On the Cultural Significance of “The Cultural Significance of Free Software” : Part one: my review of the book.

In a manner remarkably similar to how my homologue John Compton Sundman was approached by the obscure editors from the Society for Analytical Engines to edit the entries of the inaugural Hofstadter Prize for Machine-Written Narrative (as chronicled in Cheap Complex Devices), I was approached, some five months ago, by the book review editor of the journal “Science as Culture” to write a review of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software by Christopher M. Kelty. I agreed to write the review for free. (Why? Because I’m a monkey/amateur –just ask Harlan Ellison).

I think the book, despite its various shortcomings, is good; important, even. It raises significant issues that bear upon (yes, I know how hyperbolic this sounds) whether democracy and the ideals of pan-human equality have any future.

My draft review appears below. At some point, presumably, a version of this review, perhaps considerably revised, will appear in Science as Culture

Funny issues arose regarding copyrights and copylefts of the review itself. I’ll write more about them in a second post.

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Thoughts on the impending demise of Sun Microsystems: part one: the Death Coffee Brick

News Item: IBM withdraws offer to buy Sun Microsystems; Sun’s fate unknown.

When I joined the “East Coast Division” of Sun Microsystems in January, 1986, Sun was a swaggering three-year-old enfant terrible based in Mountain View (Silicon Valley) California, and the East Coast Division, located in Lexington, Massachusetts had about fifteen people in it. Within two years Sun was a worldwide powerhouse with a new subsidiary company opening once a week (or so it seemed), and the East Coast division had about 250 people, 30 of whom reported to me. We moved to a larger facility in Billerica, MA, were we designed and manufactured a whole new line of Sun computers. We were like a mini-startup within Sun itself, with a classic start-up feel–hardcore geek shit.

Starting about 1988 or so, we had a coffee club in Billerica. Sun provided free coffee, which sucked, but some coffee lovers got together and provided alternative good stuff at $.25/cup or so.

Mostly this was Peets coffee, which Martin Hardee, a guy in my group, brought back from the west coast on his occasional forays. This was back in the old days, when finding anything better than Dunkin Donuts coffee on the east coast was a real challenge.

One day some poor fellow who was not a caffeine junky drank the Peets when he thought he was drinking the Sun-provided crap and got palpitations.

So, Martin got a brick, a regular old red brick, and got out his acrylic paint set and decorated it with the words


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Building Software the 21st Century Way!

Over on CIO.com, my friend Adam Kolawa, founder of software-tools company Parasoft, has an article called “How Better Software Can Save the World. It’s a reader’s digest condensed version of his new book The Next Leap in Productivity: What Top Managers Really Need to Know about Information Technology, for which I wrote the afterword.

Kolawa’s main point is that software is still made using artisan/guild/craftsman techniques, and the whole process can be vastly improved by automation and by using the Total Quality Management techniques (from Demming et al) that have been widely used in manufacturing for fifty years or more.

Anyway, if you’re into software process geekery, you should check it out. I think it makes sense, myself. Actually, you should probably check it out even if you’re not into software process geekery. Given the way things are going lately, anything that offers any hope at all of saving the world needs to be carefully checked out.

DOA RIAs: Curl, OpenLaszlo and Web 2.0 Noir

Over on his ZDnet column Universal Desktop Ryan Stewart, who describes himself as a Rich Internet Application mountaineer, makes his annual predictions about where the Web is going. Prediction number seven caught my eye:

7. The days of smaller RIA technologies are numbered. I hate to say it but I think technologies like OpenLaszlo and Curl will continue to gain traction in some niches but won’t see widespread adoption. Those companies will still bring revenue but Microsoft and Adobe are pushing too hard and putting too many features into their runtimes for the smaller companies to keep up.

I hate to say it but I think he’s right1.

Watching RIA trends play out is a bit like watching a Film Noir movie (DOA comes to mind), where the good guys don’t win and the bad guys prosper– but not because of any particular genius on their part, merely because of inexorable fate.

I observe this particular web-noir movie from the perspective of an extra actually on the screen. I play a guy cut down by a stray bullet for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For I was manager of information architecture at Curl from April 2000 until being laid off along with most of the engineering staff in April 2002, and I was the sole doc guy on the OpenLaszlo project from April 2003 until being laid off November 2007 as Laszlo Systems gave a quarter of its staff the axe.

Below the fold, a few brief observations on the Web 2.0 drowning pool. Said observations are undoubtedly greatly corrupted by time and rationalization, so take them with whatever quantity of salt you like. I’m just recording them for my own record.

(1)Note: although Stewart now works for Adobe, he’s always been fair-minded about competing technologies. I don’t see him as a shill.

UPDATE: edited a few sentences for clarity & one new comment at the end, in response to private reactions to this entry.

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On the open-sourcing of OpenLaszlo

My friend and colleague Sarah Allen has a nice little essay on her blog Ultrasaurus about what it was like to be part of a project that took a closed-source platform (“Laszlo Presentation Server”) and made it open (OpenLaszlo).

Like Sarah, I found that changing to the “open” way of doing software development took a little getting used to. One of the most profound, and yet most mundane differences is how you use email. Before we went open, if I had a technical question for, say, Tucker, I would send him an email; perhaps I would copy a few other interested parties.

Now, however, if I have technical question for Tucker, I send it to him and copy the OpenLaszlo Developer’s list or the OpenLaszlo User’s list. Which means that hundreds of people, at least, may be reading my messages. Similarly, all development work (including my baliwick, the documentation) is driven by tasks and bugs listed in the OpenLaszlo JIRA database. All of our code, communication, and planning, is in the open.

Sometimes this does make one feel a little awkward– like when you have to ask a question that you think you should know the answer to, and are embarrassed. But the “upside” is tremendous, as you often get helpful answers from people you’ve never heard of, in far off places, who are part of the OpenLaszlo community.

OpenLaszlo 4 is out, you rock stars!

From the brilliant post on the OpenLaszlo project blog (man, that is a well-written blog entry! Wonder if there was a ghost writer involved?)

We are extremely pleased and proud to announce that OpenLaszlo 4.0 is now available. This is the first official release of the new multi-runtime edition of OpenLaszlo, complete with a native browser DHTML (“ajax”) runtime, a heavily revamped Flash (7, 8, 9) runtime, and much more. With OpenLaszlo 4.0, you can compile source LZX applications for any supported target with a single mouse click.
OpenLaszlo 4.0 is available from http://www.openlaszlo.org/download

This release of OpenLaszlo is built on a new kernel architecture that abstracts away platform differences. Also, with OL4, we have switched to an inheritance-based class system that tracks the emerging ECMAScript 4 standard. These new language features have been implemented in the LFC core to support (and extend) JavaScript 2 `class` declarations portably. This means that the OpenLaszlo platform is well engineered to keep up with emerging JavaScript standards and to support new target runtimes.

In addition to literally hundreds of improvements to all aspects of the platform software and documentation, we have added new features, such as support for streaming media. The documentation tools have been re-implemented in order to to make them easier to maintain and also to give us more possibilities for arranging and accessing the data in the Reference Manual. Eventually, this will allow us to provide better cross-referencing, better indexing, more user control over presentation of information, and more options for printing and displaying the documentation.

We have put a lot of effort into improving our open source processes. The tools we use to build, test, and analyze OpenLaszlo have matured significantly with OL4. We have changed to using Subversion, for source control, in order to enable a more open development process. The build is now based on ant 1.6.5, rather than ant 1.5. We have created a new testing tool, lztest, for automated testing, to complement lzunit, our tool for application- and component-level testing. We have created a suite of benchmarks and benchmark analysis tools. By any criterion, this is the most ambitious and significant release in the history of OpenLaszlo.

The OpenLaszlo project aspires to be truly open and inclusive. Raju Bitter, our OpenLaszlo community manager, is on board to answer questions, streamline processes, and generally make it easier for you to play a vital part in this platform’s success.
Post questions and comments to laszlo-user@openlaszlo.org or to the OpenLaszlo Forum. Please report bugs, especially regressions from OpenLaszlo 3.x, to our bug database.

OpenLaszlo 4.0 is the culmination of a project that began more than a year ago, and it embodies the contributions of dozens of community members from around the world. Thank you, and congratulations to all of us!

The Legend of OpenLaszlo Legals

I work for Laszlo Systems, Inc.., on OpenLaszlo, “the premier open-source platform for rich internet applications.” For the last year I’ve been working on the Legals project, which is a re-implementation of the entire platform — compiler, doctools, runtime-specific kernels, common core runtime libraries, you name it, while keeping APIs intact– in order to support compilation of source applications in our LZX language to arbitrary runtimes, starting with Flash and DHTML, but with SVG and Java on the horizon. This undertaking has been compared to the magician’s trick of pulling the tablecloth out from under the place settings — while dinner is being served.

Over the last calendar year, within the small but growing world of web application developers, the Legals project has gained increasing attention. Technorati shows that bloggers in China, Russia, France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, and elsewhere are paying close attention to our every move.

Amusingly enough, these very sharp developers have grasped the essential idea of the project, but have been bewildered by the project name, “Legals”. Even within the company Laszlo Systems, those not invloved on the project have been intruigued by the moniker. Well, yesterday we essentially began our Beta program, and the Legals codename is being retired in favor of the much more normative (and bland) “OpenLaszlo 4 Beta Release 1.”

Below the fold you’ll find a little story I wrote for internal consuption at Laszlo about how the code name “Legals” came to be. If you like geek arcana, I think you’ll like this. Some tidbits for context: Everbody mentioned is a hardcore developer, except for Amy, the erstwhile program manager, and me, the technical writer. David is the CTO and founder of the company, our big cheese. Max is also a founder of the company. Oliver is the original designer of the LZX language. (The OpenLaszlo website can tell you more about all these people.) I’ll only add that I’ve been in this business since 1980, and the people mentioned below the fold are the smartest developers I’ve ever worked with. Finally, to set context, I might admit that a year ago our company’s financial situation was, shall we say, not especially propitious. Since then we’ve put millions in the bank and things are really looking up. But a year ago, things were more scary.

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Virtual healing

Here’s a feel-good story with a technophillic, Croquet-like feel to it: a network of children’s hospitals across North America get together to form a digital virtual universe for their patients and families. It was founded by Steven Spielberg and Norman Schwarzkopf.

In the demonstration presented at the conference, E.T. and the four-star bear, the on-screen characters of Mr. Spielberg and Gen. Schwarzkopf, were met by a child from Mount Sinai who presided as their tour guide through STARBRIGHT World. Together they joined friends from other hospitals where they explored the three virtual environments in STARBRIGHT World: Tropical World, Cave World and Sky World. In Sky World the group fell through a funnel cloud that transported them into a unique space where they can build sand castles, playhouses and forts, or anything imaginable – alone or with help of a few friends.

More on the story at Muniwireless.

OpenLaszlo to Java Mobile

OpenLaszlo is a platform for making Rich Internet Applications. The “production” version of OL (presently at release 3.3, I believe) allows you to compile to (Flash) swf7 or swf 8. OpenLaszlo version 4.0, project name “Legals”, will support, in addition, compilation to DHTML (aka “Ajax”). Legals is in “pre-beta”; an official Beta program will be announced soon. To see how far along the project is, you can go to the OpenLaszlo site and play with a variety of demos that run pretty much equally well in either Flash or Ajax. Sometime next year, probably in the spring, OL version 4.something will support Flash 9.

Now here comes an announcement of Project Orbit from Sun Mircosystems, to compile OpenLaszlo apps to Java Mobile Edition. Java ME runs on *billions* of devices, notably cell phones.

I work for Laszlo Systems, Inc, the creator and main supporter of OpenLaszlo. I’m responsible for all the OL documentation. It’s a good job. It’s cool to see the whole idea of “write once run everywhere” really starting to become real. Flash 9 which is based on the next version of ECMAscript/JavaScript, is different enough from earlier versions of Flash that it really constitutes a separate runtime. For those of you keeping score, that means that OL has active projects underway to support four distinct runtimes: Flash 7/8, Flash 9, DHTML (Ajax), and Java. Yes, there will be locally distinct differences in some applicaitons depending on the target runtime. But in general, OpenLaszlo applications truly are runtime-agnostic.

It’s also fun see the OL community growing and becoming real. There are now several developers who have “commit” priveliges to the code base who do not work for Laszlo Systems — including developers from Europe and Japan.

Note that OL is developed completely in the open. Anybody can sign up for the mailing lists on which we discuss architecture and implementation. The “nightly build,” which incorporates each successive day’s work, is avaible for free download. In other words, even though “Legals”, our Ajax port, is not yet in an official Beta program, you can still get your hands on the code if you’re the kind of person who likes to read code to see what’s going on.