Category Archives: free software

Adding kill switches to protect your privacy is not as simple as you might think

The use of modern electronic devices such as laptops, tablets, smart phones, smart watches, smart speakers and autonomous vehicles are a growing threat to people’s privacy and security because these devices not only have the ability to collect massive amounts of very personal data, but they rely on a whole host of services from companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Tencent, Alibaba and Yandex which mine that personal data for profit, or companies like Samsung, Apple or Tesla, which are collecting that data to better train their AIs.

Governmental agencies like the US’s National Security Agency (NSA), Britain’s Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), China’s Ministry of Public Security and India’s Central Monitoring System (CMS) love to get their hands on this information, as was shown by Edward Snowden’s revelations. The “five eyes” nations, which include the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand, agreed in August 2018 to establish a mutual framework for dealing with the fact that the internet is “growing dark” because so much much of its traffic is being encrypted. As part of this framework, Australia passed an Assistance and Access Bill in December 2018, requiring tech companies to provide the government access to communication services under a warrant. The other “five eye” nations probably decided that they would face too much of a public backlash if they tried to pass similar laws, so instead they convened a two day meeting with Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Roblox, Snap and Twitter in late July to pressure them to provide back doors to their encrypted messaging services.

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Why IBM buying Red Hat doesn’t matter

I found myself yawning as I read the news that IBM will be buying Red Hat for $34 billion and dumping a lot of its proprietary software on HCL, an Indian company. I stopped caring about Red Hat and IBM years ago. The fact that the fourth largest server company in the world is buying the leading Linux company should be big news, but I stopped caring in a personal way about these two companies years ago.

IBM in the 1950s – 1970s used to be the evil Goliath of the computer industry, but in my lifetime, IBM was the first tech giant to embrace free/open source software in a major way and help legitimize Linux. It was also the company that provided AMD and then Global Foundries with process tech to compete with Intel, and it was the company promoting the POWER architecture, which was the freest of the major CPU architectures (before RISC-V appeared on the scene and MIPS was recently open sourced). I should be celebrating that Big Blue is getting rid of lots of proprietary software and embracing open source in a major way, but IBM stopped being relevant to me years ago, when it sold its PC and then later its x86 server lines to Lenovo. IBM was the company which made Thinkpads into a durable line of laptops that was compatible with Linux and helped establish Linux as the OS for servers, but Big Blue has become largely irrelevant to me as the company sold off its hardware production to Lenovo and Global Foundries, and retreated into the niches of supercomputers, corporate middleware and data analysis.
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Apple bans users from their forum who post that data recovery on Apple devices is possible

AppleInsider recently published a editorial entitled “CBC again attacks Apple’s repair policies, but still lacks knowledge of how it really works,” which criticized CBC for its video coverage of Apple’s policies regarding data recovery by the third party repair industry. The CBC piece focused on Jessa Jones and her company iPad Rehab, which recovers data from water-damaged iPhones and iPads.

In the CBC video, Jessa Jones mentions that she was banned from the Apple forum for repeatedly posting that it is usually possible to recover the data from damaged iPhones and iPads. Her posts were deleted, whereas the posts saying that it was impossible and that companies that do data recovery are scams were not deleted. This practice on Apple’s official forum leads the public to believe that there is no way to get their data back from a damaged Apple device if they don’t own a backup.
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Reflections on learning Rust and violating copyright law

A year ago I attempted to learn Rust, a new systems programming language created by the Mozilla Foundation. I learn new computer languages not because I get any practical utility out of them, but rather because I find computer languages to be inherently fascinating. Studying a new language is like reading a profound work of philosophy. It makes your mind expand with the possibilities and stretches you to think in new ways. At my job in ProcessMaker, Inc., I occasionally learn a new trick or two from reading PHP and JavaScript code, but those languages no longer stretch the horizons of what I already know.

On the other hand, I still fondly recall how my mind was blown by the concepts I learned when I first learned programming. It was my senior year in college and I picked up the book, the New C Primer Plus, 2nd Ed. by Mitchell Waite and Stephen Prata while Christmas shopping in 1995. I stumbled across it in Circuit City on the bottom shelf below all the shrink-wrapped software. I recall that it was sitting all alone on the shelf–all the other things around it had been snatched up by the Christmas rush. It was a throw-back to the time when learning how to use a computer still meant learning how to program it, but most people rushing through Circuit City had overlooked it. At the time, people told me to learn a newer language like Java or Visual Basic, but I had become fascinated by how computers work, and wanted to learn the gritty details of a low-level language like C. I spent the next 3 weeks reading 700 pages of code examples in utter fascination. The book taught me dozens of new concepts. At the end of each chapter, there were exercises to do as homework. Since I didn’t have a C compiler, I wrote out my code examples with pencil and paper, not really knowing if they worked or not, but simply enjoying what I was learning. 
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How “open” is open source business software?

I have worked for ProcessMaker, Inc. since 2009, mainly because the company allows me to work part time with flexible hours, but also because it develops free/libre/open source software (FLOSS). The core of ProcessMaker comes with an open source license, the AGPL, but the company has never functioned like an open source project. The development is almost exclusively behind closed doors. We have a public bug tracker, but the bugs get fixed in a private bug tracker, so the community can’t see when their bugs get fixed. We have no beta releases for public testing of the software. Anyone who downloads the software can play with the PHP and JavaScript code, so we get a couple dozen bug reports or forum posts per year that contribute bug fixes and new features, but there is very little community involvement in the development of the software, aside from bug reports and posts on our forum.

The open source license is great for marketing and helps attract new users. I love the fact that ProcessMaker allows anyone to change the code, because it gives me great flexibility when I answer people’s questions on the public forum, which I have maintained since 2009. When people encounter a bug or need a new feature, I can tell them to go to line 1205 in workflow/engine/classes/class.pmFunctions.php and change the source code to fix it. I try to answer people’s questions on how to hack the source code and develop plugins for the software, but I’m not a core developer, so my knowledge is limited.
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Can the new Firefox Quantum regain its web browser market share?

When Firefox was introduced in 2004, it was designed to be a lean and optimized web browser, based on the bloated code from the Mozilla Suite. Between 2004 and 2009, many considered Firefox to be the best web browser, since it was faster, more secure, offered tabbed browsing and was more customizable through extensions than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. When Chrome was introduced in 2008, it took many of Firefox’s best ideas and improved on them. Since 2010, Chrome has eaten away at Firefox’s market share, relegating Firefox to a tiny niche of free software enthusiasts and tinkerers who like the customization of its XUL extensions.

According to StatCounter, Firefox’s market share of web browsers has fallen from 31.8% in December 2009 to just 6.1% today. Firefox can take comfort in the fact that it is now virtually tied with its former arch-nemesis, Internet Explorer and its variants. All of Microsoft’s browsers only account for 6.2% of current web browsing according to StatCounter. Microsoft has largely been replaced by Google, whose web browsers now controls 56.5% of the market. Even worse, is the fact that the WebKit engine used by Google now represents over 83% of web browsing, so web sites are increasingly focusing on compatibility with just one web engine. While Google and Apple are more supportive of the W3C and open standards than Microsoft was in the late 90s, the web is increasingly being monopolized by one web engine and two companies, whose business models are not always based on the best interests of users or their rights.
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Am I willing to pay the price to support ethical hardware?

There are a number of pernicious trends in the tech industry that need to be opposed. Over the last decade there has been a massive shift toward planned obsolescence, ever since Apple introduced the iPhone in June 2007 and the Macbook Air in January 2008 with sealed cases, non-replaceable batteries, RAM and SSD soldered on the motherboard and a lack of expansion slots.

Apple’s designs have been widely copied by the consumer electronics industry, so that it has become much harder to fix and upgrade electronics. Most ultrabooks, Chromebooks and 2-in-1 convertibles being sold today have copied Apple’s Macbook and no longer have replaceable batteries. Even brands such as Lenovo’s Thinkpad and Dell’s Latitude which are marketed for their fixability and ease of maintenance are now offering models such as the Thinkpad T470s and Latitude E5450 without removable batteries. Continue reading