Friday, March 28, 2008

Vapourware

Vapourware is defined as "a software or hardware product which is announced by a developer well in advance of release, but which then fails to emerge, either with or without a protracted development cycle. The term implies unwarranted optimism, or sometimes even deception". In other words, software that promises users the sun, moon and stars, but never comes to fruition. Even if the software does make it into the light of day, it doesn't do most of what it was purported to.

Unfortunately, there are many examples of this in the world of software, and it is an oft-used tactic to keep users from switching to another available option. If you'll just please wait for the release of this wonderful new software, it will do everything the other brand does, and more! Our current offering doesn't provide this feature, but just wait until the next release, it will be better than sliced bread!

One fine example of vapourware can be taken from the world of open source. Specifically, the new and improved gaming console once conceived of as the Indrema gaming system. Here's where vapourware manifested itself in hardware. Indrema promised a whole new type of gaming console; one that is based on open standards; one that uses Linux as its base; one that would be capable of replacing your other consoles through emulation. In theory, it was an idea way ahead of its time. Just look at the proliferation of hacks to run Linux on virtually every gaming console available (the latest breakthrough being the hack to run Linux natively on the Wii). Sadly, the Indrema was too ambitious and lacked the funding to make good on its promises.

OpenOffice is another project that seems to uphold this vapourware tradition. From as early as 2003, users of OpenOffice were told import of WordPerfect documents would be available real soon now through libwpd. Sure, they have it, and it works fine for basic tables and text, but where do all the graphics disappear to, even in versions as recent as OpenOffice 2.3? Now, you could argue that at least the OpenOffice team has done their best at implementing what they can from the WordPerfect document schema, but full importing of archival WordPerfect documents is still a pipe dream.

Corel, for it's part, could have had a much greater impact on this situation, had it chosen to do so. Instead, we have the evaporated WordPerfect for Linux and CorelOS to look back at. CorelOS delivered on a lot of what was promised, and yet due to financial difficulties, and dubious associations with Microsoft, it was dropped (now in the incarnation of Xandros, the OS lives on). WordPerfect for Linux, on the other hand, was never what it could have been, and if it was promised to be a Linux-based equal to WordPerfect on any other platform, it very poorly missed the mark.

Not being the sort that likes to bash the efforts of any open source endeavour (because I really do think this method of development holds the key to future innovations and progress in computing), I feel the need to point out at least one of Microsoft's vapourware announcements. How about Bob, anyone? I'm sorry, I guess Bob was real – a real embarrassment for Microsoft, and now virtually buried down some deep, dank Internet hole. How about something recent? Vista, maybe? Yes, I think it's fair to point out that Vista has a great deal of vapour surrounding it.

Let's start with WinFS, which was promised to Microsoft users back in 2003. Microsoft has had users on the hook for a while with that one, hoping they would be able to organize and locate their files with such greater ease because of the improved file system. How about Aero, the new and improved Vista graphics interface, for Windows XP? They promised it. That seems to have only made it into premium editions of Vista. Did delivery deadlines and the inability to make it work with the underlying bulk of Windows proved too much for even Microsoft's vast resources to be able to save? How about hobbling Vista from the PC-to-PC synchronization feature that once was in the beta version of the program?

Too often, software makers put out promises of “the next best thing” being right around the corner. Many times, they don't deliver. Overall, openly developed software provides the best hope of actually providing what users want to see. If there is real demand for a feature, any interested party can fund development of that particular feature; or, in the case of a talented individual, they can simply do it themselves. Even if the original developer disappears off the development scene, the code can be recycled and made into whatever the end users need of it. With closed software, regardless of who develops it or what promises they've made, there is never end control on the part of the end user. What you get is what they provide.

Instead of putting off that buying decision the next time a future version of software is announced, why not have a look around and see if you can find similar features in an open source project, and support the development of something that fits your needs – and your budget – for now, and into the future.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

OLPC: Virus Free

I didn't intend for OLPC to become one of my favourite topics, I just happen to notice a lot going on about it in the press, and sadly a lot of it is just plain wrong.

Take, for example, a recent article by Sam Varghese, entitled "OLPC: one virus per child". I won't link to the article, because it is extremely misleading, in my opinion, and doesn't deserve the clicks. In short, the article surmises that because Microsoft is working hard to provide Windows XP for the XO Laptop and Nicholas Negroponte made a comment about reorganizing the One Laptop Per Child organization to be run "more like Microsoft", the XO Laptop is doomed to be a vessel for spreading computer viruses worldwide.

I fail to see how Mr Varghese links Microsoft providing XP for the XO Laptop and Negroponte's quote that the organization needs to be run "more like Microsoft". The one has nothing to do with the other, and he's clearly taken both out of context to support his inane argument.

Nowhere in the BusinessWeek article he uses as reference does Negoponte say the XO Laptop or the goals of providing that laptop need to change to suit Microsoft or any other proprietary operating system. What he does say is that the organization needs to function more like the most successful software company in the world; like it or not, that is Microsoft, and emulating the way they market and operate would be a major benefit to the One Laptop Per Child effort.

Assuming that this statement means OLPC will be changing direction to provide a proprietary OS for every laptop -- essentially abandoning all the work done previously -- is extremely narrow-minded and naive. It also ignores the principles behind the XO Laptop: "We want the child to interact with the laptop on as deep a level as he or she desires. Children program the machine, not the other way around."

Saturday, March 8, 2008

iPhone, You Phone, OpenMoko!



With all the hype surrounding the iPhone, it's time to consider what this little wonder can really do as a replacement for your portable computer. Of course, iPhone isn't the only player in the market, just the most popular. Apple certainly has a way of getting their name out and making a big splash with their products. The open source and open hardware project OpenMoko, however, promises to be everything the iPhone is and more.

Now let's get beyond the "way cool" bling of the iPhone, for just a moment. I know it's difficult, with it's simple gesture-based interface and it's sleek graphics and text handling, but let's focus on utility here. Essentially, what the iPhone does is makes phone calls, send SMS messages, and let you play around with ringtones, themes and pictures on your phone. Secondary features are music, video and WiFi (yes, a very nice features to have in a phone). Finally, making full use of that WiFi, are the applications you can run on the iPhone: web browsers, mail, maps, YouTube and so on.

The thinking that went into this device is phenomenal: multitouch screen, automatic orientation to landscape when you rotate the phone, proximity sensor for detecting when you're talking on the phone (so you don't take pictures of your ear), simple WiFi interface, OS X multitasking core, smart widgets, web applications to extend its functionality -- in short, it's got features most full-blown PCs don't have.

All of this is locked into a device controlled by one company: Apple.

Now let's consider an alternative: OpenMoko. Just what is OpenMoko? From the OpenMoko site:

The Neo 1973 runs totally Free Software...The Neo was specifically designed with openness and ease of developer-access from very start.


That's a pretty powerful statement. The first OpenMoko phone, the Neo 1973 is just the beginning. It's a totally open, user-accessible device. You can change the software it runs, you can add hardware, you can "tinker" with the device to your heart's content and make the phone truly yours. All the specs, all the software, everything is available for anyone interested, all under an open license that doesn't restrict how you use your phone.

Right now, the features in the developer model are fairly decent. The hardware is fairly typical of a common cell phone: SD card slot, built-in AGPS (as compared to the iPhone's WiFi locating techniques), a large photo-quality screen (although only single touch), enough memory for most uses, and the most open computing architecture available for these devices. Fairly boring stuff, really. What's exciting is the way this product is being developed. "If you can't open it, you don't own it" is what they believe.

The software end of things is where the OpenMoko gets really interesting. Developed using the open source model, all the code for the underlying OS and applications is being developed right out in the open. Anyone who wants to participate in shaping the way this device works is welcome. The code is there, and you can make this little gadget do anything you want. You want bling? You got it. You want business apps? Go ahead! This is a third party add-on company's dream! Imagine being able to fit your custom application into a phone that anyone can download your software on to. You don't have to sign a licensing agreement with Apple, or Nokia, or even a phone server provider like Bell or Telus.

OpenMoko is still just beginning, but the potential to be so much more than the iPhone is incredible. With the opportunity to truly innovate in the cell phone market, entirely new interfaces, applications and possibilities open up, and can stimulate growth in the industry.

Welcome to the opening of the cell phone market and customizable phones. Your phone is ringing.