Your editor, ancient relic that he is, first discovered the wonders of
global email around 1981, thanks to a BSD-running VAX with a blazingly fast
1200-baud uucp connection. A USENET addiction was quick to follow; on the
net, it was possible to converse with a few thousand people on literally
of computers! It was an eye-opening introduction to what a
global conversation could be like, both good and bad; hopefully some of
those ill-advised, youthful conversations on net.singles and net.politics
are lost forever.
As it happens, your editor was late to the party, and the old-timers were
busily worrying about how the whole thing was going to collapse under the
load of all these new, clueless users. USENET proved to be resilient,
however, to the point that the "death of the net" idea became a sort of
running joke. It survived its rapid growth, thanks to faster modems,
better software (including a thing called "rn" posted by a young Larry
Wall), and user education. USENET survived the loss of the central
"seismo" hub, in the process (as seismo's connections were shifted over to
a new host called "uunet") kicking off the commercial ISP industry. It
survived the abrupt arrival of AOL, initially connected via a uucp link of
its own (here's a classic
posting on how the AOL folks were perceived at that time). It even
survived the beginning of the spam onslaught - the famous "green card spam"
was carried via USENET, not email.
USENET was a useful medium for a long time. Among other things, much of
the very early Linux development conversation happened over USENET; your
editor decided to go for Linux after noting that the relevant groups had
much more going on than the BSD groups. When LWN was first launched, the
announcement went to comp.os.linux.announce - the news source for
Linux users at that time. Many years earlier, Richard Stallman's first GNU
Manifesto posting happened on USENET. The next time you complain about
your distributor's repository, think back to the joy of receiving GNU emacs
over USENET - as a large number of 50KB chunks which you got to piece back
The legacy of USENET also surrounds us in other forms. Many of the
features in your fancy mail client which allow you to deal with your
incoming flood were first worked out for netnews reading. News clients
still have their uses; your editor would have a hard time keeping up with
so many lists if it weren't for the highly useful, NNTP-based Gmane repository.
The Globe and Mail has recently declared
the death of USENET, as a result of Rogers Communications deciding to
stop providing netnews access to its customers. Others might have noted the
death of USENET earlier this year, when AOL disconnected its customers.
But the fact of the matter is that USENET has been dead as a medium for
useful conversations for some years now. It is too open, too easy to flood
with spam, too easy to forge control messages for. The signal-to-noise
ratio of USENET - often not all that high to begin with - sunk to a point
that most people had no remaining desire to deal with it.
So it is not surprising that the commercial service providers are pulling
the plug on USENET. A news feed requires significant bandwidth, and its
contents seem to be mostly spam and porn. Few customers care anymore.
There are much better alternatives out there now; the global conversation
has moved on to different forums. USENET is dead, and, at this point, few
of us miss it. But USENET played an important role in the history of the
net as a whole. Those of you who were there: raise a glass to the memory
of USENET at your next opportunity.
Comments (48 posted)
It is almost ten years to the day that Bill Gates made his "Pearl Harbor"
speech, which placed the Internet at the heart of everything Microsoft did.
The recent announcements
may not be quite so epoch making, but it nonetheless represents a
major change of direction for Microsoft, and has interesting implications
for free software.
The parallels between Microsoft's two strategy shifts are striking.
Both were triggered in part by spectacular IPOs: Netscape's in 1995,
Google's in 2004. Both sought to head off the same threat of
OS-independent computing. Back in 1995, Gates was worried that
Netscape's software might create a "Webtop" platform, where Java
applets would be downloaded over the Internet into the browser to
provide word processors, spreadsheets and the rest. In 2005, another
Net-based approach software services of the kind popularized by
Google not only allows the browser to provide those same functions,
but comes with a flourishing ad-based revenue model to sustain it.
Gates's response is also similar in both cases: to embrace the basic idea so as to
reduce the appeal of rival offerings, and then, ultimately, to use it
to tie users more closely to his products. The success of that
technique can be seen in the dominance of Internet Explorer, which not
only replaced Netscape
Navigator as the most popular browser, but managed to subvert Web
standards to such an extent that
Navigator was ultimately perceived as inferior since it was unable to
work with the huge number of IE-specific sites.
One lesson to be learned from this history is that Microsoft should never be
underestimated, even perhaps especially - when it seems to be
wrong-footed and forced to adopt technologies that apparently threaten
its empire. Fear has always given the company focus. The new Windows
Live system may look innocuous and even
conciliatory it can not only be accessed from GNU/Linux machines,
but also explicitly
Firefox - but the back-end hooks into Microsoft's products
are likely to be deep.
The second and probably more important lesson to be drawn is that the much
Google Office service if and when it does come is not going to be
the Microsoft Office killer that many seem to imagine. Whatever Google or
anyone else might do in this sphere, Microsoft can simply match it, at
least in terms of functionality.
But one thing that Microsoft is unlikely to offer is support for truly open
file formats, its recent announcement
of the "open standardization" of Office formats notwithstanding. The
technical and legal details of this will need to be examined closely to see
whether it is yet another case of Microsoft apparently promising much, but
in reality delivering considerably less. After all, if it did support a
completely open file format, the barrier to switching to other office
suites would disappear.
Until the approval
of the new OpenDocument Format (ODF) standard by OASIS, there were many
alternatives to Microsoft's office file formats, but none around which
other manufacturers or major users could rally. With ODF, there is now not
only an official standard, but a real
choice of software that supports (or will support) it.
The key role that ODF will play in tomorrow's battles between open and
proprietary approaches is already evident in the furore surrounding the
Commonwealth of Massachusetts's decision
to adopt ODF as an official file format. The rather forced logic of Microsoft's
comments on this move is an indication of the company's
difficulties in neutralizing this threat. Moreover, Massachusetts may turn
out to be no simple loss of business, but a tipping point that could lead
to large-scale defections from Microsoft's proprietary formats to open
standards. Anyone who doubts that such a shift is possible should bear in
mind that WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 once dominated their respective
sectors as totally as the programs that displaced them - Microsoft Word and
Excel - do now.
An even more serious blow to Microsoft's grip on the office market
could come from Europe. The European Union (EU) is keen to promote
what it calls open document
exchange formats. One of its
technical subcommittees approved a series
of recommendations that effectively
back ODF provided it becomes a recognized standard. Bizarrely,
OASIS does not count as a standards body in this context, and so ODF has
been submitted to
the better-known International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ODF
could emerge as
an ISO standard sometime next year. At that point, the EU may well
throw its considerable weight behind ODF by specifying it as the
preferred format for public sector communications in Europe.
Microsoft is acutely aware of this threat: it is no coincidence that
it announced the standardization of its Office formats in Paris, not
Private sector support is gathering momentum, too. The original donor of
the OpenOffice.org code, Sun, has naturally adopted ODF in its StarOffice
8.0, and also offers
a grid-based service for bulk conversion of Microsoft Office documents
into ODF files. Another major player in this area is IBM, which uses
OpenOffice.org formats for its groupware product Workplace,
likely to be the successor to Lotus Notes.
The strength of both of these companies' commitment is shown by the fact
that, despite their other differences, Sun and IBM jointly
hosted an ODF summit at the beginning of November; those attending
included Google, Nokia, Novell, Oracle and Red Hat. One of the items
discussed was the creation of a formal ODF Foundation to promote the
standard. An Open Document
Fellowship bringing together individuals interested in the development
of ODF (including the present writer) already exists.
ODF is fast emerging as one of the most important recent developments
in the software world had it not existed, Microsoft would surely
never have embarked on its "open standardization" process. In time,
its appearance in May this year might even turn out to be as pivotal
as Bill Gates' Pearl Harbor Day speech. At the very least, it
represents a rich new vein that can be mined by open source
programmers keen to make their mark. As a young standard, there are
still gaps in its software support. Items on the wish list include:
- A plug-in that would allow Microsoft Office users to read and write
ODF files (a server-based
approach is already under development).
- Improved accessibility for disabled users (one of the issues that is
threatening to derail the Massachusetts decision).
- A simple ODF reader,
along the lines of Adobe's Acrobat, that would enable users to read
ODF documents without installing an entire office suite.
- A lightweight
ODF editor even smaller than Abiword, say that would allow
simple changes to ODF text files.
- A Wiki-like collaborative editing system based around ODF Work on OpenFormula, which
complements and extends ODF
In the browser wars of the late 1990s, Bill Gates was able to wrest
control of the web from Netscape because of the latter's short-sighted
attempts to beat Microsoft at its own game notably by adding
proprietary twists to HTML. Today, as Microsoft re-invents
itself in the image of Web
2.0, the situation is rather different. The importance and power of
open standards is more evident, and the free software community is no
longer a small and apparently marginal group but, instead, the most important
counterpoise to Microsoft, well placed to resist any moves to
"de-commoditize" key technologies like Ajax.
And this time, there is a chance to go on the offensive. The open
source world has long had the desire to end Microsoft's dominance on
the desktop; with ODF not GNU/Linux, as many have believed it may
finally have the means.
(Glyn Moody is author of Rebel Code: Linux and the open source
Comments (17 posted)
One might think that the SonyBMG rootkit story would start to fade away,
but that is not, yet, the case. Here's an update on the last week's
Those of you who have not yet read Bruce
Schneier's Wired article on this episode may want to give it a look.
He points out that one might have reasonably expected all of those security
and anti-virus companies to say something about SonyBMG's software, given
that it has been in circulation for over a year, has arguably infected
hundreds of thousands of computers, and even phones home. Most of these
companies have yet to explain why they missed such an obvious security
compromise for so long.
Meanwhile, the EFF has launched a
class-action suit against SonyBMG. As Ed Felten points out,
the EFF is taking an interesting approach by putting the spotlight on
SonyBMG's other DRM software: Sunncomm's MediaMax. MediaMax lacks some of
the rootkit features found in XCP, but it is still highly unpleasant
software which, among other things, phones home.
Worse yet, one component of MediaMax, a system service called
sbcphid, is loaded into memory and ready to run at all times, even
when there is no disc in the CD drive and no music is being
played. And it runs as a kernel process, meaning that it has access
to all aspects of the system. This is another component that can
only add to security risk; and again the user has no choice.
Widening the focus to other invasive DRM software is an important step to
take if we want to win the larger battle, rather than just punishing
SonyBMG for the XCP episode.
The state of Texas has also filed
suit, charging SonyBMG with violations of the Texas anti-spyware act.
What is perhaps most interesting - and hopeful - about this incident is how
it has expanded the debate on DRM schemes. A quick news search shows just
how widely the mainstream, non-technical press has covered this story.
CERT has highlighted it for its November 15
Current Activity Report, offering some valuable advice: "Use
caution when installing software. Do not install software from sources that
you do not expect to contain software, such as an audio CD." Even
the Gartner Group has chimed in,
pointing out that the software is easily circumvented, and suggesting that
the music industry is now likely to push (even more) for legislation
requiring that DRM features be incorporated into computer products.
A legislative attack seems like a fairly safe prediction - such attacks
have been ongoing for some time, after all. But the climate, which was not
entirely favorable to legally-mandated DRM even before, has become
harsher. SonyBMG's nasty DRM code has not impeded file sharers or
commercial "pirates" in any way - it was, instead, an attack on the people
who chose to actually buy the CD for themselves. DRM schemes are an attack
on paying customers, and those customers are now figuring that out. More
encouragingly, there are occasional
signs that the industry is getting a clue as well.
Even more to the point, though, is that the SonyBMG rootkit has raised the
question of whether we have the right to control our own computers. The
nearly unanimous answer is that, yes, we have that right, and the
entertainment industry cannot take that right away from us in the name of
stopping copyright infringement - or, in the case of SonyBMG's software,
simply keeping their customers from putting music onto their iPods. Your
editor once heard Jim Gettys say, at some conference or other, that the DRM
fight would be like the encryption battle: we would win, but there would be
a decade or two of pain to endure first. SonyBMG, by making the issue so
incredibly clear, may have done us the favor of shorting out several of
those years of pain. Looking back some years from now, we might just find
ourselves thanking them.
Comments (9 posted)
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