How To Read Open Document Format ODF documents on Symbian

My previous post on the topic generated quite a discussion about Open Document Format (aka ISO 26300) documents on mobile platforms. My argument was that ODF support on most mobile platforms is still poor compared to the proprietary counterparts. From the discussion that happened on identi.ca I learned about a quite decent Symbian reader for ODF files, called Office Reader. I tested it using Funambol email push and sync client on my Nokia E71 and the results are quite good. You can see from the screenshots below (taken from a pretty complex ODT test file) that the text rendered correctly.  I’m confident that I would be able to get an idea of the attached document and, if it was a press release, for example, I think I would OfficeReader would present enough information to approve it or not. This is the  if you want to compare to the mobile version. I’ve tested also a couple of ODP presentations and spreadsheets: they are rendered good enough to get an idea of what kind of document it is, but not as well as the text file.

I downloaded and installed OfficeReader directly from the phone’s browser, but of course all other options are valid. Check the FAQ if you can’t install or run it (I had to allow your phone’s operating system to run unsigned apps).

PS I took the screenshots with the free software Screenshot application (GPL license but the install screen says ‘freeware -not to be sold’ ?!?).

Why I wish I could reject your email attachment

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) today launched a campaign calling on all computer users to start politely rejecting email attachments sent in secret and proprietary formats: for freedom and the good of the web!  I believe that open standards are the best form to convey information and I think that attachments contribute to spread proprietary formats.

Unfortunately I think that this campaign cannot be joined by mobile phone users because it’s damaging them. None of the mobile operating systems I have stumbled upon offers support for OO.org. Maybe on Android there is a way to read attached ODF files, but through Google Docs (support of Impress file format is missing, though). ODF support on BlackBerry was announced but I couldn’t find mention on their website. I think Meego (formerly known as Maemo) has native support for ODF, but very few people use it. Not sure about other OSes. A search for OpenOffice.org/ODF on Nokia Ovi Store produced no result. That alone excludes 40% of European mobile phone users (millions of people, including me) from joining this campaign. I wish I could join this campaign, but for me is still impossible to view an .odt or .opd on the move, so I prefer to receive a .doc or .ppt that I can use on my OpenOffice.org desktop and also look at it on my phone.

Mobile users still have too little freedom to reject proprietary formats. For Document Freedom Day I would like to add a new item to the FSF’s list of priorities: support for ODF on mobile operating systems, from Android to Symbian to others.

via Why I’m rejecting your email attachment — Free Software Foundation.

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).

Newlyweds: Nokia’s Maemo and Intel’s Moblin

This is good news for mobile free software (or open source, as you wish to call it): Maemo and Moblin joined forces today.  I had lots of expectations for Maemo, but so far Nokia hasn’t pushed it enough. This merge of the two project may give it a new life.  Now the issue is only to have more mobile devices and phones out there that use this platform, without getting tempted with proprietarization (like evil Motorola is doing –hint: don’t buy a Milestone).

MeeGo combines Intel’s Moblin and Nokia’s Maemo projects at the Linux Foundation to create one open source uber-platform for the next generation of computing devices: tablets, pocketable computers, netbooks, automotive IVI and more.

Why should you pay attention to this announcement? With MeeGo you have the world’s largest chip manufacturer and the world’s largest mobile handset manufacturer joining forces to create an incredible opportunity for developers who want to reach millions of users with innovative technology.

via Bringing the Magic to Linux with MeeGo | Linux.com.

Why that thing on Nexus One?

I can’t get my head around one feature of Google’s superphone: why did they put that scroll-click-button at the bottom of the phone? Shouldn’t the touch screen be enough to use the phone? Besides, being so close to the bottom edge, can it really be used? If anybody is still thinking that Google wants to become a hardware manufacturer, that detail alone shows how G still has lots of road to cover.

But I don’t think Google is going to compete directly with HTC, Samsung and all others. I agree with Fabrizio, Ars and HBR: Google is disrupting the mobile phone market in the USA introducing what us Europeans had forever: choice. In Europe we can choose the phone we prefer and use it with any carrier. In the USA carriers tend to make monopolistic agreements with phone manufacturers, so consumers that want a phone usually have only one choice of carrier. Think iPhone which is limited to AT&T in USA but in Italy you can buy it from three different carriers. For this Nexus One is like the iPhone: it’s a game changer. I think that other hardware manufacturers like Nokia could profit from Google’s move, too.

How to avoid frustrations with BlackBerry and Mac

Just don’t buy that combo: Mac and BlackBerry are two very closed environments, they don’t want to be interoperable, they hate each other and their customers.

Not that I would make such mistake, never. But I have friends that do this kind of stuff and then I’m enough of a friend to share with them the painful experience.  A very good friend of mine loves Mac: it’s a cult (no rationality, only emotions) coupled with a very strong lock-in strategy with non-standard data format and in general poor interoperability with the outside world. She hates touchscreens, so she ruled out buying an iPhone. I can’t really say that this is necessarily bad because the iPhone would have tightened her data in stronger shackles.

So she decided to buy a BlackBerry Curve 8900 hoping that RIM’s newly released Desktop Manager for Mac would work. As she soon realized, that was a wrong assumption. I tried to help her out but DM for Mac is a smelly piece of **ap.  The software installs fine and when you connect the phone for the first time the DM happily tells you that there are upgrades available for your device. Do you want to install them? DM asked. Not now, I answered, as I first want to do a backup of all data. Ok, clicked on Backup.  The DM tried to shit but only farted: after 3 minutes with a progress bar not progressing, it said ‘Sorry, can’t backup’. Ok, I said, lets try this again. This time no useless progress bar, nothing. I noticed that the BB seemed disconnected. I unplugged and plugged it in again several times but nothing changed.  I tried soft rebooting the machine with no result, so I hard rebooted it taking off the battery. Everybody hates rebooting a BB: after waiting for 3 minutes I connected the usb cable again to the Mac Desktop Manager and the device showed up again, connected. DM asked: Do you want to install the updates for your device? This time I answered Yes, thinking that maybe declining the request the first time was the reason for the mess. Well, it wasn’t: the DM started the upgrade process but, after a few painful minutes watching the progress bar not showing any progress, it eventually gave up. I tried again the soft reboots, unplug-replug., hard reboot, etc. I even uninstalled and reinstalled the RIM Desktop Manager as suggested in the BB forums (wow! a pure Windows mentality) until I finally gave up.  I’ll see if I can find a Windows machine for her to update the BB firmware and see if that solves the problem of communication between Mac and BB.

The lesson learned is: if you buy highly proprietary products like Mac and BlackBerry don’t expect them to be interoperable between each other. These companies hate each other and they sacrifice their user’s freedom of choice only to see the other company suffer.

Thoughts on mobile cloud computing

Mobile cloud computing represents an opportunity for the free/libre open source software movement that is just as big and radical as cloud computing, maybe even moreso. This is part 1 of a post about it, part 2 will follow shortly.

By the end of 2009, 4 billion people will use mobile phones. By 2013, that number is projected to grow to 6 billion. That is many times the number of personal computer users. By definition, mobile phones that access the internet are performing mobile cloud computing: handsets need to borrow storage and computing power from the cloud because of their limited resources.

Just as Free/Libre Open Source Software played a major role in the growth of the Internet and cloud computing, sparking issues about openness and freedom, the Free Software movement has the potential to provide a similar yet different impact on mobile cloud computing.

To mitigate the power of the cloud computing vendors and reduce the risk of lock-in the free/libre software community and proprietary vendors are discussing policies and proposing standards. Various communities, from Open Cloud Manifesto to Autonomo.us think-tank, are searching ways to guarantee interoperability, security, privacy for users of the cloud services.

Mobile cloud services have similar issues, although the expected impact on the users is different. While a desktop user has the option to keep pictures in the cloud, on services like Flickr or use local storage, mobile user’s choice is limited by the device form factor.  Even if mobile devices are not exactly ‘dumb’ terminals, but they’re not ‘super-smart’ either. Usually the applications are resident on the device, but not all of the user’s data or the computing power can fit in there.  Therefore mobile cloud servicese ‘lend’ computing power to the handset when it connects to the service, which then can continue working ‘disconnected’. For example, a phone can use extra storage from the cloud for multimedia files, like pics or music. The mobile cloud service can then push to the device a special music playlist for a running workout when it’s needed.

Mobile cloud services are largely dominated by vendor specific walled gardens, and debate is not as intense as the numbers of cell phone users would suggest. Probably this is due to the fact that not only Free Software powered mobile phones are not easy to find, but also installing new software on phones was not an option for the mass market until recently. Now, after iPhone and with more and more ‘application stores’ emerging, the issue of mobile users’ freedom is showing up: billions of new handset users have the issue of freedom for the software on the device and freedom in the mobile cloud.

The Free Software community has to step in the mobile cloud debate or a large piece of digital citizens will not be able to enjoy the benefits that free software has brought to larger computer users.  The mobile cloud is pretty much an open territory where many vendors are already fighting to lock-in their users.

The birds of a feather session at OSCON is devoted to the idea of “open mobile” cloud computing. Some of the questions that we can discuss include:

  • What is open mobile cloud computing and what does it mean?
  • What components, solutions, technology, ecosystem and standards are involved?
  • What provisions are needed to safeguard everyone’s rights?
  • What tools are already available to build free as in freedom mobile cloud services?

If you would like to participate in this birds of a feather session @OSCON or this discussion, please contact me.

Locked devices, GPLv3 and the path to mobile freedom

iPhone lockedIn a recent discussion with friends I realized that tivoization is a sub-optimal world to describe the problem that the Free Software community has with freedom being controlled by those that control the hardware.  The word clearly targets one specific company, so the problem gets somewhat reduced in scope. The real issue is not limited to companies exploiting the hard work of free developers, removing with hardware constraints the very freedom that developers wanted to grant to all users. There is more than that, and this is especially visible in the mobile environment.

Almost all existing handsets require applications to be signed before they can be executed. Depending on the mobile platform, these signing keys can be cheap or expensive and given to all or only to selected people. All of them are personal and they’re not supposed to be shared with third party. GPLv3 and its sister licenses, Affero GPLv3 and Lesser GPLv3, require developers to release the full installation instructions which include the private keys to sign the application. This is not requested by the license only to the manufacturers of User Products, like the word tivoization seems to suggest, but to everybody distributing GPLv3 software on locked down devices, like iPhone or BlackBerry.

Free Software Developers that want to re-use or release new code under the GPLv3 licenses face a dilemma: decide not to support locked devices or circumvent the GPLv3 requirement to distribute the signing keys with an additional permission. Option one means that almost all of cell phone users out there (over 2 billion people in 2005) won’t get to know Mobile Free Software. Option 2 means surrendering to the power of AT&T, Verizon, Apple, Microsoft and the like. Funambol requires copyright assignment for all contributions, so it can distribute the source code of its mobile clients under the vanilla AGPLv3 license, and the binaries are under a different license. It’s a hack that works as long as developers trust the company not to breach the social contract and it has limitations.

On the other hand, the GPLv3 anti-lock provision is there to protect Free Software Users from the risk to be bullied by the network operators, since you can lose the warranty or be kicked out of the network if you run software that is not blessed by the gate keepers of the mobile cloud.

Is there a third option? Does relaxing the GPLv3 provision really mean surrendering to the powers of the telecom operators, who twist the arms of the proprietary manufacturers? How can the Free Software community change the broken rules dictated by the Evil Lords of the Wireless Cloud?

Nokia and the L of smart freedom

The good news today is that Nokia relicensed the Qt (pr: cute) libraries under the GNU Lesser General Public License, demonstrating that the mobile ecosystem is where things happen. The GNU Lesser GPL is a license that allows non-free and free software to co-exist. Yes, with the LGPL the FSF admits that non-free software exists. Confused/surprised? You shouldn’t be: the FSF and Stallman are much less of a fundamentalist than they are painted by the FUD-drones. The LGPL is a strategic tool to allow free software developers to help each other: when a free library doesn’t offer any particular advantages over alternative non-free libraries, then it makes sense to use the Lesser GPL for it, instead of the GPL. Using the LGPL library will give a cost saving opportunity to proprietary software developers, while free software developers will get code contributions and a wider user base.’  The L stands for “smart freedom”.

Interesting to notice that this is the second license change for the project: from the Q Public License to the GNU GPL. Now they’re under the Lesser GPL, with a more transparent development model, a git repository and, wow, contributors will keep the copyright of their code (no contributors agreement to sign). Nokia seems very aggressive, and they’re right. With Android in town they need to fight with all the weapons they have.

I expect now a tougher competition between the two major toolkits, Qt and GTK+, with a polarization of the battle field. On the Qt side there is Nokia, on the GTK+ side there is Sun, Novell, RedHat, HP and all mobile’  Linux platforms. Nokia is also supporting GTK+ for its Maemo Internet Tablets, but I guess they’ll pull the plug and switch to Qt in a few months.

Does it still make sense to push the development of the somewhat inferior LGPL GTK+ when you can switch to LGPL Qt? We’ll have to wait and see. What is sure is that free software is definitely here to stay and play a major role in the mobile arena (and I’m betting that Capo wins his bet –Microsoft will offer Windows Mobile as free software).

(via ArsTechnica)

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.