GNU Telephony working on a Skype replacement

Nathan Willis on LWN explains quite well the role of two GNU projects as Skype replacements: SIP Witch and GNU Free Call.

SIP Witch, the call server developed by the GNU Telephony project, made its stable 1.0 release in May. In conjunction with that milestone, GNU Telephony has also unveiled its next major project, GNU Free Call — a free, peer-to-peer routed voice calling network.

Read it all ($) GNU Telephony releases SIP Witch 1.0 and announces Free Call [LWN.net].

FSF highlights two projects that can replace Skype

GNU Free Call wants to help people easily connect with each other without relying on any one centralized network. To do that, they’re creating a peer-to-peer calling network, along with client software for traditional desktop computers and mobile devices. The project recently released stable call server software, GNU SIP Witch 1.0, and now the team is beginning to focus its efforts on building the client software.

WebRTC is coordinating an effort to let people call each other and hold videoconferences just by visiting a Web site.

via Two new projects can help free software replace Skype — Free Software Foundation — working together for free software.

Why it’s fair to put GNU in GNU/Linux

I keep meeting people that get this wrong and start very boring discussions about the name of operating systems based on Linux kernel. Latest storm started with Pedro Côrte-Real ‘How much GNU is there in GNU/Linux’ and the subsequent comments on LWN.net. GNU is the foundation of a very powerful idea: that one day  computers would run on a free (as in freedom) operating system. GNU is not an operating system, GNU cannot be measured in lines of code. The lines of code of GNU that are copyright by the FSF are what made everything else available, from Linux to Android to Apache. If it wasn’t for the early years of development of the GNU system by Stallman we would have probably never had what we have now.

Call it whatever you think is fair but remember that this is not about lines of code, it’s not a technical issue: calling the system GNU/Linux is paying a tribute to the idea that computer users need to have a free operating system. I wish the FSF would make this more prominent on gnu.org.

Looking for freedom respecting alternatives to Skype

Now that Microsoft has bought Skype many people I know are wondering what will happen to Skype’s GNU/Linux client. Will Microsoft keep it or will they drop support for it? I don’t know, nobody can predict what Microsoft will do at the moment.

From a conversation I started on identi.ca I learned a few things about the state of VoIP with free/libre software. The good news is that all you need is to make voice calls over Internet, computer to computer, there are many alternatives based on free software and open standards. The two main protocols are XMPP and SIP. Software like Jitsi (aka sip-communicator), Ekiga, Coccinella, QuteCom (aka openwengo), Telepathy/Empathy, Pidgin and other provide the same basic voice calls.

Some of these programs claim to have video capabilities but I haven’t tested this function deeply. The fact that Carlo can’t make video calls with Ekiga is not a good start. I tested Empathy video call with a friend on Empathy, both of us using our Google Talk accounts on Ubuntu and the video call worked. I’m not aware of any other XMPP server that allows video calls or if there are services using software from Muji project. I learned a little bit about SIP Witch, OpenMSRP and GNU Telephony, all seem very promising tools to help stay away from proprietary VoIP software.

Some clients, like Jitsi work also on Windows and Mac OS X. Others are GNU/Linux specific but this shouldn’t be a problem: being based on open standard one should be able to run any other SIP or XMPP client on those platform and still be able to call each other. A search on iTunes App Store and Android Market reveals lots of SIP and XMPP clients, I’m not sure about their capabilities though.

None of these clients allow desktop sharing: this is not a big limitation for me though, as I rarely used that. The main features missing from all these programs are:

  1. a global addressbook to discover your friend’s address
  2. simple ways to make calls from computer to phone or viceversa

Discoverability of new accounts is crucial to drive adoption: I have lots of contacts in my addressbook and I would like to be able to find them online instead of having to ask them for their latest VoIP address. The complexity of SIP broker white pages is intimidating, I’m not even sure I understand how it works.  Honestly, I don’t even want to know: I want to call my friends and family.

Enabling calls from and to regular phones could finance further development of these applications. I can’t believe that none of them seem to offer an easy way to buy credit from the application itself.

Since the Free Software Foundation considers a replacement to Skype an High Priority project I would suggest them to put it on a more visible page.  I keep looking for a good free software alternative to Skype that I can use to talk to my mom: leave your thoughts and notes in the comments.

Beyond removing GNU software from mobile stores

Last week the Free Software Foundation asked Apple to either remove the game GNU Go from the iTunes App Store or change the terms of service on it. Apple chose to simply remove GNU Go from the store and the move was not a surprise, as FSF Compliance Engineer said in the blog post.  I am puzzled by this move.

I don’t think that FSF goal it to prevent iPhone users to run GNU software on their device, as David ‘Lefty’ Schlesinger paints it and seems to discuss,but nevertheless this is the immediate effect.  Mobile app stores and locked down devices are hostile to free/libre software and GPLv3 can have a difficult life in the mobile environment because of its ‘full installation instructions’ provision. Also, there are still too few free/libre mobile applications.

Having this in mind, a plausible explanation of FSF’s move was to educate free software developers that mobile app stores are not designed to respect users freedom. Fine, but the following question is: how to we proceed from here? What’s the next step of this education and what’s FSF’s plan to bring freedom to the users of mobile phones? I suggest for FSF to sponsor a mobile app repository for free/libre apps: it would have to run on non-free operating systems, but that’s what GNU had to do when there was no Linux. Also, it would be good and probably easy to extend the Free Software Directory to take mobile world into account. What else should FSF do to promote freedom in the mobile world?

Why free software applications are a priority on mobile platforms (not device drivers)

Bradley wrote about mobile software freedom, a field that I’m obviously deep into because of my work at Funambol. His quite long article Musings on Software Freedom for Mobile Devices contains an analysis of the situation, which mobile platforms are more freedom-promising and why (in short: Maemo/Moblin merged as Meego and Android/Linux). I only disagree with Bradley on the priorities he sets. He says:

The challenging and more urgent work is to replace lower-level proprietary components on these systems with FLOSS alternatives,

I don’t think that device drivers are really the first problem the free software movement needs to tackle. I believe that the most important issue is to have good applications, with superb usability and that are innovative in order to attract users, fast. Some of the tactics used in the GNU project will need to be adapted to the speed of mobile, while others are not applicable.

Stallman’s project started in a time when PCs were slowly becoming relevant in society. It took almost 10 years before they were cheap enough to be in the bedrooms of young, smart programmers for them to easily contribute to the project. GNU also started developing applications first, and it took almost 10 years to start working on kernel and device drivers. The early adopters of GNU were highly skilled users, in a world with few computers with a clearly winning platform (the standard/commoditized platform IBM/Intel x86). Stallman and the whole free software movement had a lot of time to develop a nice free-as-in-freedom operating system and applications on standardized hardware. They also had the Unix design to follow: how the system had to look was pretty clear, it only had to be ‘better’.

Compare those first ten years and the quantity of computers in the ’80s/’90s to today’s speed and the quantity of mobile devices in everybody’s pocket (not just in developed countries), without a clear plan to follow(like Unix was for GNU): the game is radically more challenging. Take Google’s G1 as an example: it’s only one year old but its operating system version is obsolete (and customers are complaining). With users changing phone every 18 months in the US, the lifecycle of a free driver is too short to justify the effort.

On the other hand there are many applications that need to be liberated, like social applications that respect freedom in the cloud, mobile email client that don’t suck, mobile music players with stores that are not defective-by-design. And many more need still need to be imagined.  Developer’s focus should be on what appears in freedom-giving mobile applications markets: we made the application market concept popular (apt-get repository anyone?), now we need to move to mobile and to fill them with good and free applications first. Device drivers can come at later stage, eventually after hardware manufacturers will have battled each other to the death and one winner will emerge (like it happened with x86).

Vista is a failure and GNU adoption is ramping up

Today is one of those days that starts with a sweet taste.’  The FSF has declared another victory for its BadVista campaign: Vista is a clear failure for Microsoft and for FSF it’s time to devote energy to something else. (btw: did you donate to FSF?)

Upcoming Windows 7 won’t be any better because it’s on the same awful track of Vista, focused on DRM and depriving freedom to its users.’  Vista is so bad that hardware manufacturer have switched to GNU/Linux for the new and highly profitable netbook segment. A whole new set of devices, from Asus EEE to HP Mini Mi, all powered by GNU/Linux (not Vista) are introducing innovation (and some freedom) to the desktops.

And the mobile landscape looks promising too, after seeing the first comments about the new Palm Prè.’  I love the desktop+cards paradigm, but I still don’t know if this is a good device freedom-wise.’  Way to go: 2009 looks like a happy new year already.

If it’s broken, then fix it

Last month I had the luck to listen to Muhammad Yunnus speak about leadership and change. His speech was full of inspiration and hope, his work showed that radical changes can start by questioning what we take for granted.’  Mr. Yunnus reported a dialogue with the director of a bank where he went to ask for them to start lending money to the poors. Quoting from “Banker to the poor”:

Yunnus: “But if you are certain that the money will be repaid, why do you need collateral?”
Bank director: “That is our bank rule.”
Y: “So only those who have collateral can borrow?”
B: “Yes”
Y: “It’s a silly rule. It means that only the rich can borrow.”
B: “I don’t make the rules, the bank does”
Y: “Well, I think the rules should be changed”.

And then he went on and created Grameen Bank, radically changing those rules.

I see in his logic the same kind of logic that lead Richard Stallman to start developing the GNU system.’  He knew the rules of copyright were being used to deprive computer programmers of freedom to learn and evolve software, so he changed them with copyleft.

The lesson I got from this is that if the rules seem broken then it’s time to fix them, even if everybody else takes them for granted.

Mac OS X vs GNU: my personal summary (3/3)

After two days bashing Apple, here is the good stuff as promised.

iWorks is good stuff. Keynote is simply amazing: everything is where it should be, the templates are gorgeous, animations are fluid, automatic aligning of pasted items is superb. Pages is beyond any wordprocessor out there. I haven’t used Numbers enough because I don’t have much time to learn it, but it looks amazing and innovative too. Seeing iWorks made me think of the amount of work for free/libre software developers to catch up.’  To OO.org (and koffice) developers my suggestion is: stop wasting time imitatin Microsoft Office, abandon Base (not useful), invest on improving Presenter and new UI paradigm. And get designers to work on good templates.

Time Machine is another masterpiece: that’s how backup and restore should work on all systems. I’ve always dreamed of having something so simple on GNU. All the tools are already there, but nobody ever designed such a beautiful and simple to use interface. I should probably talk of ‘experience’ instead of simply an interface because Time Machine barely has an interface. To backup you simply plugin an external disk and all the job is done without a question asked, magically. To restore you simply click on the Time Machine icon and you’re brought back in time with the interface of the software you’re running. It’s too difficult to explain, you have to watch it live. GNOME and KDE guys: please, learn from that.

Finally the hardware: bad keyboard, but amazing case. I love the magnets to hold the screen down, very very convenient. And I love the power plug. If Dell or HP made gorgeous GNU/Linux compatible machines, especially desktops that you’re not ashamed to put in a living room, I’d spend extra bucks to buy them.

So in the end, I’m happy I tested Apple’s system but I wouldn’t buy one for me: it’s too expensive for what it gives back to somebody like me that already knows how to use well a GNU system.’  Considering that GNU learning curve is so much less steep than it used to, I really don’t see many reasons not to start walking it today.