full transcript of his presentation is available online on the Free Software Europe website. To help those who do not have time to read it all I have extracted a few interesting quotes (displayed in italics below) that clarify the issues surrounding GPL version 3.

During the presentation Stallman alluded to the greater social issues Free Software is addressing and the fact that open source is a by-product of the underlying principles and definitely not an objective in itself.

"The basic idea of the GNU GPL is to establish the four freedoms as inalienable rights, that is, rights that nobody can lose, except through wrong doing. You can't sell them."

The wording of his statement indicates that Free Software, like free speech, has more to do with universal social freedoms than technical issues. Stallman was also very clear on why a new version of the GPL is required.

"GPL version two was developed in 1991. The community was very different then. It was much smaller. There were probably hundreds of Free Software packages instead of tens of thousands. And there was no free operating system."

What is often overlooked in mainstream media discussion about GPL version 3 is the things it is trying to do better than the current license. Contrary to the perception of some it is not just filling legal holes that have been discovered over time.

Autodesk sues the Open Design Alliance

For years the Open Design Alliance (ODA) have been working towards providing an 'open' (i.e. freely distributable) set of libraries and tools capable of reading and writing the DWG file standard. DWG is the default standard within the AutoDesk suite of CAD/CAM applications (the most notable and ubiquitous being AutoCAD). On November 13th 2006 AutoDesk filed a Trademark infringement lawsuit against the Open Design Alliance, apparently around the use of digital watermarks within TrustedDWG files created by the ODA libraries.

TrustedDWG is a digital watermark present within AutoCAD 2007 that ensures the recipient of the file that it was created using genuine AutoDesk software. This functionality has two uses, the marketing reason of course is that it protects customers from the dangers of nasty external programmers who cannot program to save themselves and as a consequence try to destroy your data. This is the marketing reason and like all good marketing reasons it is a completely lame excuse that attempts to cover up real technical issues. The fact of the matter is AutoDesk software is in itself notoriously bad for file corruption. After over five years of tutoring CAD I've seen numerous file corruption incidents and all have involved purely 'genuine' AutoDesk software. Perhaps if AutoDesk engineers were allowed to spend more time on developing a file standard with internal verification systems and less on monopoly protecting digital fingerprints they would not need to worry about third party applications damaging user's data?

A wrap up of the weeks Novell/Microsoft action

This week the Free Software Foundation (FSF) announced that it would not be taking Novell to court over their patent deal with Microsoft and its potential infringement of the GPL version 2. Instead the FSF's general counsel, Eben Moglen, announced that they would be pushing through with the finalisation of GPL version 3 which resolves many of the ambiguities present in GPL version 2. This strategy effectively takes the high road in the altercation, a costly and dirty lawsuit brought by the FSF against Novell right now would only harm both camps and potentially leave Novell without a viable operating system if they were to loose. By taking the less confrontational GPL version 3 approach the FSF does not condone Novell's actions but they do give everyone involved some breathing room in order to resolve the issue more constructively.

Once the GPL version 3 is finalised and the majority of GNU Linux codebase (including the kernel) has adopted it Novell will once again be left in a difficult situation. The onus will be on their engineers to back-port all new functionality and security fixes to their existing GPL version 2 compliant code bases rather than incorporating patches from the community which the current process. This is a complex and expensive proposition which could potentially leave them in the dust when it comes to GNU Linux operating system development. Fortunately for Novell given the GPL version 3 time line the effects of the problem will not be experienced for at least a year (if not more), so this is really an issue for the Suse Linux Enterprise Server/Desktop 11 team to ponder and will not seriously impede Novell's current crop of products.

Zamzar - Funny name, potentially interesting concept

Although you wouldn't think it by the name Zamzar is a Web-based file conversation tool. File conversion tools are not new but the fact that it is Web-based is. Zamzar supports are variety of file conversions that fall under document (including Word and Excel), video, image and music categories.

Traditionally file conversion has operated under a fairly conventional model, you pay a license fee and are given a piece of software that sits on your computer that undertakes the file conversion. Zamzar uses a different approach, it is completely free and rather than downloading a piece of software to your computer your file is uploaded to their server for conversion. On completion a link is emailed to you and by following it your newly converted file can be downloaded. The financial model at work here is advertising and the market they are targeting is the casual user who cannot justify the cost or complexity of a fully blown piece of conversion software sitting on their desktop.

Microsoft rattling the patent case cage

Microsoft's silent threat of patent lawsuits against Linux users is beginning to solidify in the last couple of days. Since the announcement with Novell, Microsoft have been busy trying to establish similar patent protection deals with other Linux vendors. However their attempts have not been greeted warmly by Red Hat who's deputy general counsel ruled out any need for such an agreement on the grounds that "we do not believe there is a need for or basis for the type of relationship".

Fortunately for Microsoft they are not easily deterred by such confidence with CEO Steve Ballmer (in the words of Boing Boing) painting Linux users as patent crooks during a Q&A session on Friday. Although Ballmer did not say it so bluntly he did openly threaten businesses running Linux by stating that the Novell patent protection is crucial otherwise:

"We (Microsoft) believe every Linux customer basically has an undisclosed balance-sheet liability."

Source LinuxWorld - Linux Users Owe Microsoft

These are definitely fighting words but at some stage they are going to have to do more than just rattle their hypothetical sabres and actually sue. If (when) that day comes it will be a very interesting moment in open source history and be a pivotal moment in the future of Microsoft.

A clever site worth checking out

This site is very clever, it is called Microsoft Firefox and promotes/pulls fun out of Internet Explorer 7. It is all very professionally done with some very clever video, subtle jokes and links to other funny sites. No doubt the site will be taken down by Microsoft legal given its look and feel and abuse of the Microsoft copyright/trademark.

The consequences of a GPLed Java

A few days back Sun offically announced they would be open sourcing Java under the GPL to applause from most of the industry. For a long time it was generally accepted that Sun would be fully open sourcing Java, the real question lay in exactly what license would be applied and how it would be undertaken. It turns out things will take about a year to be fully open sourced but even now the OpenJDK website is looking very promising.

The Samba Team responds to Novell's actions

A few weeks after the Novell/Microsoft announcement the Samba Team have officially requested Novell reconsider their stand on patents. The Samba project is an important (if not crucial) piece of open source software that is allowing a wide variety of platforms (but mainly Linux) to compete head to head with Microsoft solutions in the workplace. Jeremy Alison co-heads the Samba project and is an employee of Novell but obviously this has not stopped the team from taking a moral stand against software patents and the actions of Novell and Microsoft.

This stance is completely opposite to the Mono team leader Miguel de Icaza's official support of the deal, but this is not surprising considering 99% of Mono development is funded and directed by Novell. I doubt Novell will heed Samba's request but at least its good to see such a prominent project take such a decisive stand on the matter.

Novell Open Audio on the state of iFolder

Ted Haegar of Novell Open Audio fame is doing a great job addressing some of the points I raised earlier this year about the podcast. Not only is he managing to keep up his jet-setting lifestyle but in between jaunts to all four corners of the world he is managing to interview some really great Novell people like Jason Williams on the future of iFolder.

iFolder for those who don't know is an easy to use file synchronisation tool. Unfortunately iFolder is one of those (all too many) Novell products that is brilliant in concept but hasn't quite made it when it comes to execution or industry uptake. A good analogy to describe iFolder would be that of an Olympic high diver from a small ex-Soviet block state attempting a dive that would surely win the gold but because of lack of preparation, brought on by the fact they couldn't afford to practice full-time and instead were milking cows, they just don't quite pull it off when it counts.

What do I mean by this? iFolder 2 was nice but it was heavily tied into Netware, offered only a Windows client and had a restrictive usage model. iFolder 3 promised to fix these shortcomings but instead (prior to version 3.6) it seems to have lost its direction and paid the price for certain architectural decisions that in hindsight are questionable. In both cases the potential was there but the focus and determination to pull off the task seemed to wane as time progressed.