SkypeKit Hypocrisy

Skype finally announced it’s much-anticipated new project, SkypeKit. It’s a new SDK that basically separates the Skype user interface from their underlying proprietary protocol used to make and receive voice and video calls. I was generally thinking this would be good news since it will allow Skype to be incorporated into other programs like the multi-protocol IM apps Pidgin, Empathy, and Adium. However, I was disappointed and somewhat appalled to read the following in their announcement:

Is SkypeKit ‘open’? What will you restrict?

The topic of openness is often debated and its definition can mean different things to different people. For starters, we believe in an open Internet and open standards. We are adopting an open approach meaning we are releasing APIs and enabling others to use SkypeKit and apply it in new ways. But, SkypeKit won’t be opened up to every single use case that developers dream up. For example, our license terms prohibit using SkypeKit for gambling or adult-themed applications.

This infuriated me. Where do I start with it? The first sentence is absolutely true. However, it’s completely irrelevant to the proprietary Skype universe. They’re hinting that SkypeKit somehow fits under one of those definitions. It doesn’t. The second sentence may also be true. They just happen to not practice what they believe in because their protocol and codecs, although free, are definitely not “open.” The third sentence is an oxymoron. Since when does “an open approach” mean “letting other people plug into your software?” That’s actually offensive to me. The fourth sentence further highlights the oxymoron of the previous sentence. The fifth sentence is a hyperbole used to make readers think that SkypeKit will only disallow spammers or societal deviants from using their service. Of course, who they actually disallow will be at their discretion.

As a Skype user and a little bit of a fan, I have to say that I’m quite appalled by the SkypeKit announcement. I can overlook the closed-source, proprietary nature of Skype because it works well for me but only if they’re honest about it. If they continue to hawk their service like it’s FOSS (in any way), I probably won’t be interested in continuing my business with them.

So, let me summerize SkypeKit for you. They separate their underlying service/protocol from the outer user interface. This allows Skype to work on more devices easily (including computer applications, televisions, phones, media centers, etc.), where the user interfaces are always different. This will allow Skype to become integrated into, for example, Pidgin/Adium, AIM, Google Chat, Google Chrome OS, and your TV. Skype acts like they’re doing you a favor by allowing their service to run on it. (Maybe they are?). But Skype also charges developers fees if they want to incorporate Skype’s protocol into one of their projects. Gee, so now they’re not free (as in gratis), free (as in libre), or open. Why couldn’t they just answer “no” and be honest with everyone? They could’ve saved face in my book.

Show your support

Advertising is a huge business on the Internet. Actually, advertising is huge just about everywhere.

Some readers get annoyed by bloggers who use referral links in posts to promote products that will ultimately make them money. They feel like the Internet should be free of ads, and in some ways they’re justified. Occasionally, bloggers use these posts purely to generate money for their site (i.e. the post is simply a commercial), but others are just interested in telling their readers about a new product that they’ve discovered. And there’s a difference between promoting products that you use and love and just being a shill. In the same way, from a potential buyer’s perspective there’s a difference between watching a commercial or listening to a sales pitch telling you that Chevy makes the best cars and having your friend who’s a mechanic tell you how reliable Chevy’s are.

A lot of people (myself included) get annoyed by the amount of advertising on the Internet. It’s easy to become dismissive of the pop-up flashing pictures and AdWords, but I think there’s something to be said for people and sites that provide a service or take the time to tell you about a product that they use and enjoy. For example, last year I had never heard of the group Vampire Weekend, but I discovered their newest album on The Hype Machine Zeitgeist 2008 and really liked it. When I decided to buy the album, I made sure to click the referral link from The Hype Machine website to Amazon MP3 so that they’d get credit for my purchase because, in all honesty, they deserved it. We (as Internet consumers) need to embrace this and actually promote effective advertising. If a person, blog, or website grabs your interest enough for you to purchase something and they offer a referral link, give them credit and help them make a little bit of cash. It encourages them to keep doing what they’re doing and it usually doesn’t take any charity on your part.

If enough people take the time to encourage those who are advertising effectively (and unobtrusively), it will send a message to the industry that quality is at least as important as quantity in advertising.

I also feel compelled to promote less tangible goods. I use a lot of free software every day. It’s easy to forget that most Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) developers are working in their free time, which could easily be spent with their friends and families. Many such developers accept Paypal donations or offer an Amazon wishlist for people to donate from. A number of bigger software projects also sell merchandise that helps make them money. If you (consciously or unconsciously) have trouble convincing yourself to donate money, this is a great alternative that allows you to get something in return. I encourage people to buy these things for me as gifts, and I buy some myself. So far I’ve got 2 Firefox shirts and 2 xkcd shirts. I’ve got a list of quite a few other projects that I plan to support by purchasing merchandise in the future.

Advertising is a huge business on the Internet. Make sure to remember that you, the consumer, have the power to reinforce effective advertising and to support people who make your life better without providing a tangible product. If you provide useful information or reviews on your website, it might be a good idea for you to provide referral links that can actually get you something in return for your work. And before you buy your next purchase online, stop and consider who or what influenced your purchase. Is there any way for you to give them credit for it? If we could all capitalize on this word-of-mouth advertising, it would (hopefully) decrease the amount of in-your-face advertising that plagues us all.

Side note: Don’t get the wrong idea. This post is in no way implying anything about my wanting to make money from this blog or for projects that I support. It’s just a statement on advertising in general.

Congrats, Theora

Xiph.Org announced the release of the Theora 1.0 video codec yesterday. A video “codec” is a program that allows you to play a particular type of video file on your computer. Theora is significant because it is free and unencumbered by patents, which would require developers to pay patent owners large sums of money in order to develop a program that will play their video type. This is in stark contrast to the patent-encumbered MPEG video codecs, which underly many video (and audio) files that you’re probably familiar with. For this reason, Theora playback will appear out-of-the-box with future releases of the Firefox and Opera web browsers.

Comment of the Day

A comment on Mark Pilgrim‘s Hello Darkness My Old Friend:

“No one cares about freedoms for the same reason that no one cares about oxygen. As long as they’re there, why bother? Freedom zero is so abstract to most people that no one even thinks about it, let alone care. It’s like the string theory. It’s only when things are taken away that there’s reason to get upset.” –Jesper

For those who are unfamiliar, Freedom 0 is one of four freedoms listed in the Free Software Definition:

“The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.”

Selling free software

I think one of the best examples of how free software can work great (and be even be sold) is Dell’s adoption of Ubuntu. They can take free software (Ubuntu) and custom-tailor it to work on their specific laptops and desktops. They can even custom-compile their own Linux kernels that they don’t contain extemporaneous junk for hardware not in their computers. This could make an overall fast and efficient machine! Their software has to remain free, so people can examine it and suggest ways to improve Dell’s flavor of Ubuntu, tell Dell about something that’s in Ubuntu that’s they’d like to see automatically included in the Dell release (like DVD support), and they can even submit patches to Dell if they know how to code. Plus, if Dell finds a problem and figures out how to solve it, the fix can be pulled back upstream to the regular Ubuntu release. Even more importantly, a user can decide to take Dell’s flavor of Ubuntu and make their own version of it (if Dell does something poorly that they won’t fix it, for example). Not to mention, Dell is a big company. If they’re having problems getting hardware that will work under Ubuntu, there’s going to be more pressure for hardware vendors to support their products freely.

Some people are attracted to Ubuntu and other Linux distributions because many of them don’t cost anything. Thus, a computer can be $100 cheaper to buy because Dell doesn’t have to charge you the $100 for a Microsoft Windows license. What I’d like to see is for Dell to actually charge a little bit of money for Ubuntu. Not $100, mind you, but how about $20-30? I don’t want Dell keeping the profits from this though. Rather, I’d like to see them make some major contributions to the FSF and the Ubuntu project. Or they could make the $20-30 donation optional. The FSF even encourages the selling of free software. This will help foster growth of their system, and it’s a solid investment on their behalf. Plus, I don’t think many users would complain about being charged a nominal fee as long as they know it’s to help support the growth of their new operating system.

Free to apply

I need to renew my FAFSA for next year so that I am eligible for federal loans for school. I attempted to log in to the FAFSA website to do this, and I was greeted with the following message: “We have detected that you are using a non-certified browser.”

They proceeded to give me a long list of browsers they do support, including Internet Explorer, Netscape, and Mozilla Firefox (my browser). What’s the problem then? Oh, they only support Firefox on Microsoft and Macintosh operating systems. What the hell?! What kind of age are we living in that websites are still placing these kinds of silly browser restrictions on its users, especially a government one? I proceeded to send their Customer Support folks a nice message:

I really feel that it is unacceptable that the FAFSA website only supports browsers in proprietary operating systems (Microsoft and Macintosh). You choose to support Firefox on Mac and Windows, so why not in GNU/Linux? I think as a government website, you should allow users to choose free software if they want to and not lock them into proprietary systems that cost hundreds of dollars. See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html.

Now that I re-read this, I feel like I focused too much on cost, although this is a concern for some using free software. It inherently seems un-American to restrict the public’s freedoms in such a way. In fact, it even seems against the philosophy of FAFSA. After all, how can it be a “Free” Application for Federal Student Aid, in any sense of the word “free,” if you’re required to purchase a proprietary operating system to use it?

Fortunately, their contact form did not have browser restrictions. If you’re offended by this, feel free to let them know.

BuddyPress frees social networking

I’m a big fan of WordPress. It runs this blog, millions of other private blogs, and hundreds of thousands of blogs at WordPress.com. It’s a great architecture for developing online tools and the community is one of the best around. Matt Mullenweg (lead developer of WordPress and founder of Automattic) announced today that Automattic has taken BuddyPress under its giant wing today to nurture the project into full bloom. BuddyPress is a social network based on WPMU, the framework behind WordPress.com. It will be a social network that will connect me right where I am (this blog). And it will be FOSS that anyone can use, improve, and even create plug-ins for.

The important part of this is something I’ve felt for a long time. No offense to users of Facebook, MySpace or what-have-you, but I think this quote sums it up very nicely:

I am tired of data silos. I am tired of trying to keep up with every new site that comes along. I am tired of someone else owning my place on the internet. This is my place. This blog is me. Anyone who reads this I am sure will think I am strange that I mix my personal thoughts in with my programming frustrations. I don’t care. I write this for me because I own these bits and by hell they will do my bidding. –Justin Ball

I also enjoyed this Q & A on Techcrunch:

I asked Mullenweg if the world really needs another social network. His response:

The world doesn’t need another social network, it needs a thousand networks that let you own your data and interconnect using open standards. We invest countless hours giving our data to networks like MySpace, essentially sharecropping on their land for the privilege of being able to connect to our friends. It’s our friends, our time, our connections, our data — it should be our software.

I think only an Open Source solution can do that.

I can’t wait to see how this shapes up over the course of the next few weeks/months/years.

A Little Explanation

Well considering the amount of talking I’ve done about “free software” and “GNU/Linux” over the past few weeks, it’s about time I explain myself. During the past 6 months or so, I’ve learned a lot about a little thing called free software. I’d like to take a few minutes and explain what free software is and why I find it so exciting. I will try to do this in “laymen’s terms” so that everyone can follow me, if they want to. [UPDATE: This post got a little lengthy. If you’d like to just skip to the final thoughts, click here.]

Free software is all over the place, and you probably use it (at least in a sense) every single day. Most web servers are run on GNU/Linux, so almost every web page you view is displayed by free software. This blog is powered by WordPress, which is free software, and being free software is what has made WordPress the most powerful and widespread blogging platform in the world. It’s so good that proprietary software can’t even come close to competing anymore. But what is free software?

In 1983 (n.b. the year I was born), a man named Richard Stallman became fed up with his situation. Back then, computers were mainly only found at universities and large companies and the main operating system (MS Windows is an operating system) that computers ran on was called Unix. Unix was a proprietary operating system (created by AT&T employees), meaning that AT&T owned the computer code that made up Unix. Other computer programmers were not able to edit this code or change anything about the way Unix worked. If you didn’t like the way Unix did something, tough cookies. This is very similar to the way Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X work today.

Stallman, then a programmer for the MIT AI Lab, decided he didn’t like this way of doing business. For him, computer software was just a way to make a computer do what he wanted it to. But what if you didn’t like Unix or if a Unix (or one of it’s programs) didn’t work the way you thought it should? You should be able to change that program and “fix” it to suit your needs. Since Unix was proprietary, Stallman couldn’t “fix” it or change it at all without infringing on copyrights and patents.

Rather than face prison, Stallman decided to write his own operating system. It would be just like Unix in many ways, except not Unix. He quit his job at MIT (to keep them from claiming any right to what he was going to write) and founded a project called GNU (say guh-NEW) in 1983. GNU was to be an operating system, just like Unix, except that all of it’s code would be open and free to anyone who wanted to examine it. Futhermore, if you wanted to change it to fit your needs, go right ahead! Thus the concept of free software was born. With it was born the Free Software Foundation (FSF)

When you hear the term “free software”, Stallman warns that you need to think of “free” as in “free speech” (liberty) and not as in “free beer” (no cost). This becomes a confusing definition, since many free software projects are also available at no cost. He states that in order for software to be completely free, it must comply with 4 rules. 1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose. 2. The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs. 3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor. 4. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

Thus, you should be free to redistribute copies, either with or without modifications, either gratis or charging a fee for distribution, to anyone anywhere. Being free to do these things means (among other things) that you do not have to ask or pay for permission. You should also have the freedom to make modifications and use them privately in your own work or play, without even mentioning that they exist. If you do publish your changes, you should not be required to notify anyone in particular, or in any particular way. –GNU.org

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Who cares? I’m not a programmer”. Fair enough. Most end users do not have the knowledge or desire to modify a program (but for anyone who does, this is a major issue). But even end users have two very good reasons to want free software. First and foremost it gives you permission to use it. You can install it on your computer, everyone in your family’s computers, and your friend’s computers. You never have to ask anyone for permission to use it, and you can use it for whatever purpose you want. If I were to “buy” a song on iTunes, the program limits how much I am able to use it: “iTunes DRM-protected music includes audio with a bit rate of 128 kbps and allows users to transfer songs and videos to up to five computers, burn seven copies of the same playlist to CD, and sync to an unlimited number of iPods.” (Apple). The craziest part of that is that I can only burn 7 copies of the same playlist to a CD. With how easily cd’s get scratched, broken, or lost, are you kidding me iTunes?!

The second freedom available to end users is the ability to invoke change. Just because you do not know how to program or how to change something about a program, does not mean you shouldn’t be able to. There are plenty of freelance computer programmers out there. If you’d like a program to be able to do something new or change the way it works, you can always pay a programmer to change it. If you’d like to share your changes with the community, you may find you have a following, and your changes could make it in to the next version. If others do the same, you’ve got a lot of new features! Additionally, free software projects tend to have a strong programmer backing. This means that merely requesting a useful feature can often get it incorporated into a future release, assuming the author(s) think it’s a good idea. But again, you always have the choice to make changes yourself (or through a surrogate programmer).

Overall though, the point of the free software movement is that it’s a matter of principle. It’s a philosophy. The two most popular responses in defense of proprietary software are “I don’t have any problems with [software]” and “There’s no free software that does what [software] does (or it doesn’t do as good of a job).” The fact of the matter is that no matter how “good” a piece of non-free software is, it is inherently flawed by being non-free. It is the free software philosophy that “[software] might be great, but it restricts my freedoms. As such, I’m choosing not to use it, and/or I will wait until a free version is available.” This can be a hard dish to swallow for most people (including me). This attitude can be especially difficult when the software you’re talking about is used for something like work or school. I think the point (at least for me) is that a concerted effort must be made to choose free software when at all possible. This might mean making a few sacrifices, but understand that it comes with many more advantages.

I know a lot of you reading this (if you’re even still reading it) are still not too concerned with your software freedom. The main purpose of this article was just to let you know that free software exists and what it is. I don’t hope to necessarily persuade you to use free software, but rather to make your decision to use proprietary software a conscious one. To illustrate my point, take this crude example. A slave’s life is easier than a free man’s in some respects. After all, one could argue that being told when to work, rest, bathe, and eat would be simpler than having to keep track of everything for yourself. But alas, not too many people volunteer to be slaves or to go to prison. My point is that freedom is something you have to want and more importantly something you have to fight to preserve every day because it’s always going to be easier for someone to rule you. And they’ll always be willing to do it, especially if you’re going to pay them for it.

I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death! –Patrick Henry to the Virginia House of Burgesses (1775)

Thanks for reading!