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Open source: Why you should care

To most people open source means free software.

Anyone can download this kind of software without paying a fee. It doesn’t break any laws. You have the original developer’s permission to use it.

You can run the software, copy it and pass it on to friends and colleagues.

Free software is only part of the story. It isn’t the most important thing about open source. Yet free software is liberating.

Open source lets you look at code

What matters more is that you can look at the code used to write the software. This means you can see how the developers made the program.

If you have coding skills you can figure out what the developers did. You may be able to understand the assumptions and decisions they made when they wrote the code.

You can tinker with the code and release your own customised version.

Or perhaps you might spot a flaw or an area where the original developers could have done something better. When that happens you can send what you found to the developers and have them fix it, or you can fix it yourself and send them the improved version.

Improving software

This is how software evolves and improves over time. The same process can work with software that isn’t open, but letting everyone interested take a look speeds things up and often means better results.

When you tinker with, improve or fix open source software, you are expected to make your new version as freely available as the original. That way others can follow your work, improve or fix it.

This is a virtuous circle.

Any piece of code can be open source. There are libraries of code snippets you can use to perform simple tasks or include in your own projects.

There are applications and even operating systems. Some of the best known software is based on open source.

Beyond free

While ‘free’ is an important part of the philosophy, there can be open source paid-for software. That is you can look at the code, but you have to pay to use it. The money is often used to pay for further development.

This approach has many of the same benefits. It means that people and companies can earn a living at the same time.

There are also many commercial and semi-commercial products and services that are build on open source foundations.

The opposite to open source software is often known as proprietary software. You can think of this as closed source. It is where someone, usually a company, owns the intellectual property. In some cases this can include patents.

As a rule you don’t get to see proprietary code and you pay to use the software. Until about 30 years ago all software was proprietary. A lot of enterprise and software used by government still is.

Open source now dominates the software world. Most of the world’s systems run on it. The web is open. Most phones run Android, which is a form of open source.

LibreOffice 5.4 works better with Microsoft Office files

With version 5.4 The Document Foundation has made the free, open source LibreOffice 5.4 more compatible with Microsoft Office1.

If you like your productivity software to come as a big, sprawling, all-encompassing suite, you can buy an annual Microsoft Office subscription.

Or, you could get the power of Office without paying a penny. LibreOffice is free and open source. When I tested LibreOffice 5.2 a year ago I found it was a solid alternative, but lacks polish.

There’s still no polish. The Document Foundation has stuck with a retro user interface. It says this will be the last LibreOffice 5 version. The next will be LibreOffice 6. That may see the software get a make-over.

While LibreOffice 5.4 make look dated to some, the comments in the earlier post show some users are comfortable with the older way of working. The fancy Microsoft Office ribbon interface doesn’t help you get things done any faster. It’s just cosmetic.

Writer

Whether you like LibreOffice’s look and feel or not, the power of the software is beyond question. The Writer app has almost all the features found in Microsoft Word. If anything is missing, it’s something almost no-one ever uses.

This time around LibreOffice adds the ability to import AutoText from Microsoft Word DOTM templates. In plain English this means you can import the default styles and custom elements that determine how documents look. If you work with others who run Microsoft Word, you’ll be able to create documents in the same style.

The 5.4 update also means you can export and paste number or bullet lists as plain text while keeping their structure. There is a new ability to create watermarks and LibreOffice has updated menus for working with sections, footnotes, endnotes and styles.

LibreOffice says Writer has cleaned up how it deals with imported PDFs. I’ve not tested this yet.

LibreOffice 5.4 improves file compatibility

You may notice an improvement in file compatibility between LibreOffice ODF and Microsoft .docx formats while in LibreOffice Writer. This still doesn’t work so well the other way around when you’re in Word, but that’s not The Document Foundation’s fault. There are still incompatibilities, but they are fewer and less difficult to deal with.

Taken as a list, the upgrades to Writer are incremental, it’s not a big upgrade. There’s a little more going on with the Calc update. LibreOffice has added pivot charts among other things, but it is still an incremental update. You can check the wiki for a full list of changes.

Is LibreOffice 5.4 right for you? It is if you need a full software suite and don’t want or can’t afford to pay for Microsoft Office. You might also ask yourself if you need a suite at all. That’s another post.


  1. Not that it wasn’t already compatible enough for most people. ↩︎

Consider government open source, don’t mandate it

Act Party leader David Seymour wants the New Zealand government to consider open source software.

In Act calls on government to support open source software at the NBR, he says the government needs to take a new approach when buying software procurement.

It can save the taxpayer large sums of money.

Seymour tells the NBR:

“A substantial number of civil servants could generate the same output using open source software and open document formats, instead of proprietary software like Microsoft Office.”

Act isn’t the only political party to call for government to consider using more open source software. It is also Green Party policy.

The key word is consider.

While there’s an argument for asking public servants use open source apps in place of Microsoft Office, that’s only part of the story.

Mandating open source

Mandating open source can be a straight-jacket. There are times when it is the right tool for a job, there are times when it is not. Far better to let decision makers nearer the coal face choose what people need. Pragmatism should trump dogma.

It’s not just Microsoft Office. There are government agencies using Google Documents. While licences are cheaper, the software isn’t free and, if anything, the data is more locked away than with Office.

If anything, rules should forbidding government departments buying software from companies not paying their fair share of tax.

Sure, many argue that Google isn’t breaking any laws, but nor would a government be breaking any laws if it chose to spend taxpayer funds with companies that are good citizens.

It’s one thing to insist public servants write memos using open source apps, but inflexible, expensive software isn’t restricted to desktop productivity apps.

Seymour thinks the government can save as much as $52 million “every four or five years” from dropping office. It’s likely at least that much money will also be tied up in proprietary databases.

Proprietary databases

Some proprietary databases are notoriously difficult to replace. The lock customers into long, expensive support contracts. At times some database licences resemble ransomware.

Writing at the New Zealand Open Source Society website Dave Lane has another perspective:

“While the NZOSS is gratified to see Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) being advocated by the Act Party (and the Greens have similarly advocated it for at least the past decade) we think that FOSS sells itself if the playing field is level. At present it is not.”

Good point. Formally mandating open standards for government apps would help level the playing field.

Let’s also level the software playing field in a wider sense. It’s not just open source versus proprietary, we also need to level the playing field for New Zealand tech companies allowing them to win more government contracts.

Keeping local technology firms out of such contracts would be unthinkable in most other countries.

Where Open Source fits in New Zealand

Open Source software XfceNZ Open Source Society president Dave Lane is a frequent and articulate promoter of his cause. He can also be a scathing critic of proprietary software.

In keeping with the Open Source philosophy, his presentation from this year’s ITX conference is online.

You can read the slides, or hit the S key to see the slides and his speaker notes.

Lane’s presentation has a Creative Commons licence. You can copy, adapt and share the work to your heart’s content so long as you credit the author.

It’s well worth a read if you need a crash course in Open Source. It also works as a refresher.

Lane starts with a tidy definition of Open Standards (The original version of this post said this was a definition of Open Source, my error):

“Well-defined technical specs available at no cost online, created via a transparent process, by multiple parties, with no royalties, no discrimination, and extensible via a well-defined process.”

Later he says:

We don’t want to mandate open source software. That would be counter productive.

This is a good point. Other countries have mandated open source software in the past. It hasn’t always been successful. Better to create the right climate to let software flourish than to dictate what people use.

Also, once you start dictating software choices, the whole business becomes open to commerical capture from the team with the best lobbying.

When proprietary software is best

Not only that, there are times when proprietary software is the best tool for a specific job. It should be left in place.

More important, mandatory Open Source runs against the whole idea of openness. Instead of making user’s decisions for them, it is better to put rules in place so they can make their own choice, the best choice without being constrained.

All we want is a level playing field for software, based on mandated compliance with open standards, as you would expect in just about every other marketplace.

The commercial world often has a better understanding of this than government.

Open source software will succeed on its own merits, just as it has on the web — which is perhaps the aspect of the digital world most dominated by open standards, but it’s already dominated the mobile world, the cloud, the supercomputer and the emerging Internet of Things.

Ten lessons from Open Source Open Society 2015

Open Source Open Society
Billy Meinke – Creative Commons

Few conferences range as wide as the Open Source Open Society 2015 event held in Wellington last week. The material was surprisingly accessible to non-specialists considering this was a two-day event that filled the Michael Fowler Centre with software developers.

Dance between freedom and responsibility
Artists painted slogans and images over the glasswork around the Michael Fowler Centre

You can read more about #OSOS2015 sessions elsewhere, here are ten lessons that don’t fit into the conventional story structure:

1. Modern tech innovation follows the same path as the textile industry at the start of the industrial revolution in Britain.

“Join me in the C18th to remind ourselves about some of the things that haven’t gone so well”

In a talk explaining why the idea of a commons exists, Craig Ambrose from Enspiral Craftworks traced the history of the weaving industry. He says the inventors used patents as instruments of control as well as a way to earn money.

Things didn’t go too well for society in the wake of the industrial revolution. The message from Ambrose is that if you want to understand what a lack of openness might mean today, take a look at the consequences two hundred years ago. He did this with mentioning the word Dickensian, so I’ll just leave it here for you.

2. Good open source is like a marae

Chris Cormack - Catalyst IT
Chris Cormack – Catalyst IT

Chris Cormack draws parallels between the ideas of open source and his Māori culture. He says negotiations take a long time in that culture because Māori believe listening to what others say is as important as telling them what you want. He says you don’t have to agree with what they say, but you do have to respect it.

3. “When we nurture the commons together we all win”

OSOS conference
Billy Meinke – Creative Commons

Billy Meinke from Hawaii says there’s power in the idea of a commons, but it’s increasingly hard to get the gains because of patents and copyright laws. He says that needs changing.

4. Moving away from patents put the US motor on its growth trajectory

Brandon Keepers - GitHub
Brandon Keepers – GitHub

GitHub’s Brandon Keepers calls it the auto-industry, but we know what he meant. Things didn’t take off until car makers ignored existing patents, once that happened there was no stopping the likes of Henry Ford.

It’s a powerful argument against software patents and other brakes on innovation. Keepers’ says Henry Ford and others built the giant US car industry on openness. The same idea could see technology reach even greater heights.

5. As is so often the case at a conference, some of the best sessions weren’t scheduled sessions.

Open Source Open Society 2015 did a great job of recognising participant interaction and discussion can be every bit as powerful as speakers on a stage. The messages painted on the walls were part of this, so was the innovative idea of embedding Massey University students to listen and report conversations, comments and so on in the #overheard at #OSOS2015 by @cocamassey thread.

#Overheard
#Overheard

6. The word open doesn’t necessarily make participation easy

Lillian Grace – Wiki New Zealand

Lillian Grace from Wiki New Zealand stood on stage to point out something many feel: The open source world is intimidation to many people on the outside. She poses a challenge to make it more understandable and to learn to talk in the language of ordinary people.

7. New Zealand’s government is one of the most open

Keitha Booth – NZ Open Government Data Programme

Keitha Booth from the NZ Open Government Data Programme says we often hear that closed is the default position for government data, but she says that’s not right: it’s open.  New Zealand rates as number four out of 86 countries when measured on openness.

8. “If open source is for everyone, it should look like anyone”

Jessica Lord – GitHub

GitHub’s Jessica Lord came up with the defining quote of the two-day conference.

9. Open source culture isn’t all sweetness and light

Chris Kelly - GitHub
Chris Kelly – GitHub

There’s a dark underside to open source culture. Chris Kelly from GitHub says because anyone can take part in open source, the door is open to assholes (he’s American, I’d prefer to say arseholes). That includes bullying white men with a sense of entitlement. Things often end up argumentative.

He says this culture can frighten off outsiders, only a few women coders work in open source and the movement is missing out on the benefits of diversity. There’s a clear need to deal with this and to improve communications between people working in open source.

10. People need help finding their way

Michelle Williams
Michelle Williams — Ideaction

A powerful metaphor about open source and the way knowledge passes between people came from Michelle Williams who wrapped up the conference. She says when she first went to Wellington she heard the city was full of great bars and cafes, but when she wandered around the places she found were average. “It wasn’t until someone showed me that I realised the had great coffee and beer”.