The Online Revolution

The internet is a relatively new conception, being invented in the mid-20th century, some of us remember before it was developed (and most of us remember it not being a part of our lives). Like most inventions, it has been used by both the ‘Establishment’ or ‘The Powers That Be’ and by ordinary people. The internet and computers in general have both empowered people to take control of their own lives and created a whole new level of surveillance and ‘The Big Brother State’.

Ever since the personal computer has been in mainstream use and since Microsoft bought the DOS operating system, Microsoft has had an iron grip on the computer market. Their vision was that everyone would have a personal computer and they would be the ones to let them use it (for their price and under their control), while IBM envisioned great servers around the world that would be controlled by individuals’ terminals, they would not need Microsoft’s software and so hardware was where the money was. As we know, Microsoft were correct in their analysis and the idea that people could have their own computer that they thought they could control was popular. But some people didn’t like that they had to pay £100 just to use their computer and that if they wanted to do useful tasks such as write letters or store information for an organisation or group they would have to pay yet more. Microsoft have made it harder and harder for anyone to use software other than their own and increased the price accordingly.

Some have turned away from Microsoft’s model of “every extra thing you want to do costs extra” and turned to Apple who will give you most things that you need but you have to buy everything from them. Others have created a community where people make software for themselves. The idea is that if ordinary people all around the world make our own software, it can be as good and even better than its commercial counterpart. This software does not have its code encrypted like Microsoft’s and Apple’s but is open for all to see, this is the world of open source software.

For many years this movement has been small and its products have been pale in comparison to their mainstream version. For years after most people were using a mouse to control their computer through a graphical user interface, these people were still typing out commands. But over that last decade their numbers have grown and their progress accelerated, most open source operating systems now use advanced graphical user interfaces and have more and more advanced programs to match. Linux is the most common type of software within this world and its browser ‘Firefox’ has become quite famous for its ‘Port’ to Microsoft Windows and is accepted by most to be better than Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer, even on its native Windows. This is just an example of the powerful software that is produced by the open source movement and now that the UN has chosen ‘Ubuntu’ (a Linux operating system) for its under $100 computer, to distribute in underdeveloped countries. A lot, if not most, of the movements resources are now focused on Ubuntu’s code.

Compatibility has long been an issue as with all non Microsoft software and OpenOffice has had problems creating Microsoft Office documents due to Microsoft office’s closed source nature (Microsoft obviously made no effort to read any file other than their own). The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) worked with Sun Microsystems to create a standard format for word processing documents and came up with the Open Document Format, which was then accepted as the standard word processing and office suite file format by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). Microsoft refused to accept the new standardisation and Microsoft Office was still not even able to open, never mind create OpenDocument Format files. They were inundated with complaints by angry customers who were not able to use any of the standard files they were receiving and so Microsoft relented and Microsoft Office is now able to read and write OpenDocuments from Microsoft Office 2007 (from service pack 2).

People within this moment have mainly been technical in nature and have mostly let companies hold the copyrights to the names of their software, due to there being no individual creator to hold such rights. OpenOffice’s copyright was held by Sun Microsystems but when Sun were purchased by Oracle, a company with a history of commercialising and tampering with open source software, without permission from the community. The leading creators of OpenOffice became worried that the same would happen to OpenOffice so they created the document foundation to hold the copyright of OpenOffice and any other open source software that wishes to use it. Anyone can join the document foundation who agrees with its values and can take part in its democracy (based on a meritocratic, skill based division of labour). After which the developers continued to improve the software although they no longer had rights to the OpenOffice name, then owned by Oracle. The name LibreOffice was chosen for the continuation of the project until such time that the copyright of the OpenOffice name be reacquired. Oracle decided to keep offering OpenOffice and have even posted updates, but have since donated the name to Apache.

It will be interesting to see how many other software projects go down the same route and hold their copyrights in the document foundation or form similar structures. If projects continue to allow commercial entities to own and sway their products, they will likely be pushed and assimilated into commercial software such as Windows and the war will be lost.

Freedom of information goes further than just source code in this war, Wikipedia has become the largest encyclopaedia in the world and is created by specialists and knowledgeable people all around the world. Its accuracy is doubted by many due to the lack of credentials needed to modify or create an article. However Wikipedia and its users routinely remove false, unreferenced material and lock pages that have been continuously changed to the most accountable, previous state. Pages go through a hierarchy or locked states, where only the most certified users can request a change. While vandalism and incorrect posts do occur, it is a very good source of information where cross-referenced properly, as with any other source. Wikipedia recently undertook a ‘Blackout’ on the English portion of its site in protest to bills going through the US Congress. It was not designed to block users from information as they were shown how to bypass the blackout but meant that users read about the bills that implicated any site, with a link rout to illegal copyright material, as liable. Google also showed its support for the campaign by censoring its logo on Google.com.

With Google web search using a version of the Linux kernel, the engine behind Linux operating systems, and Android phones using another version of the Linux kernel, the future looks bright for open source software. It is now very possible to move away from Microsoft’s empire. Ubuntu has a very nice interface and integrates social networking far better than Windows; while those who are less techno savvy might like Linux Mint which is simpler than Ubuntu or Windows. Office files can be created by the powerful LibreOffice and free programs like Gimp can be used instead of Photoshop. Maybe one day, if this revolution is won, taxation will pay for the effort that people put into these projects, but until then, they rely upon donations based on the ability to pay and give time, from its users. The Future is ours, if we just choose to take it.

1 Comment

  1. Stoosh says:

    Great blog Jimmy. Pertinent, well-written and on-topic. And I learnt a thing or two as well. Tapadh leat.

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