Category: Open Source (page 1 of 2)

Open source is as much about culture as it is about code

The talented Abby Cabunoc Mayes, who I worked with when I was at the Mozilla Foundation (and who I caught up with briefly at MozFest), was interviewed recently by TechRepublic. I like the way she frames the Open Source movement:

I like to think the movement really came together with The Cathedral and the Bazaar, an essay by Eric Raymond. And he compared the two ideas. There’s the cathedral, or free software, where a small group of people are putting together a big cathedral that anyone can come to, and attend a service or whatever. He compared that to a bazaar, where everyone is co-creating. There’s no real structure, you can set up a table wherever you want. You can haggle with other people. So open source, he really compared that to the Linux foundation at the time, where he was seeing so much delegation, so many people taking on tasks that would have been closed, in the cathedral model. So that idea that anyone can get involved, and anyone can participate, is really that key. Rather than just giving away something for free.

If you do an image search for Eric Raymond, you’ll find some of him holding guns, as he’s an enthusiast. I don’t like guns, nor do many people, but I’d like to think we can separate someone’s ideas about organising from their thoughts in a different area. I know some would beg to differ.

The interviewer goes on to ask Abby what the advantages of working openly are:

There’s a lot more buy-in from people. And having this distributed model, where anyone can take a part of this, and anyone can be involved in running the project, really helps keep the power not centralized, but really distributed. And so, you can see what’s happening to your data. So there’s a lot of advantages that way, and a lot more trust with the population. And I think this is where innovation happens. When everyone can be a part of something, and where everyone can submit the best ideas. And I think we saw that in the scientific revolution, when the academic journals started. And people were publishing their research, and then letting other people use that and build upon that and discover more things. We saw the same thing happen with open source. Where you can really take this and use and do whatever you want with it.

I think it’s important to keep linking and talking about this kind of stuff. Unfortunately, I feel like our cultural default is to try and take all the credit and work in silos.

Source: TechRepublic

Identity is a pattern in time

When I was an undergraduate at Sheffield University, one of my Philosophy modules (quite appropriately) blew my mind. Entitled Mind, Brain and Personal Identity, it’s still being taught there, almost 20 years later.

One of the reasons for studying Philosophy is that it challenges your assumptions about the world as well as the ‘cultural programming’ of how you happened to be brought up. This particular module challenged my beliefs around a person being a single, contiguous being from birth to death.

That’s why I found this article by Esko Kilpi about workplace culture and identity particularly interesting:

There are two distinctly different approaches to understanding the individual and the social. Mainstream thinking sees the social as a community, on a different level from the individuals who form it. The social is separate from the individuals. “I” and “we” are separate things and can be understood separately.

Although he doesn’t mention it, Kilpi is actually invoking the African philosophy of Ubuntu here.

Ubuntu (Zulu pronunciation: [ùɓúntʼù]) is a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity”. It is often translated as “I am because we are,” and also “humanity towards others”, but is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.

Instead of seeing the individual as “silent and private” and social interaction as “vocal and more public”, individuals are “thoroughly social”:

In this way of thinking, we leave behind the western notion of the self-governing, independent individual for a different notion, of interdependent people whose identities are established in interaction with each other. From this perspective, individual change cannot be separated from changes in the groups to which an individual belongs. And changes in the groups don’t take place without the individuals changing. We form our groups and our followerships and they form us at the same time, all the time.

This is why I believe in open licensing, open source, and working as openly as possible. It maximises social relationships, and helps foster individual development within those groups.

Source: Esko Kilpi

CUNY Commons in a Box OpenLab

Earlier this year, at the Open Education Global conference in Delft, I went to a session where members of staff from CUNY talked about ‘Commons in a Box’. The latest version, now referred to as ‘CBOX OpenLab’ has just been released:

CBOX OpenLab provides a powerful and flexible open alternative to costly proprietary educational platforms, allowing individual faculty members, departments, and entire institutions to easily set up an online community space designed for open learning.

Its name brings together two important ideas: openness and collaboration. Unlike closed online teaching systems, CBOX OpenLab allows members to share their work openly with one another and the world. Like a lab, it provides a space where students, faculty, and staff can work together, experiment, and innovate.

It’s effectively a WordPress plugin which transforms a vanilla install of the content management system into something that allows for collaboration in an academic context. I’m looking forward to having a play!

I had to click through several link-strewn pages to get to the meat of it, so let me just share that here, for the sake of clarity.

Sources: Announcement / Showcase / WordPress plugin

Data transfer as a ‘hedge’?

This is an interesting development:

Today, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter joined to announce a new standards initiative called the Data Transfer Project, designed as a new way to move data between platforms. In a blog post, Google described the project as letting users “transfer data directly from one service to another, without needing to download and re-upload it.”

This, of course, would probably not have happened without GDPR. So how does it work?

The existing code for the project is available open-source on GitHub, along with a white paper describing its scope. Much of the codebase consists of “adapters” that can translate proprietary APIs into an interoperable transfer, making Instagram data workable for Flickr and vice versa. Between those adapters, engineers have also built a system to encrypt the data in transit, issuing forward-secret keys for each transaction. Notably, that system is focused on one-time transfers rather than the continuous interoperability enabled by many APIs.

I may be being cynical, but just because something is open source doesn’t mean that it’s a level playing field for everyone. In fact, I’d wager that this is large companies hedging against new entrants to the market.

The project was envisioned as an open-source standard, and many of the engineers involved say a broader shift in governance will be necessary if the standard is successful. “In the long term, we want there to be a consortium of industry leaders, consumer groups, government groups,” says Fair. “But until we have a reasonable critical mass, it’s not an interesting conversation.”

This would be great if it pans out in the way it’s presented in the article. My 20+ years experience on the web, however, would suggest otherwise.

Source: The Verge

Git yourself off that platform!

This week, tens of thousands of open source projects migrated their codebase away from GitHub to alternatives such as GitLab. Why? Because Microsoft announced that they’ve bought GitHub for $7.5 billion.

For those who don’t spend time in the heady world of software and web development, that sounds like a lot of money for something with a silly name. It will hopefully make things a little clearer to explain that Git is described by Wikipedia in the following way:

Git is a version control system for tracking changes in computer files and coordinating work on those files among multiple people. It is primarily used for source code management in software development, but it can be used to keep track of changes in any set of files. As a distributed revision control system it is aimed at speed, data integrity, and support for distributed, non-linear workflows.

Despite GitHub not being open source, it did, until this week host most of the world’s open source projects. You can currently use GitHub for free if your project’s code is public, and the company sells the ability to create private repositories. As far as I’m aware it’s never turned a profit.

I’ve seen lots of reactions to the Microsoft acquistion news, but one of the more insightful posts comes from Louis-Philippe Véronneau. Like me, he doesn’t trust Microsoft at all.

Some people might be fine with Microsoft’s takeover, but to me it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. For a few years now, MS has been running a large marketing campaign on how they love Linux and suddenly decided to embrace Free Software in all of its forms. More like MS BS to me.

Let us take a moment to remind ourselves that:

  • Windows is still a huge proprietary monster that rips billions of people from their privacy and rights every day.
  • Microsoft is known for spreading FUD about “the dangers” of Free Software in order to keep governments and schools from dropping Windows in favor of FOSS.
  • To secure their monopoly, Microsoft hooks up kids on Windows by giving out “free” licences to primary schools around the world. Drug dealers use the same tactics and give out free samples to secure new clients.
  • Microsoft’s Azure platform – even though it can run Linux VMs – is still a giant proprietary hypervisor.

Yep.

I’m thankful that we’re now starting the MoodleNet project in a post-GDPR and post-GitHub world. We’ll be using GitLab — initially via their hosted service, but longer-term as a self-hosted solution — and as many open-source products and services as possible.

Interestingly, Véronneau notes that you can use Debian’s infrastructure (terms) or RiseUp’s infrastructure (terms) if your project aligns with their ethos.

Source: Louis-Philippe Véronneau

OEP (Open Educational Pragmatism?)

This is an interesting post to read, not least because I sat next to the author at the conference he describes last week, and we had a discussion about related issues. Michael Shaw, who’s a great guy and I’ve known for a few years, is in charge of Tes Resources.

I wondered if I would feel like an interloper at the first conference I’ve ever attended on Open Educational Resources (OERs).

It wasn’t a dress code issue (though in hindsight I should have worn trainers) but that most of the attendees at #OER18 were from universities, while only a few of us there worked for education businesses.

Shaw notes he was wary in attending the conference, not only because it’s a fairly tight-knit community:

I work for a commercial company, one that makes money from advertising and recruitment services, plus — even more controversially in this context — by letting teachers sell resources to each other, and taking a percentage on transactions.

However, he found the hosts and participants “incredibly welcoming” and the debates “more open than [he’d] expected on how commercial organisations could play a part” in the ecosystem.

Shaw is keen to point out that the Tes Resources site that he manages is “a potential space for OER-sharing”. He goes on to talk about how he’s an ‘OER pragmatist’ rather than an ‘OER purist’. As a former journalist, Shaw is a great writer. However, I want to tease apart some things I think he conflates.

In his March 2018 post announcing the next phase of development for Tes Resources, Shaw announced that the goal was to create “a community of authors providing high-quality resources for educators”. He conflates that in this post with educators sharing Open Educational Resources. I don’t think the two things are the same, and that’s not because I’m an ‘OER purist’.

The concern that I, and others in the Open Education community, have around commercial players in ecosystem is the tendency to embrace, extend, and extinguish:

  1. Embrace: Development of software substantially compatible with a competing product, or implementing a public standard.
  2. Extend: Addition and promotion of features not supported by the competing product or part of the standard, creating interoperability problems for customers who try to use the ‘simple’ standard.
  3. Extinguish: When extensions become a de facto standard because of their dominant market share, they marginalize competitors that do not or cannot support the new extensions.

So, think of Twitter before they closed their API: a thousand Twitter clients bloomed, and innovations such as pull-to-refresh were invented. Then Twitter decided to ‘own the experience’ of users and changed their API so that those third-party clients withered.

Tes Resources, Shaw admitted to me, doesn’t even have an API. It’s a bit like Medium, the place he chose to publish this post. If he’d written the post in something like WordPress, he’d be notified of my reply via web standard technologies. Medium doesn’t adhere to those standards. Nor does Tes Resources. It’s a walled garden.

My call, then, would be for Tes Resources to develop an API so that services such as the MoodleNet project I’m leading, can query and access it. Up until then, it’s not a repository. It’s just another silo.

Source: Michael Shaw

Image: CC BY Jess

OERu has a social network

I saw (via OLDaily) that OERu is now using Mastodon to form a social network. This might work, it might not, but I’m flagging it as it’s the approach that I’ve moved away from for creating Project MoodleNet.

The OERu uses Mastodon, an open source social network with similar features to Twitter.

We encourage OERu learners to use this social network as part of your personal learning environment (PLE) to interact with your personal learning network (PLN). Many of our courses incorporate activities using Mastodon and this technology is a great way to stay connected with your learning community. The OERu hosted version is located at mastodon.oeru.org.

I was initially convinced that this was the right approach to building what Martin Dougiamas has described as “a new open social media platform for educators, focused on professional development and open content”. I got deeply involved in the ActivityPub protocol and geeked-out on how ‘decentralised’ it all would be.

However, I’ve changed my mind. Instead of dropping people into another social network (on top of their accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) we’re going to build it around something which will be immediately useful: resource curation. More soon, and follow the Project MoodleNet blog for updates!

Oh, and if you need a short, visual Mastodon explainer, check out this new video.

Source: OERu

How to choose an open license for your project

I’m so used to working openly by default that I sometimes forget that for many (most?) people it’s a new, and sometimes quite scary, step.

Alfonso Sánchez Uzábal pointed to choosealicense.com from GitHub, which makes it simple to choose an open license for your software project. Moodle, for example, is GPL but it gives other examples such as MIT and Apache.

For everything other than software, you’re probably best off with Creative Commons licenses. I’ve been using these for the last fifteen years now on my work and highly recommend them.

Slack’s bait-and-switch?

I remember the early days of Twitter. It was great, as there were many different clients, both native apps and web-based ones. There was lots of innovation in the ecosystem and, in fact, the ‘pull-to-refresh’ feature that’s now baked into every social app on a touchscreen device was first created for a third-party Twitter client.

Twitter then, of course, once it had reached critical mass and mainstream adoption, killed off that third party ecosystem to ‘own the experience’. It looks like Slack, the messaging app for teams, is doing something similar by turning off support for IRC and XMPP gateways:

As Slack has evolved over the years, we’ve built features and capabilities — like Shared Channels, Threads, and emoji reactions (to name a few) — that the IRC and XMPP gateways aren’t able to handle. Our priority is to provide a secure and high-quality experience across all platforms, and so the time has come to close the gateways.

A number of people weren’t happy about this, notably those who rely on the superior accessibility features available through IRC and XMPP. A software developer and consultant by the name of JC Brand takes Slack to task:

We all know the real reason Slack has closed off their gateways. Their business model dictates that they should.

Slack’s business model is to record everything said in a workspace and then to sell you access to their record of your conversations.

They’re a typical walled garden, information silo or Siren Server

So they have to close everything off, to make sure that people can’t extract their conversations out of the silo.

We saw it with Google, who built Gtalk on XMPP and even federated with other XMPP servers, only to later stop federation and XMPP support in favour of trying to herd the digital cattle into the Google+ enclosure.

Facebook, who also built their chat app on XMPP at first allowed 3rd party XMPP clients to connect and then later dropped interoperability.

Twitter, although not using or supporting XMPP, had a vibrant 3rd party client ecosystem which they killed off once they felt big enough.

Slack, like so many others before them, pretend to care about interoperability, opening up just so slightly, so that they can lure in people with the promise of “openness”, before eventually closing the gate once they’ve achieved sufficient size and lock-in.

I’m definitely on the side of open source people/projects here, but it’s worth noting that the author uses the post to promote the solution he’s been developing. And why not?

There’s a comment below the post which makes, I think, a good point:

I’m betting this decision wasn’t made by the same folks who were at Slack (or Facebook, Google, etc) and thought adding support for the open protocols was a good thing. I bet the decision is a product of time over any attempt to trick anyone. Over time people change roles, leave, and slowly new leadership emerges. Outside pressures (market growth, investors) require a change in priority and the org shifts away from supporting things that had low adoption and ongoing maintenance cost.

So I don’t think it’s as malicious as the author implies (Bait and Switch) as that requires some nefarious planning and foresight. I think it’s more likely to be business/product evolution, which still sucks for adopters and the free net, but not as maleficent. Just, unfortunately, the nature of early tech businesses maturing into Just Another Business.

Indeed.

Source: Opkode

Firefox OS lives on in The Matrix

I still have a couple of Firefox OS phones from my time at Mozilla. The idea was brilliant: using the web as the platform for smartphones. The execution, in terms of the partnership and messaging to the market… not so great.

Last weekend, I actually booted up a device as my daughter was asking about ‘that orange phone you used to let me play with sometimes’. I noticed that Mozilla are discontinuing the app marketplace next month.

All is not lost, however, as open source projects can never truly die. This article reports on a ‘fork’ of Firefox OS being used to resurrect one of my favourite-ever phones, which was used in the film The Matrix:

Quietly, a company called KaiOS, built on a fork of Firefox OS, launched a new version of the OS built specifically for feature phones, and today at MWC in Barcelona the company announced a new wave of milestones around the effort that includes access to apps from Facebook, Twitter and Google in the form of its Voice Assistant, Google Maps, and Google Search; as well as a list of handset makers who will be using the OS in their phones, including HMD/Nokia (which announced its 8110 yesterday), Bullitt, Doro and Micromax; and Qualcomm and Spreadtrum for processing on the inside.

I think I’m going to have to buy the new version of the Nokia 8110 just… because.

Source: TechCrunch