Free software has rich deployability

The other day I was installing a server operating system at a small organisation. After waiting till all staffers had gone home so that I could safely take over the network, I sat down to business.

The organisation had limited needs (basically they wanted a file server) and had bought Microsoft Server 2003 on advice of the sysadmin of a subsidiary. While I was waiting, and while screen after screen told me what a fantastic time I was having (I was glad at least somebody thought so), I realized that the great thing about Free Software is not its adaptability, nor its interoperability, nor its robustness, nor even its price, but the fact that I can download it and install it without tons of copyright lawyers breathing down my neck.

You see, the hardest thing by far I encountered during my installfest was the licensing policy of Microsoft. And I am sure Microsoft’s lawyers aren’t even the worst, because at some level the giant from Redmond tries to look out for its customers. But I know the GNU General Public License (GPL, the license behind Free Software). I have released patches under the GPL myself. I know which freedoms it returns to the user, and which it keeps reserved to the author. With that, all my remaining problems are of a technical nature, and these can be overcome by many.

But I am not a copyright lawyer. Microsoft Server 2003 offers you a choice of two or four licenses (it wasn’t really clear, and they took some time explaining that they had actually changed the licenses, which only confused matters), but none of them let you do very much. Or perhaps they do, but that was burried in all the legalese. I don’t think I found out, and I “activated” just the one that seemed the most appropriate.

For an organisation using proprietary software, the first question is not “what will it let me do?”, but rather “when will I be breaking the law?”. And so I find myself often in a position that for a quick fix I will choose Free Software. It’s the less-hassle choice. Once I have worked out what exactly the consequences are of a proprietary license, I may decide to switch. Of course, if the Free Software is good enough, it is probably easier to convince whoever is in charge of software acquisition within the organisation that they should use the Free Software.

So there you have it. To me the great thing about Free Software is that you can deploy it right away. It is about freedom after all.

Reporting bugs to FOSS projects

Graphic designer Jimmac, whose work you may be familiar with if you use GNOME or the GIMP (amongst others), juxtaposes two approaches to reporting bugs or feature requests: “This blurb has been inspired by a badly formulated feature request on the GIMP mailing list. Quite a contrast to a recent mail to the Inkscape mailing list which has been promptly implemented.

I am not sure I agree with his conclusion, which seems to be that the reporter needs to do as much work as possible before approaching the poor, overworked developers. For one thing, not every patch gets accepted. For another, sometimes it can be useful to knock an idea about with a couple of like-minded people (not necessarily the developers) before hashing it out.

Unfortunately, the tools with which developers are interacting with users (if I may suggest that a developer/user distinction exists) are often inadequate. The GIMP uses Bugzilla for reporting bugs. Bugzilla is a great tool: I couldn’t imagine life without it. But on the same hand, it has got a far way to go.

Some of the problems with Bugzilla (or at least the version the GIMP used when I last filled out a bug report):

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French night at the Winston

One-hit wonder (?) Jacqueline Taïeb, of «7 heures du matin» (1966) fame (indeed: the one hit) is going to perform at the Winston Hotel on April 16. My friend Natasha will co-host the evening and spin a few discs. This is part of the Amsterdam Beat Club; entrance fee 10 bucks.

Kinkade mash-ups at Something Awful

[ParnKing\'s Kinkade mash-up for Something Awful]
Something Awful has a nice selection of Thomas Kinkade mash-ups. This one by ParnKing. Via BoingBoing.

E-mail usability

There’s a discussion at Slashdot about e-mail usability. Actually, it is an Ask Slashdot thread, with a sysadmin wanting to know how to force users into responsible e-mail management; which to many means saving messages to a place where the client will not get at them automatically, and throwing messages away that you do not think are important enough to keep.

Both methods are so that your .pst file will remain manageably small, which apparently is nice for sysadmins. I know from experience that Outlook tends to have problems with large .pst files, so apparently this sort of management would be beneficial to users too.

There is a school of thought in interface design that says that whatever users come up with themselves is good, and I think this holds true for e-mail.

For instance, my experience is that users typically subdivide their Inbox into several layers of mailboxes, and transfer messages there accordingly. In other words, they manage their Inbox. Also, users use the search function of their e-mail clients. These are good things that do not transfer readily to other methods of managing e-mail. What’s more, throwing messages away, or stashing them in “archives” that the client will not access when the user is searching or browsing e-mail, breaks the user experience of being able to access everything they ever wrote or read using that particular persona.

Of course, from a system administrator’s point of view, e-mail clients could be much and much better. Backing up and restoring e-mail is currently far too error prone. But there is no reason to punish users for using a perfectly usable tool.

Spam filter wanted

Some moron is posting large quantities of spam to this blog. There are methods to make him stop getting through, but I would like to employ one that also penalizes him. Ideas? Suggestions?

Myself, I was thinking of a plug-in that will keep the HTTP dialogue open, so that the spammer has to spend valuable time waiting for my response. And since my response will never come, it doesn’t cost my server anything. (Of course, this presupposes that I am 100% sure that the inbound message is spam, but in this particular case I am.)