Songbird 1.0

Came home after a long day, checked my mail and was delighted to find that Songbird 1.0 had shipped. I’d been waiting for it for a while. You may remember I’d blogged about it two years ago. In between I’d been following the blog, checked out some intermediate versions but felt I could wait.

So today I read the notes and the licences, downloaded it and played around with it. And you know something? It was worth the wait.

  • An opensource music player.
  • Platform agnostic: Linux, Mac, Windows.
  • Format agnostic: MP3, FLAC, Vorbis on all; WMA, WMA DRM on Windows; AAC, Fairplay on Windows, Mac.
  • Integrated web browser
  • Scrobbles from
  • Provides a decent mashup of band/artist details
  • Community-based extensions and ecosystem
  • Good bunch of add-ons already, covering lyrics and album art amongst others
  • Tagging/folksonomy support

The device support, while rudimentary, looks promising. There’s no CD rip service as yet, and video is still some way off. I’ve taken a quick look at the licensing, and on the surface there doesn’t seem to be anything objectionable. Installation was a doddle. Importing music was even more of a doddle.

It’s still early days yet, but on the face of it, this is typically the kind of start I would want to see from an opensource music player, particularly one that is destined to evolve with and around community contribution and ecosystem development.

If there was one thing I would want quickly, it would be a variant of TwittyTunes. Explicitly for Songbird.


Christmas comes early

I was delighted to learn that Processing 1.0 shipped last night. What is it? To quote from their web site:

Processing is an open source programming language and environment for people who want to program images, animation, and interactions. It is used by students, artists, designers, researchers, and hobbyists for learning, prototyping, and production. It is created to teach fundamentals of computer programming within a visual context and to serve as a software sketchbook and professional production tool. Processing is an alternative to proprietary software tools in the same domain.

Processing is free to download and available for GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. Please help to release the next version!

Processing is an open project initiated by Ben Fry and Casey Reas. It evolved from ideas explored in the Aesthetics and Computation Group at the MIT Media Lab.

I first came across Processing about a year ago, and was quite excited about it given the price points of the software it was displacing. We need more tools like this, tools solving generic problems efficiently, elegantly and effortlessly. The only way we’re going to have more tools like this is if we as a community adopt them, adapt them, support them, enrich them. To get an idea of what can be done with Processing, take a look here:

Radiohead and REM have used Processing to create some of the animation they’ve used in their videos; mags like SEED and Nature have used the suite to create info graphics; Nike and Budweiser commercials have featured Processing output; hundreds of schools across the US use the software in a variety of ways. So go ahead, have some fun with it, learn to use it, contribute to it.

I’m looking forward to playing with the tools over the Christmas break, there is so much I can learn from this.

And, keeping the Christmas theme intact, here’s a still from Galactic Christmas:

Government use of opensource: an example

Triggered by a tweet from Robert Brook (someone I follow on Twitter), I went and visited the online Hansard for the first time today. And this is what I saw:

OpenSolaris. MySQL. Apache. Mongrel. Ruby on Rails. Subversion. Lucene. Solr. How refreshing to see our UK “tax dollars” at work this way.

Governments and public sector organisations in the free world already have many laws about the process and transparency of public purse procurement. Which is why I’m surprised not to have seen mandates about the use of opensource.

Estimating value of opensource

I came across this Linux Foundation press release via the 451 CAOS Theory blog. Headlined Estimating the Total Development Cost of a Linux Distribution, I had no choice but to read it. And it makes interesting reading.

I gave the report a quick once-over; initial reactions were not good, I was up in arms about a number of things, three in particular. For one thing, the report relies on replacement cost as a basis for valuation; even if I were comfortable with the way that the replacement costs were calculated, I would always less comfortable with the replacement-costs-alone approach to valuation. A second issue, openly admitted to in the report, is to do with the use of  Source Lines of Code (SLOC), and the quantity-not-quality risk that comes with it. And the third issue, also alluded to in the report, is the use of COCOMO (COnstructive COst MOdelling) in an opensource context, coming as it does from strong proprietary tools.

But I decided to set all these reactions aside, and sought to concentrate on what I could learn from the report. Three key things occurred to me:

1. We still haven’t really “got” the Because Effect. When someone says “The Linux operating system is the most popular open source operating system in computing today, representing a $25 billion ecosystem in 2008″, I start worrying. After all, Google alone is worth a tad more than $25 billion, even at today’s prices. When the someone in question is the Linux Foundation, I worry a little more. Google’s valuation is at least in part due to its operating costs being what they are, based on extensive use of opensource software.

2. We still haven’t really “got” global sourcing. Twenty years after the offshore industries began, we’re still using Western proxies for pricing labour, and wrap rates that appear to be based on traditional in-house approaches rather than partnered and offshored models.

3. We still haven’t really “got” the implications of community development. This, despite the work done by people like Eric von Hippel and Yochai Benkler, despite the prodigious outputs of many people in looking at, analysing, reporting on and summarising what’s happening in this field. Opensource is a well-established exemplar of community-based development, and we have to get our heads around the way this is valued, both in enterprises as well across the industry as a whole.

Maybe I shouldn’t have started those three points with “we”. Maybe it’s me. What is clear to me is that I need to learn a lot about estimation and valuing and costing and pricing in a global, community-based, commodity-enabled open platform world.

And studies like the one I just finished reading will help me get there, as I begin to see what works and what doesn’t, what is known, what answers aren’t forthcoming as yet. So thank you Linux Foundation, thank you Amanda McPherson, Brian Proffitt and Ron Hale-Evans. At the very least you’ve given me stuff to critique, stuff that I can point to and say “that works for me, that doesn’t work for me”. But in real fact you’ve given me a lot more, stuff to think about, stuff to work on.

So I will give the report another, slower read, and revert to the authors with comments and questions. Maybe you’d like to do the same.

Learning about why people don’t adopt opensource

I’ve been consistently intrigued by the reasons people give for not using opensource, and by the vehemence and passion generated by all concerned. [Don’t you find it amazing that from the very start, the word “opensource” has conjured up images of long-haired pinko lefty tree-huggers in tie/dye t-shirts with the compulsory cigarette-floating-in-coffee-cup? What a feat of marketing by incumbent vendors.]

Over the last decade or so, I’d formed my own opinions as to why people refused to adopt opensource, largely based on observing what I saw around me. Anecdote and hearsay, even if underpinned by experience, doth not a formal study make, but for what it’s worth, I’ll share them here.

People don’t use opensource for one (or more) of seven reasons:

  1. They hate the principle. Such people are uncomfortable with the concept of opensource, they tend to get hung up with the free-as-in-gratis rather than the free-as-in-freedom, and they feel that somehow the very nature of their existence gets undermined by the use of opensource. It’s unAmerican, it’s McCarthyist, it’s even (hush your mouth) Communist. And don’t you know it’s already illegal in Alaska? Where will the world go to if everyone started using free things? Opensource users are stealing from the mouths of people who work hard everywhere. The very idea! These people are hard to convince, but when convinced experience Road-To-Damascus moments. Work on them, it will pay off.
  2. They believe it’s insecure. [Again, a wonderful feat of marketing, excellent management of the metaphors and anchors and frames around opensource.] Quite a common response. Code that everyone can use, that anyone can change, that no one owns? Open to inspection by all? How on earth could that possibly be secure? It’s all a plot to bring down the capitalist world as we know knew it. Solvable by education.
  3. They’re out of their comfort zone. This tends to be the response of steady-state professionals in IT departments in many organisations. If it works, why try and fix it? Why force yourself to take responsibility for the integration, deployment and support of something, when you can pay someone else to take care of it all? They’re risk-averse and responsibility-shy; understandable, defensible, this can often be solved by education.
  4. They know a better way. These are people who point to the end-to-end control that Apple/Microsoft has, and how that gives people more choice and a better experience. [Yes, I’ve always wanted to drive my car on railtracks, ensure that the wheels fit precisely on the tracks, and go by car only to the places the railway takes me. ?!?] Solvable by education.
  5. They don’t know about it. These people have been cocooned away so effectively that they aren’t even aware of the options they have. Totalitarian rule. Most probably they aren’t allowed to go on to that dangerous place, the internet, where they might see strange places and maybe even catch exotic diseases. If they do have connectivity, it’s locked down to a small number of cleared sites. Mozilla is definitely not one of them, and even Sun is banned. Solvable by education.
  6. They can’t do what they want with it. To me, this is one of the most understandable objections. They use something that’s proprietary, they’ve built a whole pile of things around the proprietary thing, and now they can’t function without it. It’s hard to replicate elsewhere or using anything else. It’s not just the applications, you have to think about the processes, the training, everything. I almost buy this. Almost. But all you need to do is imagine you are in a merger or takeover, and all this changes. There is an imperative to move, and all the excuses disappear. So while I have sympathy for this view, I am aware of how fragile it really is. The best way to solve this one is to simulate a merger or takeover involving a firm that does not use what you’re using.
  7. The move represents serious operational risk. Puh-leese. Find the remaining deckchairs on the Titanic, and get them on it. They will happily move them around until iceberg time.

The out-of-comfort-zone concept is well described here, by chuqui, in a post written exactly two years ago. I guess for many of you all this is too anecdotal, too ephemeral. What you hanker after is facts. Good solid academic research on why people don’t use opensource.

This is your lucky day, because that’s precisely what this post is leading on to. There’s an intriguing article on the subject in the latest issue of First Monday, my favourite peer-reviewed webzine. Here it is:

Reasons for the non-adoption of in a data-intensive public administration

The study makes a number of general yet interesting points, amongst them:

  • the likelihood of pro-innovation bias in innovation studies
  • the fact that most studies focus on the adoption of innovation rather than reasons for not doing so
  • the understanding that non-adoption is not the mirror image of adoption.

The meat of the study is really worth getting into. The authors looked at a case study around the Belgian Federal Public Service Economy, a public unit that looked at OpenOffice but then decided to stay with Microsoft Office as their principal office toolset. Interestingly,

….the organisation opted for a hybrid approach, in which is installed on users’  workstations as a document convertor. This ensures that users can correctly open ODF documents on their workstations. is, however, not supported by the IT department.

So the “organisation” went for a solution that is, at least in part,  “not supported by the IT department”. The plot thickens.

It’s a very interesting case study. There were three key projects:

  • introduction of a target platform for business critical application development
  • selection of a platform for business intelligence
  • standardisation of software offering Office-style functionality

Everything was set up right for the decision to go opensource. The European Commission had mandated that an ISO standard had to be used for exchanging documents by September 2009, and Open Document Format (ODF) was the only approved ISO standard. Belgian public sector companies were under pressure to save costs, and this increased the bias towards OpenOffice. And the manager in charge was a known sympathiser.

Just in case this wasn’t enough, the FPS Justice and the Brussels Public Administration, two similar public sector organisations in Brussels, had just opted for OpenOffice.

So let me repeat. Public sector organisation. In Brussels, the heartland of European bureaucracy. Needing to reduce costs. Needing to move to ODF. Led by a sympathiser. Surrounded by OpenOffice adopters.

With me so far? I guess so. Until I tell you what they did. They went for Microsoft Office. With the ODF plugin developed by Sun.

As I said, interesting case study.

Three things stood out for me. One, the decision making process appeared flawed. Project 2, the decision to go for a specific business intelligence platform, was “guided by the fact that [the platform] offers powerful integration with Microsoft Office”. How could this decision be taken before the decision to choose between OpenOffice and Microsoft Office?

Two, the decision appeared to be driven by heavy users rather than the regular users. The heavy users were the ones who carried out serious data-intensive activities, and had built a plethora of tools using the development platform around Microsoft Office. These tools were hard to price in terms of migration costs, and there was a lot of fear and doubt related to conversion and compatibility in general.

Three, no detailed TCO analysis had been made. I quote:

It should be noted, however, that some factors obscured the actual level of [these] potential cost savings. First, some of the licences for Microsoft Office had already been purchased, and were considered to be sunk costs by the FPS Economy. Second, our informants indicated that the TCO for could not be estimated precisely, due to the uncertainty regarding the cost of the conversion of applications and macros. Hence, during the project, no detailed TCO analysis was made.

But you know what? All that pales into insignificance when you read the next line:

This is consistent with the results of previous studies that showed that organisations found it difficult to assess the TCO of, even after having performed the migration (COSPA, 2005; Drozdik, etal, 2005, Russo, et al, 2003; Ven, et al, 2007a, b; Wichmann, 2002)

Wow. People have carried out studies that prove that it is hard to work out the TCO for Hmmmm. Anyone have meaningful TCOs for the alternatives?