Author: Fernando Cassia

Google to angry GMail users: we know better

Many people who thought they could get away with running the old GMail user interface despite contant nagging to “switch to the new look” have quickly discovered that the almighty Google has decided it knows better, and proceeded to force everyone to the new. UX designers are ‘humbled’, but not for long…

Nine months ago when the GMail New Look was being introduced, Jason Cornwell, UX designer for GMail said in his Twitter account that he was “humbled” by the response from users. If we take the dictionary´s definition of the word we get “Made low; abased; rendered meek and submissive; penitent”. Hmmm, in other words, it looks like an “Epic fail” to me. So, they learned from past mistakes, right? Wrong.

By August of last year the word was that the “old look” would be discontinued “by September”. After the general outrage, Google let everyone stay with the old look, with a notice indicating it´ll be eventually going away. By November the GoogleSystem blog said: “For now, you can switch to the old interface from the settings menu, but Google says that this option will be removed soon”. An outraged user from Hertfordshire UK replied – along a long list of other users´ complaints: “Please promise me one thing, we’ll avoid camping out outside of Google for three weeks and, instead, we’ll let the GMail team make the necessary tweaks in peace.”

Back in January James Fallows at The Atlantic wrote: “Some elaborate apologies from the GMail team on why they bothered to do this at all” and a flammable indictment “how they were first tested inside Google on the company’s own staffers, in accord with the “we eat our own dog food” principle. Googlers, you let us down! You could have refused to swallow this idea while it was still in dog food phase.”

And now, we´re back to the “New Look”, enforced for everyone, whether they like it or not. Does not look like they´ve learned, and the “humbling” didn´t last long.


GMail´s iconic and very white new look

Fog Computing

In the brave new world of Cloud Computing, you have no rights. That´s why I call the cloud “the fine art of separating people from their software“.

By buying into the cloud convenience argument and sales speech we – knowingly or not – gave away our rights to continue using old applications and upgrading at our own pace, if at all.

With open source software “running old versions” sometimes can mean “and get updates too”, the development model allows for criticism to be expressed via bug reports and RFEs (Requests for Enhancement), and often in some instances when you don´t like the upgrade path proposed, just revive the old version and continue developing it, just like some folks did with the Gnome 2.x desktop, revived as project “Mate“.

UX Experts in their ivory tower

Like in any other top-down decision making process, the potential for disastrous decisions exists. And in that sense, Google is not only a cloud computing service provider, they seem surrounded by their own cloud, unable or unwilling to cave in to the desires of many of its users who prefer -for whatever reason – GMail’s old look. Because they know best, or as fathers tell little kids when they refuse to swallow nauseating medicine, “it´s for your own good”.

And the experts in this case are the GUI designers, or, in modern parlance “User Experience designers”, or UX Designers, for short. One of them is Jason Cornwell, who if you look at his Twitter TL, he’s got to spend time defending GMail´s new look and telling users to ‘tweak’ the design to better resemble the old one.

According to Glassdoor.com, a Google “User Experience Designer” guru makes about $340K/year, and Gurgle has a lot of them. It’s like every product has got its own “UX designer”. Why do we mention this? Not to blame the employees, but with regards to alleged “high cost” of keeping running the old version that pleased many users, in parallel with the new one. Read on.

Jason Cornwell, GMail’s UX guru, told me :”Keeping the old UI running, keeping it secure, and updating the new version as well would cost us a lot”. Well, I disagree. I think the vast number of UX Experts at Google constantly fiddling with the service and annoying long time users is costing it a lot, not only in wages but also in users’ annoyance and dissatisfaction. But that’s just me.

At one blog, Ho-Sheng Hiao writes: “You would think with the number of people continually hitting ´revert to the old design´ would trigger a metric somewhere”, to which Jason Crawford, an engineer at Groupon, writes: “They clearly heard the feedback” but adds “that´s why they introduced the density setting and the high contrast theme. They know what the problems are. They just don´t want to admit that the new design is inferior and they don´t want to throw it out.”

What is wrong with ´new´? Plenty

Stephen Markley over here wonders: “I cannot be the only person irritated to the point of dementia by GMail’s new look”. Indeed, he’s not alone. Minutes after the forced change, Twitter began buzzing – pun intended – again against the forced change.

What you see below is the first wave of messages captured yesterday morning, in about 10 minutes.


People not happy about the new GMail look. Poor people, they don´t understand.

Didrik Madheden, a young chiptunes artist from Stockholm, Sweden operates the GCritic forum, and he has done a point-by-point rebuttal about the new GMail look, or “fisking” if you so wish, documenting with screenshots the wasted vertical space, the replacement of easy to understand words with icons, odd placement of other options, and more. The document is posted at his forum over here, and a copy has been made for archival purposes at Citebite, here.


New Look features a “Terminal” theme that is dark

 


but forces you to a white background to compose new emails

 

Problem? What problem?

Since Gurgle breathes and lives by metrics, let’s perform some: Google’s support forums are full of complaints. A simple Google search for “new GMail sucks” restricted to Google’s support site gives 2,000 results. The same search performed on Google Groups: 37,200 results. And what about blog posts? One Million, Seven Hundred and Eighty thousand results. And that´s just the English language web, imagine if we measured every single other language and word permutation for “New GMail sucks”.

Conclusion

Google´s supposed experts ended up annoying plenty of its users, and in a severe case of denial, their collective message seems to be that it was all for our own good, and that we need more time to truly appreciate it, or perhaps to watch some more videos explaining how it all made sense.

What this shows is the flawed Cloud Computing model where the user has little say, where consistent negative feedback is ignored, and where developers’ wishes in their own ivory tower weigh more than individual wishes – in this case, the wish to remain using the old version. Truth be told, my complaints to the GMail UX expert about the non-standard vertical scroll bars – CSS skinned to slimmer versions in the initial stages of the “new look” – apparently had some effect, as these are now gone from the new GMail design, but that is as far as things went.

A friend and colleague named John, tells me about the Google Way: “they do not have business cards, they do not have telephone numbers, they have a crapo form (sic) for media to contact the black hole of non-information. Another reason that I hate all the social media companies. They are unresponsive money suckers.”

It should also be noted that, yes, there have been third party “solutions” via the installation of browser “add-ons” to revert GMail to the old look, nothing guarantees that these will continue working forever, especially if Google continues fiddling with GMail’s interface for change’s sake and to justify the many UX Experts’ salaries at the firm.

In the meantime, besides fiddling with settings to make it look a bit like the old one, the only alternative is to keep bugging the “UX gurus” at Google’s ivory tower on every social network to get your message across.

Like in Stephen King´s “The Mist“, maybe together we can break through the fog “cloud” and the message will reach not only their ears but the product managers above them.

Argentina telecoms regulator opens net censorship Pandora's Box

The telecoms regulator in Argentina, CNC – National Telecommunications Commission – officially opened the Pandora’s Box of internet censorship by caving in to a Federal Judge’s order and issuing a notice that instructs all local ISPs to block access to a pair of web sites.

This chain of events started with the creation of an anonymous blog dubbed “LeakyMails”, and hosted at a pair of web addresses: leakymails.com, and leakymails.blogspot.com. On it, its creators link to a series of alleged e-mails from various members of the Argentine government, its finance minister, and even the president, Cristina Fernández.

Most of the alleged leaked e-mails date from 2007 although some reports indicate there are newer ones as well. The blogs also link to several RAR files hosted on RapidShare.com which claim to contain the attachments of such emails, photos, Word documents and Excel spreadsheets.

The decision

The decision, as published on the CNC site says “in accordance with the mandate by the Federal Judge number 9, Sec.# 17, as part of the case number 9177/11 titled “Revealing of policy and military secrets” by which it was ordered to this Commission to communicate to all License holders the decisions made by it (…) it is informed that by date August the 4th, 2011 it has been ruled: “1. TO DECREE THE PREVENTIVE BLOCKING by part of the local service providers of Internet services, of access to the following web sites: http:/www.leakymails.com and http:/leakymails.blogspot.com. Signed by Sergio TORRES, Federal Judge.”

Those in favour of the decision claim that the regulatory body is just “following orders” from a Federal Judge, but one has to wonder if the CNC had no choice but to comply, or could instead issue a recommendation or comment to the judge, offering alternatives to this blocking, like for instance going after the actual provider hosting the page – in this case, Blogger, which means, Google.

Google has local offices in Buenos Aires, and it’s not the first time that a judge orders for some information to be removed from Google’s servers, as a result of individual claims of a defamation or libel suit, or for instance by supermodels whose images were used in the promotion of porn sites without their consent.

So why Judge Torres decided to go after the data pipe providers letting web surfers load the page instead of the hosting providers that were actually holding the allegedly illegal data is very strange indeed.

Streisand Effect

Shortly after the decision was announced, copies of the site started appearing as a result of the so-called “Streisand Effect“. One reader quickly pointed this scribbler towards the same site name, but hosted on WordPress.com instead of BlogSpot. That means that Judge Torres and the regulators at CNC will need to start updating that list around the clock.

The question begs repeating: isn’t it easier for the authorities to go after the companies hosting the content, here or abroad? Ironically, the judicial order does not even mention Radidshare.com, which hosts the actual RAR files and which can be still freely accessed despite this filtering order.

Technical pitfalls

Leaving aside for a moment the horror of this transvestite of justice that asks internet providers to turn into censors instead of going after those holding the content, the ruling – or communication if you wish – by CNC is going to be very difficult to implement.

Blocking the .com domain might be easier, but blocking a particular .blogspot.com address – if you do it by IP address router rule – means you also block the whole of Blogger (*.blogspot.com).

As an example, right now Leakymails.blogspot.com and another blog which sides with the government rambletamble.blogspot.com both point towards blogspot.l.google.com with the IP address 72.14.204.132.

If, instead, the ISPs decide to enforce the blockade by DNS, they can make the target domain leakymails.blogspot.com point elsewhere, but that would only work if the users have configured their own ISP’s DNS servers. Since the local ISPs have somewhat unreliable DNS servers, many people use other DNS providers like Google DNS, EasyDNS or Open-DNS. In such cases, a DNS redirection by the local ISP will achieve nothing.

For a full blocking at the http level, ISPs would have to run the equivalent of an IDS, and monitor every single page requested by their users, with the obvious privacy implications, or set up a forced proxy – some cable ISPs run Cisco CacheEngine, for instance – or put the whole country behind a firewall, like China.

Still, something must have been done because at the time of this writing, connections from two different ISPs (one cable, another ADSL from the incumbent) have given this scribbler the result of “connection reset by peer”. The RAR files hosted at RapidShare, however, are readily accessible to anyone. Congratulations to CNC for their collective wit.

Politics, lies, and hacked e-mails

Whoever is behind LeakyMails certainly seems to have an axe to grind but with a very particular target: the current government.

The targets seem to be only from the current and previous administration. They accuse the government of “intolerance” “ignorance” and “fanaticism” and of having “despotic power”. They must have not heard of the opposition wins in the last legislative elections, or don’t seem very interested in the powerful farmer unions that brought the country to a halt in 2008.

In any case, they seem to equal releasing pictures of the Finance Minister remodelling his bathroom to WikiLeaks‘ exposure of how an Empire pressures other countries.

This isn’t the first incident involving e-mail accounts of politicians and journalists getting hacked and the contents released. Two and a half year ago, there was a similar incident involving lower-profile ministers and two employees of the nation’s spy agency, SIDE.

Opposition paper Perfil, wrote at the time: “A Federal judge now investigates if behind this team were the former head of SIDE during the Menem presidency, Juan Bautista “Tata” Yofre, and former SIDE agent Iván Velásquez”. Both Velásquez and another agent went to Uruguay, and tried to get political refugee status claiming they were subject to “political prosecution”.

Conclusion

While the powers that be were able to catch Osama Bin Laden, the “LeakyMails” hackers mock authorities from their Twitter account and promise to reveal more e-mails involving “journalists, civilians, military, the Jewish community and the Church”.

Why an open NetRexx means humans can do Java

Programming Java applications without learning the Java language is now easier than ever, as IBM delivered its ages-old promise to open-source NetRexx, the language that bridges IBM Rexx and the Java VM, creating cross-platform Java bytecode.

It took roughly four years since the open sourcing idea was proposed but the NetRexx compiler and programming language is now officially out of Big Blue´s control, and will surely live forever – or close to it – as “open sauce”, as our Nick Farrell likes to say to the collective annoyance of FOSS purists.

One of the many babies of IBM´s MFC, NetRexx gives the simplicity of the Rexx scripting language, with the multi-platform capabilities of Java, providing the proverbial “write once, run everywhere” without having to learn the Java language. Very much like JRuby does for Ruby programmers, Jython does for Python programmers, and Jabaco does for Basic language ones, all without the size and inconvenience of other interpreted environments.

The NetRexx language will be developed going forward by the Rexx Language Association -RexxLA hereinafter – which despite having its HQ in North Carolina, USA, has members throughout the world and is devoted to the promotion of the Rexx language, including the object-oriented Object Rexx and now NetRexx.

The RexxLA organises a yearly Rexx language event, and it has also worked on the ANSI standard of “Classic” Rexx, which was published in 1996.

René Vincent Jansen, the current president of RexxLA, told a quiet mailing list that NetRexx was going to live on as open source: “I am very happy to be able to announce IBM has sent RexxLA the source code of the reference implementation of the NetRexx translator for administration and release”.

He continued: “This has secured the future of NetRexx, our favourite computer language, and enables us to do work on it to keep it up to date whenever this seems necessary. A special thanks to Mike Cowlishaw is in order, who not only invented and produced the language, but also was of invaluable assistance during the open source process.”

Mr. Jansen added: “Because a lot of the work of readying the source code for publication has been done over the years past, there will be no long delay in having it available in a source code repository on the net. The www.netrexx.org site will be on the air shortly.”

And that the current IBM NetRexx – freeware – website at IBM.com will be changed to reflect this new status and then cease to function later this year: “The binary distribution will be available from www.netrexx.org initially and will reflect NetRexx 3.00, which is an almost unchanged release that contains the required source code modifications of the translator and has some small fragments of code adapted to be able to build on more recent Java versions.

“It is expected that 3.01 will be available from the code repository and will be the first official RexxLA release.”

The current NetRexx mailing list will be phased out and a new one created by RexxLA. The code will be released under the ICU License, which is described as being quite similar to the MIT license, but including “additional clauses about documentation and promotion.”

 

T-Rex what?: A brief history of Rexx

While you might not have heard much about NetRexx, you surely have vaguely heard about Rexx, this scribbler´s favourite scripting language.

Both are the creations of Mike F. Cowlishaw (MFC hereafter), a retired IBMer in the UK, a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering the British Computer Society. and also a visiting Professor at the Department of Computer Science at the University of Warwick.

When not hiking, getting into caves or the occasional flying, MFC wrote the Rexx family of languages while at IBM, including “Classic” Rexx, which was popularised in the early to mid-1990s by IBM´s 32-bit OS/2 2.x and Warp 3.x operating systems where it was the operating system´s built-in scripting language.

Mike Cowlishaw also famously authored the “IBM Jargon Dictionary” which includes funny snippets like the following:

“& (ampersand). Character used in many IBM macro and command languages in order to make them hard to read and to type. Helps add to the mystique surrounding programmers that use such languages. Sometimes used doubled, for double confusion.”

NetRexx: Why it matters

Simplicity and readability were always on the mind of MFC while designing Rexx and NetRexx, and it shows.

Cowlishaw, in his book, calls NetRexx “a new human-oriented programming language”.

While discussing proposed enhancements to the language, his clarity of concepts is superb: “‘*’ in Rexx and NetRexx means multiply, not wild-card. Nowhere does it mean ‘wildcard'” he says.

“By adding the special case you’d be adding an anomaly – and one that just adds a new meaning for an operator character and hence verbosity and complexity. “

He concludes “One can put together a programming language by adding snippets from other languages on a whim or any suggestion, but you’ll end up with Perl. That’s OK if you like that kind of thing, but it is incomprehensible to most people who are not dedicated programmers.”

Speaking about the virtues of NetRexx, Jerry McBride from NJ, USA says: “The strongest point of NetRexx is that it requires perhaps one-third to one-half the keystrokes of a comparable Java program.

“The second strong point is, your NetRexx is compiled to Java bytecode and reaps all the benefits of writing to the JVM spec.”

Meanwhile, René Jansen, president of RexxLA, agrees: “The NetRexx language enables the programmer to use everything that is in the Java platform”.

Jansen calls it “an undeservedly unknown programming language”.

See, within Rexx and NetRexx circles, “human-oriented programming” is a shared love, and readability is King. Attempts to suggest the addition of C-like syntax did not get much approval, in fact the C-unlikeness of NetRexx is precisely what the community loves about it.

Rene Jansen says: “NetRexx offers a nice way to write Java programs, without Java’s C-heritage syntax”.

Chip Davis, former president of RexxLA, chimes in with his opinion: “The fact that PL/I and object-oriented ooRexx have incorporated C syntax has more to do with the pervasion of perversion, IMHO.”

The fact that it´s a scripting language doesn´t mean you can´t create GUI applications, for instance. For more details, follow this tutorial.

 

Good things come for those who wait. And wait, and wait

Just to show how slow can things get when you get a big corporation like IBM and its army of lawyers involved in releasing some formerly proprietary code as open source, there´s no better way than to describe the NetRexx nightmare.

Back in 2008, RexxLA announced in its yearly conference that it was discussing taking care of NetRexx as open source with IBM.

A year later, the project was “revived“. To make a tedious long story short, two years passed by and the future of NetRexx was still in limbo, only with regular assurances by those in the know that the project was “moving along” within the Big Blue Elephant´s digestive tract.

René Vincent Jansen, president of RexxLA, summed it up: “This brings an end to a long period in which some have expressed doubts regarding the perspective of the language and the intentions of the parties involved.

“Now that we have this behind us, the real work can start. The language board will convene and draw up plans for the future.”

Mike Cowlishaw´s legacy can now live on forever.

This scribbler feels this is one of those strange times where one can thank IBM´s Immense Bureaucratic Machine for delivering on its promises.

The bad news is that after four years of silence and despair, now Hell will probably freeze over and the world will probably end tomorrow in the Worst Case Scenario. Or by 2012 if you believe the Mayans. In any case, trust this scribler and see what NetRexx has to offer. Soon to be available -including source code- from NetRexx.org. If everything fails, just load the URL and keep hitting [F5].

Latin "Broadband Soap Opera" of 2010 was not even funny

A Soap Opera has unfolded for nearly half a year down in South America as Argentina´s largest multi-media behemoth and Argentina´s telecomms regulator decided to get into a cat fight. The future of one of the main alternative network backbones to the phone companies´ is at stake.

Cablevision is Argentina´s largest pay-TV (cable tv) giant, which runs an Internet provider on the side with the Fibertel brand and using the firm´s hybrid Fibre-Coax (HFC) network. Last August, the firm got into hot water with the country´s regulating authority which declared its operation as an ISP void, in a media brouhaha that doesn´t make anybody happy and ends up damaging both the company and the government´s image.

Fibertel Network

The spat continues to this day, with the matter in the hand of the courts, some of which ruled against the firm, and several others in favour of it, with the latter ruling days ago siding with the company and protecting it from shut-down just days before the end of the year.

This Latin melodrama involves both alleged administrative mishaps by Cablevision´s ISP Fibertel, and strong-hand enforcing of the rules  – or a rigorous, meticulous interpretation of the law-, depending on who you ask. What could be a normal and boring spat between a regulator and a corporate giant -the American FCC has shut down Telecom firms before with very little brouhaha – has had some unforeseen consequences: the government showed little initial thought to the fate of its broadband users, who were quickly up in arms against the move.

Coax Networks Suck. Everybody Knows it.

What´s at stake in the end is who will provide service to around one million customers throughout South America´s second largest country. The government insists that users will have to switch providers, but ironically, the ISP has doubled promotional service plans to 6Mbit and claims it has won more users now than before the quarrel.

A similar dispute between cable providers operating as ISPs and the established telephone company ISPs several years ago in India. This one, however adds some Latin flavour to the imbroglio.

Country statistics
Here are some mid-2010 statistics to put things in context: a report published at Telesemana puts the number of broadband connections in the Far South nation at around four million households, for a near 40 per cent penetration rate. Two years ago, the number was two point nine million. ADSL service, provided by the local-loop monopoly incumbents account for 59 per cent of broadband market, with cable -of which there are less precise numbers- taking the other estimated 40 per cent, with the remaining one per cent shared between fibre -FTTP/FTTH- and fixed-wireless links.

Back in February, President Cristina Fernández decried Telefonica´s dominant position in the local telecomms market and vouched to prevent it from becoming a total monopoly. However, six months after this initial outcry came this move that most say will benefit the fixed telephony incumbents more than any others.

Entangled with Regulator
It all started when cable TV operator CableVisión engulfed the operations of its controlled ISP firm Fibertel, liquidating the latter company in the process of which it kept using only its brand name. The government argues -and some lawyers admit it might have a point there- that current regulations do not establish the automatic transfer of licences when one firm merges with another and that if a company is legally dismantled, any licensing rights it had disappear with it. Unless, of course, a transfer of such licence is made to the regulating authority, which the firm did not ask for.

In short, the Cablevision cable-TV provider should have requested a new license or else transferred its broadband users to one of its subsidiary ISP firms – which the firm also owns. It did nothing of that ilk and kept humming, defying government orders. As such, the regulating authority claimed that Fibertel had been providing “unauthorised services” and as such labelled the company´s operations “void”, giving it 90 days to migrate subscribers to other providers, which as you might imagine is a bit of an inconvenience for many, specially in areas where the only alternative is Telefonica´s local-loop monopoly.

Others across the political aisle see this as a tit-for-tat retaliation, part of the government´s effort to tame the Clarín Group media juggernaut. Clarín is one of Argentina´s largest media conglomerates, and the one that has the most to lose with the country´s new Media and Communications Services Law enacted by Congress in 2009 and which set limits on the number of radio and tv broadcast stations that any single media group can own. The relationship between the Cristina Fernández administration and the Clarín group went sour after the so-called “farmers revolt” two years ago. Some claim that such conflict escalated due to the biased, one-sided coverage of much of the private media, which sided with the road-blockers and against the government.

Local Loop Unbundling: the Elephant in the Room
What the government seems to be unwilling to do is tame the second monopoly: Telefonica´s local-loop one. This local subsidiary of Spain´s Telefonica is the fixed-line phone company that covers the Southern half of the country, and its parent firm in Spain in turn owns stake in Italy´s Telecom, which also owns stake in Telecom Argentina, the firm providing fixed phone service to the Northern half of the country. Confused yet? suffice to say it´s all part of a big happy family.

A presidential decree establishing “number portability” and “local loop unbundling” -which would bring competition to the ADSL market  was signed ten years ago, but the technical rules for LLU implementation were never published, rendering the norm dead as a dodo. Some heavily populated areas in Argentina´s capital enjoy having two options with regards to cable TV provider -and by extension cable-modem Internet,  in addition to the ADSL service provided by the local loop monopoly, but others in many cities do not.Number portability was finally agreed on this year, but only for mobile phones and after legal action by interested parties.

The only real hope for broadband users to escape both the telcos and the cable TV providers´ grip would be if someone comes along and brings Fibre to the home (FTTH), but that´s an expensive proposition to begin with, and only workable on densely populated areas. For all the rest, the real solution to users´ gripes and to get lower costs and multiple choices would be to enact local loop unbundling. So far, the authorities have been unable, unaware, or unwilling to implement this option.

Fibertel not dead, keeps going like the Energizer bunny
This spat between the cable TV company and the government was a shame for both sides. First, the TV conglomerate already operates other ISPs with valid, working licenses: PRIMA S.A. with its brands Datamarkets and Ciudad Internet. It would have been a matter of switching its users from one provider to another, and send invoices with the other firm´s brand/logo. They choose not to do so, helping victimise itself and waging a PR war against the regulating authority.

Second, the government was too harsh and overreacted, perhaps wishing to make an example out of them, and then promised things it clearly couldn´t deliver, like the creation of a government Free Wi-Fi service “throughout the nation” in 120 days. Those days have passed, and the government´s nationwide network is still in limbo and planning stages, with news published about only a single Wi-Fi node operating.

The media juggernaut claims that it saw the number of users increase by 150,000 since the conflict began, and also launched faster speeds with its six-megabit promotional offer. The latest court ruling just before the holidays by a Federal judge in the province of Córdoba -the country´s second-largest in terms of population-, protects users of Fibertel cable internet service in that province from being affected in any way by the regulating authority shutting down its service. You can read the ruling in this article published yesterday over here (Spanish). The government will likely appeal that ruling. “…And the band played on!.”

Conclusion
Was all this brouhaha even necessary to begin with?. In the past, this South American scribbler has heard people from other latitudes repeat the stereotype of “don´t get all Latin on me” which states that we Latin people kind of enjoy getting “all worked-up and angry”. I´m beginning to think that maybe there´s some truth to that statement.

Despite anti-Oracle hysteria, firm is an Open Source powerhouse

By the time you read this, we´ll be in 2011, and 2010 will be remembered as the year where the IT press used Oracle as its favourite punching bag. This scribbler thinks that despite anti-Oracle hysteria, there´s reasons to think that the database giant has become an Open Source powerhouse, as most -if not all- of Sun´s open source projects are alive and kicking under Oracle´s handling.

Oracle saved the Sun
Oracle bought Sun Microsystems, one of the IT industry´s most hard-working firms in the fight for open standards and against the Redmond juggernaut, the Evil Empire of Redmondia. Sun was also one of the most unrecognised firms by FOSS pundits, despite its vast contributions to the open source movement, be it in the form of developers on Sun´s payroll collaborating with FOSS projects -from Gnome to MySQL to OpenOffice.org to you-name-it, and also when taking into account the hundreds of thousands of lines of proprietary code turned to open source.

Yet, the Slashdotter crowd always had a reason to pick on Sun Micro because – oh the horror – they also wanted to make a profit with Free Software and OSS, or just because they had a crown jewel, Solaris, that wasn´t released under the GPL as the FOSS mob wished. Many in that crowd also chastised AOL for years, despite that fact that the firm supported Netscape programmers working on Mozilla.org and open web standards.

Then, after years of financial struggle, losing Scott McNealy -one of its brightest minds with clear long-term goals and an understanding of who was its real enemy (Microsoft and its Windows monoculture first, all others later) – and after re-inventing itself several times, Oracle jumped in and decided to ends Sun´s ages-old haemorrhaging balance sheet. Weeks before that, it was rumoured that Big Blue was going to buy Sun, yet the deal fell through. Looking back, this scribbler thinks that things would be much worse now had IBM ended up engulfing and devouring Sun Microsystems.

Anti-Oracle hysteria
Dictionary.com defines hysteria as “an uncontrollable outburst of emotion or fear, often characterised by irrationality, laughter, weeping”. Yes that describes what hit the news wires after the Oracle acquisition was completed.

It didn´t take long for the mainstream IT press to begin what I´d describe as a FUD campaign against everything Sun Microsystems had in its open source catalogue. Soon one began seeing curious people joining mailing lists of products formerly owned by Sun and asking “what will happen to this product? will Oracle kill it? should we move to something else?”. There was no reason for that speculation, just Fear Uncertainty and Doubt.

Then came the articles from somewhat well known IT news sites telling about potential killing of products, customers in panic, and the like. No, I have no proof that there was actually an astroturfing campaign against Oracle, but it would surprise me very much if the thought didn´t cross the mind of some of its competitors, given past experiences.

Guilty before proven innocent, of FOSS “crimes” yet to materialise
It seems that for some in the FOSS camp, Oracle is “guilty until proven innocent”, that the burden of proof has been reversed. To make a somewhat extreme and blunt comparison: they must prove they´re not child molesters, before any incident actually happens. “Prove me you´re not going to kill it!” claim some users  – or astroturfers – of every open source product from Sun. Insane.

The only thing I´m certain of, is that the bloodbath with regards to open source products would have been orders of magnitude higher had IBM purchased Sun -as was originally negotiated-. For instance, there was little incentive for IBM to keep the NetBeans IDE alive, as the firm always favoured another open source IDE: Eclipse. Yet, Oracle has continued supporting the NetBeans project, as it suits and complements its proprietary, freeware Java IDE, and both target different kind of developer communities, and in the case of NetBeans, more languages.

FUD, Lies, and Doomsday Predictions
Here are my favourite doomsday predictions thrown at Oracle during 2010:

First failed prediction, post-acquisition of Sun: “Oracle might kill OpenOffice”. Of course, it was said in subtler, more FUD-filled ways: “I have heard from so many readers that they fear what will happen to both OpenOffice and MySQL”. Yeah, right

Result: Killing of OpenOffice never happened, Oracle sponsored the OpenOffice.org conference in Budapest by late 2010. Would they do that if they intended to kill the product?. Would they be so stupid? Of course they are not.

This post puts things in a good perspective, when it says “I think this announcement refutes the unfounded concerns of those who though that the buyout of Sun would mean doomsday for Java or OpenOffice. Oracle has an interest in non-Microsoft technologies being promoted. Microsoft’s biggest selling point is being able to sell corporations the entire package of software from the desktop to the data centre. Microsoft Office runs on Windows and is optimized for accessing data in SQL Server.”

It concludes by saying “To the extent that Oracle can introduce technologies that make it easy to access MySQL and Oracle, that’s a plus point for Oracle. That’s why Oracle will keep OpenOffice alive.”. No need to say more, other than Oracle would be foolish not to pursue a dual-strategy of having a cloud-based office, and a traditional, “fat” based office suite to serve the needs of all its customers.

Second Doomsday Prediction: “Oracle will kill MySQL!”
Once again, the mainstream IT press joins the pack of wolves….

October 2009 story in ComputerWorld “some fear that Oracle will bury or weaken MySQL” Again, the key word is “fear”. Who fear that? “Some”. What names? How many? Reasons?. In reality, that never happened. Oracle has been INVESTING in MySQL, as this Reuters story reports here.

And then you see who´s one of the firms behind the criticism… Ingres…. in a story that reads “Ingres criticises Oracle investment strategy for MySQL” . Yes, you read that right: another database vendor criticising Oracle, a competitor, for “not investing enough” really makes this scribblers´ head spin… Why should Oracle do what one of its competitors say?. But the anti-Oracle hysteria doesn´t end here. Bob Evans at InformationWeek cried foul after a recent NY Times story that lashed out at Oracle citing only hearsay and rumours. Read it here.

Ellison´s Open Source ecosystem to fight Microsoft

[The above picture of Larry eating a hot dog is included in compliance with unwritten laws that say that Mr. Ellison cannot be portrayed favourably in any IT press report -F]

Oracle´s healthy Open Source Software ecosystem
To make this story short, let´s focus on Facts not “Fear” of what Oracle has said and done so far:

* Oracle has confirmed that work on the new Java 7 and Java 8 versions will be contributed back as open source, as part of the Open Source, “Libre” (GPL license) OpenJDK project

* Oracle is backing NetBeans with continued investments (despite the fact that Oracle had another, proprietary IDE, Oracle JDeveloper). NetBeans 7.0 is being worked on and the first beta has been released.

* Oracle promised it will release JavaFX 2.0 components as open source when 2.0 is completed

* Oracle is continuing the open source Glassfish J2EE server, with two new releases planned for this year.

* Despite the “Libre”Office fork and its Novell Mono-hooks, Oracle is continuing Open Office development -Release Candidate 8 of version 3.3 was released two weeks ago-. Oracle had to reiterate its continued commitment and support of OpenOffice.org every few months to the point that it´s almost funny. Here, back in January 2010, and again on October 2010.

* Despite rumours to the contrary, Oracle has continued and boosted investment in the Open Source MySQL database. Why? To target Microsoft of course!. April 2010 story from Reutes here.

* Despite rampant FUD for weeks in the Virtualbox users mailing list, Oracle is continuing product development, with version 4.0 just released.

* When Apple announced it was dropping Java support from OS X, Ellison´s firm actually welcomed Apple to join the OpenJDK open source Java project and contribute its until-then proprietary Mac OS X code to create a Mac build of OpenJDK. Everyone wins.

And what pays for all the above?. Oracle´s proprietary database products, of course the kind purchased by Fortune 500 companies. Is that a sin?. If you believe in dogmatic truths as is “ALL software should be free”, then maybe, Oracle are terrible sinners to the Free Software Religion.

But then, without Oracle´s programmers those purists would have to fix bugs and code new features in MySQL, OpenOffice.org, NetBeans, Glassfish, Virtualbox, OpenJDK etc all by themselves. Guess the pace of development wouldn´t be so fast for these FOSS products then, right?.

So, yes, Oracle committed the grave sin of stop pushing OpenSolaris. Hey, something has to pay the bill for all of the FOSS projects above. I´m fine with that. Plus, for those who want free Soalris, there´s always Illumos, the open source fork based on OpenSolaris code.

After seeing all these points, aren´t you happy that Oracle is contributing time, programmers, and money to the advancement of key Free Software projects like Virtualbox, OpenJDK, MySQL, Glassfish, NetBeans, and OpenOffice.org? I do, Thank you, Larry Ellison!,

Oracle will surely make lots of money be selling support and services around these FOSS products to their Fortune 500 clientele -and benefit the Free Software community in the process- by growing the Open Source ecosystem as an alternative to Microsoft´s monoculture.

Larry Ellison has been trying to seed the market so it breaks from Microsoft´s dominance for years. And that is healthy and needed. I remember his “ThinkNIC” low-cost PC effort – preloaded with Linux – fondly. It failed, but was clearly a concept ahead of its time.

In the end, the key when it comes to deciding who helps and who hurts Open Source, is looking at the big picture, not the vitriol-filled comments, the fireworks and scare tactics of a few competitors who have been trying to destroy Java, OpenOffice.org  – and even Oracle – for years.

Japanese-Brazilian digital TV standard conquers South America

THE battle over digital TV standards continues raging on in other parts of the world as still-undecided countries make the switch from analogue to digital television. The year 2010 ends with most of South America using the same standard, and it´s not Europe´s.

Bad news for the DVB Project to end 2010 as yet another South American country has decided to go with the growing ISDB-T digital TV standard: Uruguay. Three years ago, the European group was trumpeting and congratulating itself with that country´s choice of DVB-T and DVB-H for its fixed and mobile Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) broadcasting. Now the government of the tiny but proud South American nation of Uruguay is joining its neighbours by embracing ISDB-Tb.

Geopolitics
Clearly president Mujica wanted to put the country “in sync” with its neighbours. “The economics were taking into account, but the tipping point was geopolitics” said a secretary of the Presidency, Diego Cánepa. The European Union “lamented” the decision and in a short press note which said “an opportunity of collaboration has been lost.”

This humble scribbler anticipated back in 2007 with his crystal ball that ISDB-T could “conquer Latin America”, or else “fail miserably”, it was one or the other with no middle ground. Had it been restricted to Brazil alone, it would have been an epic failure due to the lack of economies of scale. Finally, it took longer than originally thought, but all the pieces have been falling into place and now ISDB-Tb is the standard of choice in South America, if not all the “Americas”.

DTT standards map

Wikipedia map showing DTT standards adoption. S.Africa still on the brink.

A brief intro on ISDB-Tb
Based on Japan´s original ISDB-T but improved with the addition of H.264 compression as a result of recommendations by Brazilian researchers and universities, ISDB-Tb had an edge specially because of its “one-Seg” feature which allows embedding a free-for-all low-res signal for mobile phones and netbooks along with the SD and HD-quality broadcast. One-seg proved to be a very enticing feature to democratise access to news and information in developing countries.

Three years ago the DVB group was buouyant about the prospects of DVB adoption throughout the region and a representative from the DVB group told this scribbler that our reporting on digital TV standards in South America favouring ISDB-T had “bias”.

Uruguay´s U-Turn
Back in October 2007, Leon Lev who was at the time head of Uruguay’s telecomms regulations body URSEC, told the Broadcaster magazine that choosing DVB was “timely, strategic, and puts Uruguay at the forefront of technology in the Americas”. Speaking to the same magazine, Rafael Inchausti, president of the National Association of Uruguayan Broadcasters (ANDEBU) didn´t share that view, labelling the government´s choice as “rushed”: “We think the rush might be due to conversations or negotiations that the Uruguayan state might have had with international organisations that support this system or the governments that promote this standard.”

Recently, they started regretting that choice as more countries lined up behind ISDB-T. Andrés Barbosa, an advisor for the Brazilian government, told about the situation two months ago: ” Since Uruguay adopted DVB, ´the Europeans have done absolutely nothing, they made promises and have not fulfilled them. This also happened in the rest of the world because they are in crisis”.

At that point, the Brazilian government offered the tiny South American country a series of loans and investment plans totalling around USD $60 million if Uruguay made the switch to the regional Japanese-Brazilian standard. The government of Uruguay finally caved in this week. Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Perú, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Paraguay one by one selected ISDB-Tb as the standard of choice during the last two years.

Across the pond
Just across the small pond from Uruguay, in Argentina digital DTT is finally starting to take off. While the country has one of the highest CATV penetration rates with more than one home out of two being subscribed to cable TV services, free over-the-air digital TV aims for the remaining viewers, until now stuck with a handful of analogue channels with spotty reception.

CRT HDTV tuning into 1080i ISDB-Tb broadcast

As part of its efforts to “democratise the media”, the Argentine government has given purchase orders of 1.2M STB units from three local manufacturers which it is distributing to low-income families which lack cable TV service. In addition, it has created four new public channels dealing with Music, Education -managed by the country´s Education Ministry, and which airs many BBC documentaries-, one with programming for children, and another to air Latin American and Argentine films 24/7 -this one in the hands of the country´s Film Institute that funds many of the locally produced films-.

The new public channels on DTT are in addition to a handful of private channels already being aired on digital, bringing the total to around 10 signals. The government is also making a significant investment to install transmission stations throughout the country linked by a fibre network or satellite -depending on the location-. This nationwide DTT network has already reached the capital cities of Tucumán and Cordoba provinces, and is under way to reach the rest of the country.

ISDB-Tb set top boxes were imported from China, and just before the World Cup were selling for an insane $200 greenbacks. In recent months, however, price of the high-end STBs went down to $120 (£130 quid, €150), and are being assembled locally. Low-end STBs without the interactivity middleware and imported from China are down to $75 (£48 quid, €56). Recently LCD TVs assembled locally started appearing which feature built-in ISDB-Tb tuners as well.

ISDB-Tb Set Top Box in Argentina

DVB between a rock and a hard place
In Latin America, DVB seems to be between the proverbial rock and a hard place: Colombia and Panama are two countries in Latin America which have selected the European standard. Mexico has predictably chosen the American ATSC, which makes sense given its economic assimilation by integration with the U.S. after NAFTA. Honduras is another ATSC holdout in Latin America, and it´s expected that the remaining Central American countries which are part of CAFTA trade agreement ties with the US of A will end up choosing ATSC. But the unexpected might still happen, as was Colombia´s decision to go with DVB despite its good ties with the US government and its commercial interests.

Next Battle: South Africa
Brazil wants to lobby for its standard to other continents as well. Across the (big) pond, the government of South Africa ends 2010 without a firm decision on its digital TV standard. And while the Brazilian government has been lobbying for ISDB-Tb, and the SA government has hinted that some of its members take a favourable view towards ISDB-Tb, many in the local press and the South African TV sector are firmly in the European DVB camp and see the South-American born standard with a mix of fear and contempt. Stay Tuned.

Waiter, there is a United Nations in my Software Licence!

Hver maður er borinn frjáls og jafn öðrum að virðingu og réttindum. Menn eru gæddir vitsmunum og samvisku, og ber þeim að breyta bróðurlega hverjum við annan – Omniglot

Perhaps you haven’t noticed but almost every online software licence agreement repudiates a UN treaty on the International Sale of Goods. Since we at TechEye ask the hard questions, we decided to dig a bit to find out what this UN-loathing is all about.

It all started when this scribbler attempted to install some Bluetooth software and drivers – that ended up not working, but that’s another story – and by the third time of downloading and re-installation, we took a closer look at the legalese blurb you’ve got to “agree with”, while we scratched our heads as to why did the installer stalled the last time.

It turns out that in these end user licence agreements (EULAs), software firms include a rather puzzling statement where they declare themselves (and the download) outside of the scope of this United Nations convention dubbed “CISG”.

In our case, we began this discovery thanks to the formerly Linux-hostile chipset company known as Broadcom, which offers one piece of software dubbed “Widcomm” – a BT software stack for Windows, to be used on machines with the firm’s chipset.

You can download it over here, at which point you are shown the EULA, which in its last paragraph states “The parties expressly stipulate that the 1980 United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods shall not apply.”

Since it’s a piece of freeware, and no money exchanges hands, we were puzzled why something about international sale of goods would apply as obviously no sale had taken place. We initially ventured that lawyers are a lazy bunch and just copy-pasted a standard disclaimer, but we’ll soon find out that there’s more than meets the eye, and there is a legal debate as to whether it applies to downloaded software.

The statement is talking about the CISG which was enacted way back in 1980 by UNCITRAL, the “United Nations Commission on International Trade Law”. It is defined as “a treaty that provides a standardized international sales law that has been endorsed by 76 nations as of August 2010” and that accounts “for a considerable proportion of world trade” (Felemegas, 2000).

Whatever the reason, we found it amusing that Broadcom’s lawyers – along with every other software manufacturer for that matter – are terrified of a UN treaty. Unless, of course, they produce broken software and are afraid of being sued on CISG’s grounds.

If you search with Google you will find that Broadcom includes a reference to the UN convention on almost every single file offered for download, and you will find in a minute that the rest of the American software industry does, too.

At the last celebration of the United Nations’ CISG 25th anniversary, presentations were given about the CISG’s role in the world of electronics communications. But we could find nothing as to why companies offering freeware software like Broadcom or Microsoft should repudiate it.

 

The debate: Software on the Net is a moving good. Or isn’t it?

Since we’re not lawyers we had to rely on more digging until we found why everyone and their mother seems to include such disclaimers in software licence agreements, repudiating the UN CISG.

Apparently some European courts have held that the CISG can only be used as a ground for international spats if the software is physically delivered, that is, on CDs or other media, but if the software is delivered as a download, it’s an exchange of information, so it does not apply. We understand this to mean you’re on your own if the software sets your computer on fire and eats your children, at least on CISG grounds you are empty handed.

An enlightening article at the annotated CISG database on Pace Law School at one point seems to admit there would be good reasons to extend the CISG treaty to include software travelling around the Net. Schlechtriem states: ‘There are certainly good reasons to enlarge the sphere of application of the Convention by understanding the concept of goods liberally not literally, but as far as I remember from the Vienna Conference, there was a strong conviction among many delegations that the sale and transfer problems of intellectual property and the like were not within the mandate of the Conference.

“This alone, of course, cannot answer the question whether computer software can be regarded as movables.'”

Well, software seems to be moving quite nicely on the intertubes…

It explains: “It is a problem much dealt with in German literature … If the contract concerns so-called standard software, i.e., a program not designed especially to meet a specific customer’s demands and if the program is recorded on a disk or tape, one could argue that the object of the sale falls under the Convention since it is movable and therefore ‘goods’.”

That’s from Peter Schlechtriem, in ‘Uniform Sales Law — The Experience with Uniform Sales Law in Germany'”.

The plot thickens. A 2008 rule by a German appeals court said that only “standard software” is subject to being a “movable good” and that if it includes any customisation, then it’s a service. It is all explained very nicely in this article over here, aptly titled “The Applicability and Non-Applicability of the CISG to Software Transactions”.

At one point the article says: “The majority view is that the CISG applies to on-line software. Proponents of this position advocate equal treatment for software delivered on a disk and those delivered on-line. In their understanding, since the sale of physical copy of standard software and on-line software transactions are contracts for the same purpose, the law should be blind to the mode of delivery.”

Another opinion quoted on the 2008 paper by Hiroo Sono, a counsellor at Japan’s Ministry of Justice, is Joseph Lookofsky, who states “the CISG should be applied to international sales of computer software, including transactions which program-sellers often inappropriately dub’ licenses” and he targets the ‘manufacturing lobby (that) continues its crusade in favour of legislation which would transform sales of goods into (reduced warranty) ‘licenses’.

But in reality, it looks like the United Nations’ CISG seems to be as dead as a dodo when it comes to seeking damages or remedies from a software firm, more so if it’s freeware – so no sale took place – and if it’s delivered over the internet, even more so.

Yet, amusingly, lawyers are paid to make it very clear in licence agreements all over the web that the CISG “does not apply here”. A quick search reveals that Microsoft mentions – and repudiates – the UN’s CISG on 118 of its documents. Apple on 1900 of its documents, Oracle on 117, and HP on, wow, 10,700.

 

With God on their side

So now you know what lawyers working for software firms do a living. It’s strange why after reading all this legalese babbling so many people loathe lawyers or others do not take licence agreements seriously. But who else could be repudiating the well-spirited United Nations? While researching this story, we were surprised to learn about the Seventh-Day Adventists’ alleged claim about God repudiating the U.N., too.

Indeed, in the May 31, 1949 issue of Lake Union Herald – more precisely tucked away on Page 6 – it describes a schedule of sermons to be held the next few days, and among them, including the 2nd July “God in the Bible repudiates the United Nations, and the Whole Idea of One World”. You can find the amusing document at adventistarchives.org over here.

Adventists are a very respectable and healthy God-fearing bunch. A study in California has proved that Adventists live longer than their fellow Californians, due to their dislike of alcohol, tobacco, Mountain Dew, Coke, and Pepsi Cola, among other niceties that they also dislike, apparently much more than the United Nations.

But the research has not pinpointed if the United Nations Convention on the International Sale of Goods, or stress from non-functioning Broadcom Bluetooth software has had any impact on the people’s lifespan. They should re-do that study. Because if you Google for “Broadcom Widcomm install hangs” you’ll get over six thousand results.

Broadcom installer failure

Shouldn’t we be able to call a United Nations Security Council meeting to address the problem of Windows crashes, installers that do not work, or to declare the infamous American “Doctor Watson” copycat a threat to all things good and pure?

Some days, this scribbler feels like calling in the United Nations to intervene on the matter of software quality, or lack thereof.

Disclaimer: The author of this piece is not a lawyer. This article should not be taken as legal advice. Do not do anything based on this article. Consult your nearest lawyer. And if one comes knocking on your door and you did not call him, run like Hell. This article does not fall under the United Nations Convention on the Handling of Hazardous Materials. We repudiate that treaty, unless it’s Monday.

Venezuela takes on global netbook brands in South America

The Caribbean nation of Venezuela often makes the headlines in reference to its outspoken and sometimes reviled president, but under the radar, Venezuela has Síragon, one of its tech firms aggressively entering new markets throughout South America.

Greg Palast once said: “There’s so much BS and baloney thrown around about Venezuela that I may be violating some rule of US journalism by providing some facts”. Well, in this humble article this scribbler will attempt to bring some facts about Síragon, one of Venezuela’s top tech brands.

Fifteen tears ago, engineer Passam Yusef was head of Primax Corporation, a firm which assembled PC clones from imported parts in the city of Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest, and not to be confused with Spain’s third largest bearing the same name. Nowadays, Mr Yusef, who you can see pictured here, is at the helm of Greentech and its leading PC and electronics brand name Síragon.

Síragon operates a top-notch manufacturing plant in Venezuela – pictures here – which assembles desktop PCs, laptops, LCDs, and digital cameras. It includes surface-mount-technology (SMT) machines capable of assembling memory boards, PC cards, and even motherboards locally, which is precisely what the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez wants to do: encourage local manufacturing.

Of course, in his “21st century socialism” view, he wants the State to also become a player in the market. That’s the role of Venezuela’s public-private firm VIT – in partnership with China – that produces desktop computers, mostly for government use and public education, which are pre-loaded with Canaima, a Debian Linux derivative with a Venezuelan touch and tweaked for the needs of the public sector.

The company claims its facilities can pump out 75,000 laptops per month. And Venezuelan website Caracas Digital says the initial manufacturing facilities were built with Chinese help and required an investment of $12 million.

Síragon also says it took them 19 months of work to certify its manufacturing processes under ISO 9001-2000 standards, and that such certification was the first of its kind in Venezuela for an electronics manufacturer.

 

Overseas expansion

Síragon has offices in Valencia (Venezuela), Miami, and Buenos Aires (Argentina), but only began active sales and marketing of its computers in Argentina earlier this year. It started with a humble marketing attempt through Google Adwords and was later followed by a growing force of local distributors.

By the middle of the year, Síragon Netbooks were being sold on local auctions and electronic retail web sites by its authorised distributors, with very impressive prices – at least very low for what is the local market.

While a Samsung netbook with similar specs – a 160 GB hard drive and one GB of RAM – sold in July at £345 quid (€407, $555), Siragon’s ML-1030 10″ netbook sporting the same disk and RAM but with a newer Intel Atom N280 CPU, instead of Samsung’s N270, was being offered at the local equivalent of £223 quid (€262, $357), including 21 percent VAT and with financing in monthly instalments.

Low pricing for the bottom of the proverbial pyramid

 The pricing of the Siragon ML-1030 netbook was so attractive that even this scribbler snapped one up. It sports Windows XP SP3 pre-loaded, a decent 1.3-MP Web cam, built-in Bluetooth, and Ralink-based B/G Wi-Fi, plus an empty Mini-PCIe slot for a 3G (HSDPA) modem with internal antenna. Not bad for the original introductory price of under £223.

Even today, with the introductory pricing promotions and financing gone, Síragon is among the brands offering the best value for the money, for anyone looking for netbooks locally down under.

Passam Yusef said the firm aims to bring technology to the lower segments of the pyramid: “No other company has been dedicated to cater to the needs of the lower of the pyramid which is the common people, the working classes. At Síragon we bring technology to that market segment,” he says.

The company works with many Asian based firms as its suppliers, along with American ones.

While the company doesn’t give much details about which OEMs and reference designs it works with, users on CanTV forums have claimed that some early model system boards are identified by software tools as being from the Chinese firm “GreatWall.”

 

Criticism: Wintel love, and no Linux or SSDs

Of course, it’s never all roses: for instance the firm’s current product line-up in notebooks and netbooks is 100 percent “Wintel”, that is, Windows and Intel-based.

There is not a single AMD-powered Laptop on Siragon’s Venezuelan site, and that is too bad. Of course that means the firm doesn’t offer a single notebook or netbook pre-loaded with Linux. The ML-1030 for instance would pair nicely with Ubuntu Netbook Remix, or Fedora, or MeeGo. As far as Síragon goes, Linux users are on their own.

Two years ago, Síragon’s first Netbook the ML-1010 ran Linux, so that path of developments is a bit tragic. Second: we haven’t found any machines advertised with SSDs instead of hard drives.

Third complaint: its entire product line is not available outside Venezuela yet, only a select subset of models. And last: when I had to approach Síragon in Argentina for help, I was asked back on every e-mail exchange to provide the serial number of my machine before they could help me.

A warning. By the third week the serial number label had already begun to peel off. So, as a safety measure, protect the serial number and Windows stickers, which are prone to being erased by normal friction when you place the system on uneven surfaces.

 

In short

The firm is a newcomer outside its home country but with its aggressive pricing, specially on low-end netbooks, it has the chance to make some inroads throughout Latin America.

And it’s not the only one, as Southern Cone countries like Brazil and Argentina have been encouraging local manufacturing in the tech sector instead of importing finished goods.

That gave birth to plenty of local brands that assemble locally like Exo, plus increased commerce between neighbouring countries with trade bloc agreements like Mercosur. In its home Venezuelan market, the company already claims to hold the second to third place in sales, behind leaders Lenovo and HP.

Its CEO is buoyant. Passam Yussef says: “Tomorrow, we will manufacture mobile phones, and then, why not, a satellite.”

So there you have it, Venezuela exporting computers throughout South America. Will this last, or will this be a temporary fad, just like the locally-assembled 8-bit computers we enjoyed in the 1980s? Time will tell. But hey, who said the 21st century wouldn’t give us any surprises? 

Oracle's Open Source Java for Mac OS X built

A French developer has announced the availability of the first binary test builds of Oracle’s Open Source Java, OpenJDK, for Apple’s latest Mac OS X, which can be downloaded from the contributor’s project page at Google Code.

Henri Gomez, an experienced French open sauce project programmer, informed the OpenJDK mailing list over the weekend about the availability of his OpenJDK open source Java builds for Apple’s latest Mac OS X “Snow Leopard” (10.6).

“We’re working on a continuous build of OpenJDK 1.7 for OS/X (Snow Leopard)” he said, adding that “Support for OS/X PKG/DMG packages has been recently added and we made a first set available”.

You can read more at Mr. Gomez’s blog and download the files from his Google Code project page over here. One typical build is a 64-MB download, versus Apple’s own runtime at 74MB.

Henri says that this build is based on the BSD port of OpenJDK: “For now we built with contents from OpenJDK 1.7 BSD port”. When asked if any source code from Apple has landed into the OpenJDK project – after Apple agreed with Oracle to contribute its Java implementation for Mac OS X to OpenJDK as open source – he said “not yet”.

He added “There was some discussions on OpenJDK BSD ports mailing list but I still didn’t see any Apple commitment” concluding with “as with everybody on OS/X community, I’m impatient.”

So if you’re waiting for a full OpenJDK with the same level of integration as Apple’s closed-source Java runtime – including the legacy Cocoa API hooks or making use of Apple’s Quartz graphics engine, you will have to wait until Apple delivers on its commitment to contribute source code to OpenJDK.

That would please the user-interface purists that would rather run ancient software than see buttons not comply with the Mothership’s “Human User Interface Guidelines”.

Apple’s closed source Java runtime continues being updated, with the last upgrade for Leopard (10.5) for instance being its Java for Mac OS X 10.5 Update 8, dated 20 October, which brings Apple’s Java 6 implementation up to version 1.6.0_22. The same update is available for Snow Leopard here.

The community OpenJDK build, on the other hand, lets users experience the bleeding-edge Java 7 developments of what is eventually going to become the next version of Java.   

HP joins Latin America trend to sell laptops to retirees

If you read some North American financial pundits, Latin America is full of evil leftist tyrants. But down in Argentina, HP and the country’s pensioners might disagree, as some of them are buying PCs thanks to a government PC loans programme.

While those in the developed world have access to pensions in a stronger currency and cheaper local prices for technology, retirees and pensioners in South America usually don’t have either.

That’s why the government down in Argentina and its public pensions system has enacted a loans programme through one of the government-owned banks to finance computer purchases by pensioners, with a low interest rate and long payment plans.

Of course there is still an age-related digital divide, but those that do know about computers are already taking advantage of it.

Take this scribbler’s old man as an example: an IT veteran who started back in the days of punched cards, he has just replaced his 2004 Sony VAIO with a snappy new dual core laptop sporting two gigs of RAM, which he bought with one of these government loans.

The programme, as implemented through the public bank allows pensioners to choose among three computer brands: Exo – a local manufacturer, Olivetti and HP. Of the three, HP seems to be offering the widest range of options, with multiple AMD and Intel powered laptops, and also all-in-one desktops.

These loans cover computers up to 1280 quid, in 40 monthly instalments and with free delivery nationwide. The monthly payments are automagically deducted from the pensioner’s monthly pay cheque. To put this scheme in perspective, the private sector only offers up to two-year financing -24 monthly payments – in very rare instances, with one-year financing being the most common.

So overall it’s a big deal to make the grey haired surfers happy. What seems to be lacking, though, is some ways to train the untrained in these “new” technologies.

In the case of this scribbler’s old man, he chose a Compaq C778LA, a model which HP originally introduced in mid-2009 and which HP has since updated with a 300GB hard drive. It sports two gigs of RAM, Intel X1300 integrated graphics, and Vista as its OS – quickly replaced with Win 7, also known as “Vista 7”.

 

In Blighty

 Different countries have different approaches to help their often cash-strapped generation. Britain adds IT education, for instance.

Libraries across the UK have been offering basic computer courses and there’s been training efforts like the Bee’s “First Click” programme. Other private volunteer efforts also target pensioners and help get them computer-savvy. According to reports, keeping in touch with relatives abroad and “keeping up with the grandchildren” are two of the main motivators for retirees to get to grips with ‘puters.

Another government programme in England is the sponsoring of “Online Centres” which target “those with low or zero IT skills” and provide everyone a chance to use computers and access the Internet. According to the programme description, there’s more than six thousand “online centres” across England housed in community centres, churches, schools and libraries with experienced staff available to give as much help as each person needs.

 

In Oz

Down under, the government in Western Australia offers retirees – actually anyone over the age of 60 – the “Seniors Card” which provides not only utilities discounts and cheaper transport benefits but also lower prices when purchasing a computer. 

Another solution is provided by WorkVentures Connect IT, an Aussie not-for-profit which offers “quality refurbished PCs” at cheap prices to any senior who receives payment from Centrelink (pension or health care card).

 

Conclusion

Leaving aside what the Beeb described ten years ago as the one in five pensioners who “do not see what they could use computers for”, it’s nice to see governments across the world taking into account the needs of the grey-haired web surfers. A mix of generous financing terms for wider access to computers – like Argentina’s programme that uses the funds on the State pension system that previously went to the private stock markets casino, often invested outside the country – plus easy access to training like England’s programmes surely seems to be the way to go. And surely it beats wasting tax payer wonga to reward the fat cats at the likes of Goldman Sachs with bailouts.