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Tagged: microsoft

Quebec Lawsuit Highlights Problems With The Software Procurement Process

[This post originally appeared on Techdirt.]

FACIL, a free software advocacy group based in Quebec, recently filed a lawsuit against the provincial government (via Michael Geist) for favoring proprietary software without considering the free and open source alternatives. This story got plenty of attention a few weeks ago, but it’s important to break down the details to understand what’s really happening here.

The government is required by law to place contracts over $25,000 for tender, yet FACIL cites over $25 million worth of contracts between February and June 2008 alone in which no bids were solicited. The government is not being sued for buying proprietary software, as some headlines suggest (via Slashdot), but for failing to adequately evaluate the other options.

The lawsuit highlights a larger problem the procurement process has dealing with software. In the procurement process, the government publishes specifications for what it wants, companies submit bids and an open and transparent method is used to determine the best offer. This is mandatory except in a few special cases, like when only one supplier can meet the requirement. So, if the government publishes specs for Microsoft Office, rather than “office productivity software” then only one supplier can meet the requirement. It would be like seeking bids on a Ford Taurus. It’s obvious which company is going to win.

This process may work well for tangible goods, but it’s awkward for software because governments tend to use the process to acquire licenses, rather than “software.” Everyone is automatically licensed to use free software, so the process isn’t even needed here — and since only the copyright holder (or someone they’ve authorized) can sell a proprietary software license, the whole process isn’t even legally required. The important decision isn’t where to obtain a license, but which software to use in the first place. In other words, the process has a huge loophole. As long as the gov’t defines what it needs as “Microsoft Office” rather than “office productivity software,” no competitive bid is necessary, and the law isn’t broken. The copyright loophole for proprietary software basically turns the procurement process into an announcement system.

So, the real problem isn’t that the gov’t broke the rules, but that the rules are set up with this huge loophole due to the nature of software.

The process should really be adapted so that it can evaluate both proprietary and free options in the open and transparent setting it’s supposed to facilitate. The government should solicit bids for office productivity software rather than for Microsoft Office specifically — and the process itself should be more open so that the “bid” isn’t limited to just one offering. The answer is more complex though, since one contract has implications for another throughout the software stack (open standards can help) and the financial incentives for participants need to be reconsidered (not all companies sell software), but finding a solution is imperative for the government to truly act within the spirit of the law. That’s what the lawsuit is really about.

[Read the comments on Techdirt.]

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No soda for Steve

Steve Ballmer was asked by a student if Microsoft would ever create an open-source version of Windows in the future. He responds, I guess in an attempt at humour, with this:

We wouldn’t be hosting Minority Student Day if we open-source Windows because we wouldn’t have enough profit to pay people, let alone invite in people from the community. I’m not saying open-source is a bad thing, but it doesn’t pay the bills in this company, so we can’t embrace that way of doing things. … We give out free soda pop to everybody who works here. We make our stuff free, people gotta give back the soda pop — it’s just inconsistent with what we do around here.

I’m not going to go into depth on all the reasons why he’s wrong, but since he mentions inconsistencies… if free software is so unprofitable, why is Microsoft so determined to pay $44.6 billion (with a B) for Yahoo!, a company build largely on free and open-source software?

I can’t take this man seriously.

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Microsoft Office service pack blocks older file formats

The Standards Blog lists several articles covering this story, but here’s the basic summary. The service pack was released for Microsoft Office 2003 to make it easily to interoperate with Windows Vista and to read Microsoft’s new (troubled and broken) OOXML format that is the default in Office 2007. The catch? The service pack quietly “made a range of older files inaccessible, including Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations”. These formats are about 10 years old or more, so, while they aren’t commonly used for recent documents, “blocking of them will make retrieval of archived material more difficult”. (from CNET article)

There is a confusing workaround available (KB 938810), or you could always re-install Microsoft Office as some users have resorted to doing. Microsoft cites security concerns, which are valid, but forcing the blockage with the service pack (no option not to block if a user has large archives in old formats, or even a notification that the service pack will make those files unreadable) is just plain obnoxious.

This is another strong reason to use open standards as opposed to Microsoft’s proprietary formats.

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Penguins on a Plane

Penguins on a plane

(Click for full size image)

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Microsoft Knows Best – Unwanted Windows Updates

Microsoft clearly believes it knows better than users and system administrators of Windows computers. A few weeks ago, even users who had auto-update off received an unannounced, forced upgrade to Windows Desktop Search (WDS), whether or not WDS was even active on the computer. This, without permission from the user. Andy Patrizio reports:

What’s worse, users claim that once WDS is installed, it begins indexing the computer. If a user tries to uninstall the feature, it forces the computer to reboot (no reboot had been required when WDS was initially installed) and then tries to reinstall itself again, when they go to Windows Update.

WDS is installed not only on desktop computers but servers as well. This is keeping the WDS support board very busy.

This isn’t the first time that Microsoft has updated Windows machines without user consent (even if Windows preferences were set to require it). It’s becoming a growing trend and headache for system administrators (who want to have control over and knowledge of updates to their environment) everywhere.

This is just one of many reasons that I use free software. Free software respects your freedoms, your consent, and won’t sneak around behind your back and force upgrades on you. And if it ever does, the source code is available and someone will exercise their freedom to change it.

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On treating people like criminals

I recently came across Bill Gates’ Open Letter to Hobbyists (1976). Although new to me, it’s by no means news. However, since reading it I can’t help but think about how connected it is with the current software landscape and, in particular, Microsoft’s business practices over the last three decades, especially when taken in contrast with the GNU Manifesto (1985).

The letter is a tirade against the widespread sharing of authorized copies of his company’s software, namely Altair BASIC – Microsoft’s first product. Gates was angry with the fact that the developers of the software were not being paid for the work they had done, that the majority of users had obtained the copy without paying.

The letter raises an important point regarding the economic question of sharing software. If copies are being widely circulated, how are the developers to make a living? There are two main sentiments that I detected upon reading the letter. They are that hobbyists and “users” (Gates used the quotes himself) are amateurs and thieves, respectively. First, without real professional programmers they wouldn’t have any good software. Gates completely dismisses any contribution that volunteers can make. Second, users of the software are looked upon and treated like criminals. Rather than recognize that the users are “fans” of the software, that they are helping increase it’s popularity, and trying to find a way to capitalize and monetize that, the users are treated as criminals.

In contrast, the GNU Manifesto (which was written separately from the Open Letter to Hobbyists – Richard Stallman had not read the letter at the time) takes a radically different approach. Richard Stallman considers the freedoms to study, modify and distribute software as absolutely essential freedoms for the computer user, and he sets out to find a way to protect those freedoms. He too addresses the question of “how will programmers make money?” with some suggestions that have been proven to be effective over the last two decades (such as customizing software or providing services and technical support for free software projects).

Let’s take some quotes from the two documents.

Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software. We have written 6800 BASIC, and are writing 8080 APL and 6800 APL, but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.

– Bill Gates

“Won’t everyone stop programming without a monetary incentive?”

Actually, many people will program with absolutely no monetary incentive. Programming has an irresistible fascination for some people, usually the people who are best at it. There is no shortage of professional musicians who keep at it even though they have no hope of making a living that way.

– from the GNU Manifesto

Both the proprietary and free software mentalities have developed greatly over the past few decades, as our world becomes increasing run by software. The free software movement and open source movement have proven that volunteers can build powerful (often the most powerful) software. Take a look at Firefox, or the LAMP web server environment (GNU/Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Python/Perl). Large companies like Google and IBM run on free and open source software. Companies such as Red Hat and MySQL are extremely profitable developing, selling and providing services for free software. Many start-ups, like Google in the early days, or Facebook just a few years ago, rely on widely available inexpensive and powerful free and open source software. Without it, they might not have had the means to begin.

But proprietary software is still the norm, and Microsoft still treats it’s users like criminals. A friend of mine pointed this out to me the other day, as I was trying to explain what it was that I disliked about Microsoft’s mentality. His computer has been calling him a criminal for a while now, as Windows Genuine Advantage is accusing him of using an authorized copy of Windows. He certainly didn’t copy it himself, so there’s one of two possibilities: either the distributor he purchased his computer from used an unauthorized copy, or Windows Genuine advantage is wrong (it’s been wrong at least a few hundred thousand times already). It displays notices when he boots his computer and periodically while running. It’s withholding certain updates from his machine. And it took away his Windows Media Player (I know, I know, no big loss, but that was what he had been using). Mistrust breeds mistrust, and rightfully so.

I can’t help but look at the parallels in the music industry. Record labels have really been treating fans like criminals since the RIAA begin its indiscriminate lawsuits against music fans (or their dead grandparents) several years ago. The record industry is all but dead. There are large lay-offs and cutbacks, a huge decline in CD sales. Many insiders believe it’s already over, for the majors. But the music industry is still very much alive, and groups of artist, like the Canadian Music Creators Coalition (CMCC), have formed to combat the “treat the fan as a criminal” mentality which has lead to disaster for the major labels. Groups like the CMCC and many independent record labels have been developing new business models, rather than using draconian measures to protect outdated ones. The Barenaked Ladies are a great example of this, as is Dispatch (an independent band that embraced Napster instead of rebelling against it).

The movie industry, unfortunately, seems to be making the same mistakes that the record companies made. It seems as if they believe that the record industry just didn’t come down hard enough or early enough on new technology. The new video formats are increasingly loaded with Digital Restrictions Management, even to the point of building it into the hardware. They’ve cracked down on camcordering, as if that’s eroding the core of their business and is a replacement for going to the movies rather than simply creating hype for them. Want to feel like you’re being treated like a criminal? Try going to the movie theatres, where after paying for a ticket, you have to walk by posters and sit through trailers that are increasingly headed in this direction:

I believe that the only effective “anti-piracy” policy involves recognizing that the word “piracy” is being misused. People who share music are music fans. People who share software are computer enthusiasts. In the digital world, we can easily make copies of songs or programs to share with other people without having to take them away from someone else. This is fundamentally different from the concept of stealing material objects that proprietary software developers and major record labels want us to associate with sharing. The only thing that makes this type of sharing illegal is the present copyright system, which is just a legal construct and has no basis in natural law. Copyright isn’t an inherent right; it’s simply a system of incentives. The system can be changed if it’s not serving it’s purpose to society. In today’s world, copyright is a weapon used by large corporations to restrict people’s freedom for the sake of increased profits. We are more connected today than ever before in human history as a result of technology, yet so much of our effort goes into building digital walls.

Fear, uncertainty, anger and greed on behalf of corporations in the face of social cooperation produce things like Windows Genuine Advantage and the record industry’s demise. On the other hand, the flexibility, adaptation and innovation of the free/open source software movement and the independent music scene produce software/music that is more plentiful, quite often better quality and more widely available.

Which are you interested in supporting?

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Say no to Microsoft Office attachments

Over the summer, I was introduced to and immersed in the free software movement. Towards the end of the winter term, I had just begun to experiment with GNU/Linux; now I’m single booting and spreading it to many of my friends. I’ve always had an interest in open-source, but the philosophical and ethical arguments of the free software movement have captivated me and changed my perspective on software.

Returning to classes in September, I found some of my professors were distributing class materials in the proprietary Microsoft Office document formats (‘.doc’ and ‘.ppt’). Rather than feeling simple annoyance, as was the case before, I was actually offended. Clearly though, the intention of these professors was not to offend. They probably just don’t know any better. I really didn’t a few months ago.

Proprietary formats hurt free software users because free software developers cannot reliably (or often, legally, if the formats are patented) create and distribute software to read these types of files. And, as is the case with Microsoft’s proprietary formats, there often aren’t even non-free applications available for users of a free operating system (e.g. you couldn’t purchase Microsoft Office for GNU/Linux even if you wanted to); it is a barrier for people who want to leave a Microsoft operating system.

Inspired by the GNU Project’s article, “We Can Put an End to Word Attachments”, I decided to email my professors and explain why it would be better to distribute class materials in free file formats which are open standards.

Here is the first email I sent, regarding Word documents:

Greetings,

First of all, I’d like to thank you for making lecture notes available through the course website. However, I do have a concern about the file format in which they are being distributed.

The documents are being distributed in a secret proprietary file format when there are open standards which are available and widely used, such as the Portable Document Format (PDF), the ISO approved Open Document Format (ODF), HTML or plain text. Any of the formats mentioned can be easily implemented by software developers, and therefore there is a wide selection of software available to view these documents on all operating systems – no particular company’s operating system or applications are required. With the Microsoft Office format, this is clearly not the case; it puts pressure on students to purchase specific Microsoft software (and to continually purchase upgrades) instead of using any of the alternatives available (e.g. OpenOffice, StarOffice, Corel Word Perfect, Google Docs & Spreadsheets etc.).

In addition to readability concerns for students who choose other software suite’s besides Microsoft’s, Word documents are often used as vessels by computer viruses (http://www.viruslist.com/en/virusesdescribed?chapter=153313603&page=1).

Since I don’t have Microsoft Windows on my computer (for technical and – most of all – ethical reasons), I am unable to reliably read the class material. The best I can do is use software that guesses at the contents of the file, since the file format is secret.

In short, I’d appreciate it very much if the class material could be made available in a more accessible format (whether in place of or in addition to the .doc format), such as one of those mentioned above. This would guarantee that all students can easily read the course material, no matter what software they use. I’ve included some instructions below on how to save documents in other file formats using Word and would be happy to provide any further assistance or advice.

Thank you for your time,

Blaise Alleyne

I included some instructions from the GNU Project’s article, “We Can Put an End to Word Attachments”, on how to convert documents into other file formats at the bottom of the email.

The professor responded positively to my requests, agreeing to create PDFs from the Word documents. He noted that most of the class material would be posted in PowerPoint format though, noticing that my concerns would probably extend to that as well. However, he asked if PowerPoint files would be alright since there was “free software” (that is, proprietary software distributed at no cost) available to view ppt files. This was my reply:

Thank you for your response. I would appreciate the PDFs very much!

Unfortunately, my reasoning does also apply to PowerPoint files. There may be free (“gratuit”) software for viewing ppt files, but since they are in a proprietary format, only Microsoft can reliably produce these readers. As a result, there are no free (“libre”) software ppt readers which are guaranteed to work, nor are any of the proprietary readers available for users of free (“libre”) operating systems, such as myself.

(Briefly, free software (in the freedom sense) refers to software that is grounded in free and open standards, software in which the user’s freedoms are respected. Popular examples of free software include the Firefox web browser, the GNU/Linux operating system and OpenOffice productivity suite.)

Aside from the ethical advantages, there are several important technical advantages to distributing PowerPoint presentations as PDF files rather than as ppt files: (1) it dramatically reduces the file size; (2) you can put multiple slides on a single page (i.e.. two or four), making it easier for students to print; (3) the formatting of the original document is preserved (which is not guaranteed with ppt files, since different versions of Microsoft Office will handle files in slightly different ways – nevermind non-Microsoft software); (4) the documents can be read by anyone, either using Adobe’s free (“gratuit”) software or other software implementations (since the PDF is an open standard instead of a proprietary format, anyone can write software to view these files).

If you have software to create PDF files in Microsoft Word, that software can most likely be used to create PDF files in PowerPoint as well.

I’m sorry to be a bother, but I would really appreciate it if the class material could be distributed in a way that is guaranteed to be accessible by all and doesn’t put pressure on me or other students to use software from a specific vendor.

Thanks for your concern,

Blaise Alleyne

To my delight, my professor responded positively to my requests, thanking me for my suggestions. Now, all of the class material is on the course website in PDF format! I plan to take this approach from now on, whenever course material is distributed in proprietary formats.

One small step for free formats…

Also, in related news, I stumbled across an article on free software and free formats this morning: Spread Open Media: Free Formats Benefit Free Software

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