Posts filed under 'Free/open source'

All things open

Open source, open standards, open access: what’s the difference?

Last week I went to one of Russell Brown’s (the media commentator and journalist, of Hard News | Public Address fame) Karajoz Great Blends. It was held at the Boatshed in Wellington, a great venue on the waterfront.

The first half was a discussion with Matt Heath and Chris Stapp of Back of the Y, featuring clips from their various videos, and a trailer for The Devil Dared Me To, which premieres at SXSW next month. Even though splatter movies don’t usually appeal to me (with the exception of Shaun of the Dead), Matt and Chris were very funny, and I might even go to their movie.

The second half was a panel featuring Chris DiBona, currently employed at Google and a former editor at Slashdot; Rob McKinnon, the developer behind theyworkforyou.co.nz, Alastair Thompson, from Scoop, and David Hume from the e-government unit at the State Services Commission. The discussion covered a range of topics, including the Google Maps API, voting machine software, and One Laptop Per Child (Chris DiBona had one of the prototypes, and they’re very cool).

theyworkforyou is an interesting mashup of information primarily from Parliamentary Services, intended to help voters understand what our elected representatives are up to. But what struck me most was a question that indicated quite a lot of confusion about the difference between open source software, open standards, and open access. The questioner suggested that they were all more or less the same thing, and to me they are very different, but related.

An open standard means that the definition of a data/information structure is available to anyone; the Wikipedia article on open standards says an open standard can be implemented by anyone, and that one of their purposes is to promote interoperability. The article also identifies an ‘open format’ as a format for data that has no royalties or other limitations. Open source software involves providing access to a program’s source code. To me, software involves an exectuable process, and that’s what the code does: expresses an algorithm that can be executed (or studied, changed, or redistributed). Open access is the most straightforward of the three: it just means that anyone can access the data/information/publication, without any barriers (assuming they have access to the necessary hardware and/or software).

So where does the confusion come from? I remember a conversation I had with someone a number of years ago (probably 12, or even 15), in which they argued that software and data were the same thing. I was never convinced. To me data is something that software acts on, and it exists independently of the software. Do people have to write code to understand the difference, or am I being too literal in making such clear distinctions between the three?

February 13th, 2007

Ant colonies and open source projects

I’m still mulling over whether it makes sense to adapt Ranganathan’s laws for open source software projects. I’ve started reading his The Five Laws of Library Science to improve my understanding of what he meant by each law, and hope to have something more to say soon.

In the meantime, here’s something to ponder. In Emergence, Steven Johnson talks about self-organising systems, where the whole appears to be greater than the sum of its parts. His approach is journalistic rather than academic, and there are some very critical reviews on Amazon, as well as many positive ones. Johnson draws his examples from ant colonies (as you might expect), cities, SlashDot and eBay, among others. I found his discussion of Deborah Gordon’s research into ant colony behaviour interesting, in particular her finding that ants from older colonies behave differently from ants from younger ones. Individual ants in each colony are likely to be a similar age (their lifespan is apparently about a year), and the suggestion is that the length of time the colony has been established somehow affects the way they react.

How much are open source software projects like ant colonies? What I would find if I compared the behaviour of people in different open source software projects? Would those from a new project react differently to a naive question from a non-techie than people from a well-established project? That’s not really part of my current research, but it might be something to look at in the future.

February 10th, 2007

Ranganathan and software

Seeing Michael Stephens post in Tame the Web about updating Ranganathan’s laws made me wonder if they could be relevant to open source software/projects. This is partly because of some of the things that I’ve heard in some of my interviews and a recent conversation about how open source projects work.

The original five laws are:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader, his book.
  3. Every book, its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The Library is a growing organism.

Ranganathan, S.R. (1963) The five laws of library science. (2nd ed.) Bombay: Asia Publishing House.

Various people have updated these laws for the digital age, including versions for digital libraries, electronic resources, and the web. Mentor Cana made a start on adapting them for open source software. Cana’s version:

  1. Software is for use
  2. Every user his or her software
  3. Every software its user
  4. Save the time of the user
  5. A software Library is a growing organism

I don’t necessarily agree with the wording, and will see what I can come up with that might be clearer after the weekend. Over the next few postings, I’ll be saying a bit more about each law, and how it might apply to an open source software project.

February 3rd, 2007

Open source options

Using Wordpress as the engine for this blog is exposing me to the reality of being an open source software user. One of the interviews I’ve done recently left me thinking about autonomy in the context of using open source software; in other words, the ability of open source users to choose which version they use and when to upgrade. I’ve just experienced this autonomy for myself.

Earlier this month, I upgraded to WP 2.0.6, thinking that I wouldn’t need to make any more software changes for a while. Three days later, Wordpress issued version 2.0.7, which fixed some security issues, among other things. This was followed a week later by a new release, WP 2.1.

I faced a dilemma: should I move straight to 2.1, or should I install 2.0.7 and wait for a bit? I certainly don’t want to be using a version with security problems, but do I want to be an early adopter of 2.1? After thinking this over for a few days, I decided to upgrade to 2.0.7 for the public version of my blog, and try 2.1 out on the development version on my iBook. So yesterday I installed 2.0.7 on the server, and like the previous upgrade, it took around 10 minutes and so far everthing is sweet.

Now I can take my time becoming familiar with the changes in 2.1, and install it when I’m ready, without feeling pressured. It’s nice to feel that I’m in control.

January 28th, 2007

EU finds open source cost savings

It’s nice to have my intuition confirmed by research. CNET news reports that an EU research report has found that the total cost of ownership (TCO) of open source software is lower than that of proprietary software. The article doesn’t give much detail about the study itself, and I haven’t had time to search for it, but apparently the findings are based on a study of businesses using open source software in six EU countries. Other findings are that short term costs can be higher because of the cost of staff training (but of course that’s true for any new software implementation), and curiously, that some staff might feel undervalued if they’re asked to work with ‘free’ software. Presumably this comes from a perception that they’re not worth spending money on. What this says to me is that the way open source software is introduced is important, and the benefits need to be made clear to ‘muggles’.

(added January 28, 2007) The full report is 287 pages long. I suggest starting with the executive summary. There are some interesting comments about using open source software in education, and the benefits for students.

January 20th, 2007

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