Moonlight – what’s the big deal?

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see an article on Linux Today about Moonlight and what a horrible person Miguel de Icaza is. So I thought I’d go ahead and do some exploration of what’s going on with Moonlight and Silverlight. First of all, what’s Silverlight? Check out the Silverlight article on Wikipedia. Basically, Silverlight is Microsoft’s answer to Adobe’s Flash. MS is pretty peeved they haven’t been able to get people off of PDF and onto their own format. They waited way too long while the rest of us realized that PDF is great if you want to make sure that the document you create is displayed the same way on everyone’s computer regardless of the fonts they have or which version of Office they have installed. (Or if they even have office installed)

Flash has been around since the dial-up days when most people would get mixed feelings when they came upon a flash website. We knew it would take orders of magnitude longer to load than an HTML website, but it would also look really cool. But Microsoft is once again playing catchup. This time, however, they are using their huge bank accounts to make it look like a really good idea to use Silverlight. Many of the Olympics websites were available in Silverlight. Not only does this get Silverlight into the vernacular during a huge event, but it also gets it installed onto tons of people’s computers. These people might have otherwise skipped websites that required them to install yet another plugin.

Having Silverlight used on such a massive event like the Olympics also helps MS help to convince people who switched to Macs that they are on the wrong platform. After all, all they have to do is release a new version of Silverlight and not release it to the Macs on the same day. Bam, people start jonesing for Windows again.

This brings us to Moonlight, Novell, and Miguel de Icaza. Miguel works at Novell. Novell signed the pact with Microsoft that caused them to become radioactive to a certain portion of the free software community. Not only did it seem like an admission of guilt from Novell, but it also creates two classes of Linux users. Novell users, who are protected from MS lawsuits and everyone else. (Not that I believe for a second that MS has a leg to stand on with those lawsuits) So the first sin Miguel has committed (in the public eye) is to be working at Novell.

Second, he helped to create Mono. Mono is an open source implementation of Microsoft’s .net framework and the main C# interpreter in Linux. There are quite a few reasons why people don’t like this. C# is an example of Microsoft’s embrace, extend, extinguish strategy. It’s basically a bootlegged version of Java because they couldn’t get anyone to use their jacked up version of Java. Why they couldn’t just play nice with Sun is beyond me. They have such a need to control. Reminds me of Apple and the iPhone. So C# is a Microsoft creation. However, it is an ECMA standard (and maybe an ISO standard) so C# isn’t patent-encumbered. .Net, on the other hand, is a MS technology which is full of patents. People fear that MS could one day sue Linux distributions for including Mono because it infringes on their patents. Thus, there are some that have taken to uninstalling all traces of Mono from their distributions. Is this a rational fear? I don’t know. I’ve read stuff that says it is and stuff that says it isn’t. I really like Tomboy and Beagle.

So now Miguel and Novell have created Moonlight – an open source version of Silverlight. This is what has lots and lots of people mad and talking about it. Microsoft has been really, really (uncharacteristically) nice when it comes to Moonlight. They have been providing the Novell team with reference specifications, test suites to ensure compatibility, and binary codecs. Previous MS technologies which have been reverse engineered like CIFS and Pre-2007 Office formats have have no help from MS. So should people be worried?

I guess it all comes down to intention. Why is Microsoft being so nice? How can it backfire? Miguel has been making a very reasonable argument recently. He has been saying that we don’t want Linux users to get left behind again. It took us a long time to get proper Flash support and because of that we couldn’t properly experience some of the web. So why not work together with MS to ensure we can view the inevitable websites created with Silverlight. Seems perfectly reasonable. After all, if Joe Blow decides to make his website with Silverlight, we shouldn’t necessarily boycott his website. Perhaps it’s all he knows how to do. Now lets look at the worst case scenario. Microsoft helps Linux and Mac out by providing Silverlight. “Look,” they say to web developers, “this will work on everyone’s computer and you can do all these cool things.” More and more web developers use it where they would use Flash. Eventually you can’t get on the web without using Silverlight. Then they decide to suddenly stop helping Linux and Mac. Now what? I doubt they would sue us. That’s really the least of our problems. It’s that once again someone helped MS get to the top when they were having problems and then when they achieved dominance, they left everyone else behind.

Have they ever done this before? Sure – providing Internet Explorer for Macintosh then suddenly abandoning it once they had soundly defeated Netscape.

So, what’s the final verdict? What should we do? Generally speaking, I happen to be a computing realist. Although I rip all of my CDs to OGG Vorbis, I have MP3 decoders on my Linux computers because the Amazon format is MP3. I have videos in mpeg, avi and other non-OGG theora formats. I’m able to view the non-OGG video formats on more computers and they encode much more quickly. I use Adobe’s Flash instead of Gnu Gnash because I want my web pages to work correctly. Finally, I use nVidia’s Linux drivers because I want to have the full functionality of my graphics card whether it’s for something frivolous like Compiz or some 3D computer game. And, I do not have any problems with using Mono on my computer. Although I’m not a huge fan of MS, I don’t see how Mono could hurt me. C# is usable by anyone and if Microsoft decides to stop cooperating with .Net, there’s nothing that says we have to continue compatibility. We can just continue with our own version which is optimized for Linux.

With Moonlight, I am a bit more hesitant. Microsoft has a horrible track record of stabbing people in the back. I don’t want to help them once again achieve hegemony on the web and muck about with the standards again. I want sites to be viewable to everyone whether or not they choose to buy a Windows computer. If they choose to exercise their right to use Mac, Linux, BeOS, AmigaOS, Haiku, or BSD, they should also have the right to access the information on the Internet. I think for now I will keep Moonlight off of my Linux computers and even Silverlight off of my Windows computers. Hopefully, I will never need it for some website I love and, therefore, will never install it.

Review: openSuse 11.0 (and KDE 4)

I’ve never used Suse or openSuse.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been a “loyal” Fedora user since Fedora Core 1 and I have Ubuntu on my laptop since it had awesome laptop support.  I even got some Suse CDs as a prize for the Letter of the Month from Linux Format magazine.  However, I never even tried it at that time as I was mad at Novell for the Microsoft pact.  I think it lends a lot of credibility to Microsoft’s BS argument that Linux violates its patents.

But it’s been a few years and nothing horrible has happened because of the Microsoft pact and it came as a liveDVD in the latest Linux Format Magazine.  I was trying to wait until KDE 4.1 came out for Fedora so that could be my first experience with KDE 4, but that’s been delayed nearly a month now (while they, rightly, fix some bugs) so I decided to go ahead with the Suse review.

Suse is the second oldest distro that’s still around.  It started off as being based off of Slackware and later on was somewhat based on Red Hat, borrowing rpm and some other technologies.  Since then it’s gone off on its own and is now considered one of the big boys.  A few years after Red Hat shelved its personal distro and converted over to the community-sponsored Fedora, Suse decided to do the same thing with openSuse.  Just like Fedora, they’ve had some uneven releases.  However, openSuse 11 is supposed to be their comeback release.  Historically, Suse has been one of the biggest supporters of KDE as the default desktop although that has fallen off a little seince they’ve been trying to compete with Red Hat in the business world.

It’s important to note, however, that Novell’s Suse team has put a LOT of work into their KDE desktop.  This liveDVD is running KDE 4.0, yet they didn’t seem to have any problems getting icons on the desktop.  Lots of people were complaining about being unable to do so in Fedora and other distros using KDE 4.  Apparently, they just didn’t take the time that Suse did to engineer a really good KDE 4 release.  (Frankly, I’m surprised that Siego didn’t point to openSuse 11.0 as an example of a well-implemented KDE 4.0 release!)  They’ve also solved the problem of the ugly black panel that was too large.  So, plus points go to Novell’s openSuse/Suse KDE team.  They deserve an applause for doing this so well!

Novell has the KDE program menu that has annoyed so many people.  One of the things I’ve always loved about KDE was the fact that it had a favorite (or most run) programs section on the start menu.  Sure, there are some that believe that if you’re going to run programs that often you should have them as launchers on your taskbar.  But that can make taskbars look a bit cluttered.  Also, I think the most used program portion of Window’s Start Menu is one of the things they got very right with Windows XP.  (I’m not sure if MS innovated that or copied it from somewhere)  This menu is a good menu and doesn’t deserve all the hatred it’s received on the net.  It just needs a couple of tweaks to make it perfect.  The first problem with it is that if your mouse wanders down to the Favorites, Applications, etc portion of the menu, it switches you to that section.  I think a click should be required there to keep people from accidentally switching.   That was the biggest complaint most people had and it can be fixed so easily.  No need to throw the baby out with the bath water.  One other thing that was a bit unclear to me was how to go back on the applications hierarchy.  The skinny arrow on the left is not noticeable enough – at least not the first time it catches you off guard.

Widgets…it’s one of the biggest, most talked about innovations of KDE 4.  There is a lot of innovation going on in KDE 4 and if they can get past the KDE 4.0 stigma, I think they may end up surpassing Gnome with this release.  With Superkaramba, KDE has always done widgets so much better than Gnome.  Gnome’s desklets always seemed a bit kludgey and tacked on at the end.  Superkaramba always felt like it was part of KDE; even before it was added as an official part of KDE 3.5.   Now, with Plasma, the KDE team hopes to take them to the level of Apple’s OSX widgets.  In fact, OSX widget compatibility is either in KDE 4.1 or coming in KDE 4.2.

Wow!  If you’ve only seen the same old screenshots of a calculator, a click and a notepad, you haven’t seen the true power of the widgets.  First of all, they have quite a few new ones now.  You can see that I have a comic viewer, an RSS feed, and a Twitter feed.  All of these came from the default “add widgets” dialog.  I’m surprised, especially given the popularity of Twitter, that no one has showcased these widgets yet.  I’m thouroughly impressed that we’ve moved beyond simple system monitors and weather widgets (although I’m sure those are coming soon enough!)  They’re very easy and intuitive to position and configure.  And, one of the problems I always had with widgets on any desktop was that if I had all my programs open, they were less helpful to me.  Well, by clicking on the little button by the gecko or the top right corner, the plasma dashboard view is activated. This minimizes your programs and brings the widgets to the forefront.  A simple click on the desktop brings your programs back!  Couldn’t be easier.  They’re also very pleasing to the eye with their drop shadows.  They move smoothly and appear with a little fade-in.  Very nice.

As far as programs go, they have a pretty standard set.  OpenOffice.org provides the office suite.  Again, like with Mandriva, this is a little bit out of place since they could use KOffice.  However, I know that OpenOffice.org has much better compatibility with the suite from Redmond.  Interestingly, GIMP and Krita don’t seem to be included – but then again, it’s a liveDVD.  I’m sure it’s in the repositories.

In fact, let’s check out Yast, their control center.  It appears to control any setting you might want to change.  Plus points for them for making it all nice and organized.  In fact, they seem to be on par with Mandriva here in terms of everyting you could possibly want in one place.  Minus a very small point for it not looking as pretty as Mandriva or even as pretty as the rest of openSuse 11.0.  From here we can install programs.  Let’s see how well that appears to work.

I have to say that it is indeed ugly to look at.   I couldn’t really get a good feel for it as it didn’t have repositories defined.  I’ve really become much more of a fan of PackageKit’s interface.  (Which I’ll talk about in my Fedora review)  More and more Gnome-based distros are moving to PackageKit and I think there’s even a KDE version of Packagekit.  It works very well for package management and you can’t argue against the value of a consistent interface across distros.

Some last little things I noticed.  Take a look at what came up when I clicked on “My Computer”:

I really, really like this page that it loads up.  It is very useful for locating places on your computer AND for getting information.  To get the same info in Windows you’d have to open up “My Computer” AND right-click on “My Computer” and click on properties.  Here you have some quick links to “Common Folders” and also you can see that it recognized my NTFS hard drives.  You also have all the key information you need in order to get help from someone:  kernel version, distro, KDE version, graphics card driver, graphics card info, CPU info, and the total and free RAM.  Just one look gives you everything you need to know.  And I want to finish up with just a quick look at some of the neat finishing touches that Novell has done with openSuse.

Look at that – there’s a little gecko – the Suse mascot on the title bar.  This little dude appears on any title bar that has focus.  It’s just little touches like this that make the distro seem more professional.  I wish more distros would do things like this.  And look at this:

Now, this is probably a KDE setting, as opposed to Suse, but good on Novell for leaving it in.  There are many things I like about this setup.  First of all, the expansion button is not next to the exit button.  The number of times I’ve been frustrated by accidentally closing a window when I meant to resize it is just too numerous to count.  Also, the up arrow makes more sense to me than Microsoft’s icon.  It’s just that we’ve been around with the Microsoft implementation for 20 years.

So, what’s my final verdict?  I think Novell has done a really, really good job with openSuse 11.0.  Unlike Fedora, they did a very good job with the unfinished KDE 4.0 and turned it into something usable.  Lots of visual finishing touches make the distro just feel professional and not hacked together.  There are a few rough edges here and there.  I also didn’t test out flash, MP3 playback, or DVD playback.  I presume these can all be downloaded from some third party repository in some country where they don’t implement silly things like software patents.

Except for the still touchy subject of the Microsoft deal, I’d recommend Novell to someone who was new to Linux but ready to learn.  It doesn’t have the same hand-hold style of Ubuntu, so that’s still my top choice.  Right now it’s really almost a tie between recommending Mandriva and openSuse as the next best thing after Ubuntu.  Fedora is often broken due to being bleeding edge and I wouldn’t recommend it to someone brand new to Linux.  Of course, there still is the patent deal and they either did it to make themselves more palatable to companies than Red Hat (thus having bad motives) or they had to satisfy investors (which they legally must do in the USA).  So I guess that would break the tie and give it to Mandriva.  But Novell has made a top notch distro and if they can get over the negative press from the Microsoft deal (and there are websites like boycottNovell to prevent that), then I think openSuse may end up on more magazine covers and start to steal some of the thunder away from Ubuntu.

More Updates on the Novell and Microsoft Deal

Eben Moglen, a lawyer for the Free Software Foundation, remarks that the new deal may violate Section 7 of the GPL! So now you see that the stakes in the GPLv3 talks are very high! The GPLv2 may indeed be our saviour against Microsoft’s tyranies, but more on that momentarily! Mr. Moglen specifically comments:

“If you make an agreement which requires you to pay a royalty to anybody for the right to distribute GPL software, you may not distribute it under the GPL,” Moglen told CNET News.com Thursday. Section 7 of the GPL “requires that you have, and pass along to everybody, the right to distribute software freely and without additional permission.”

And, it seems that Microsoft wants to play the role of the mafia, asking for money to protect other Linux distros against being sued by MS for violating patents. “You might want to buy our ‘insurance policy’, it’s a dangerous town,” he would say in a gangster movie. In reality he said:

“If a customer says, ‘Look, do we have liability for the use of your patented work?’ Essentially, If you’re using non-SUSE Linux, then I’d say the answer is yes,”

and

Competing Linux vendors “are certainly welcome to get involved to quickly provide these covenants not to sue,”

Both quotes courtesy of this eWeek article.

On Open Sources, Matt Assay points out:

  • Microsoft wasn’t going to sue Novell, anyway.
    A little remarked, but still true fact is that Novell has long held patents that go to the heart of Microsoft’s Office business. Whatever saber rattling Microsoft might do about Linux, it knows that Novell has a great “counter argument.” This announcement was little more than public acknowledgment of an uneasy truce. And it’s a truce that helps Red Hat as much as it does Novell..

  • The patent protection applies to Red Hat, whatever Ballmer might say. Specifically, he said:

    “Novell is acting as a proxy for its customers, and only its customers. If they (businesses) want patent peace and interoperability, then they’ll have to look to Suse Linux.”

    Given that most of the code in SUSE Linux is (gasp!) exactly the same as in Red Hat Enterprise Linux, it’s hard to see what lawsuit Microsoft could launch against Red Hat (or Ubuntu, or Debian, or….) that wouldn’t land on Novell’s SUSE Linux, as well. So they won’t. It’s a clever gimmick, but only that.

Finally, in this article, Red Hat expresses frustration and anger over Novell selling their soul.

So, this should tell you a few very important things!

1) Licenses are a PITA, but they are necessary! Without the GPL, we’d be sunk! The choice of the license matters too, as a BSD license would not have offered this level of protection.

2)Microsoft’s racketeering should prove, once and for all, that Microsoft is pure evil – just like a mafia! Gates, with his foundation, may be a nice guy, but the company he co-founded is seriously lacking in any kind of ethics or morals. They truly disgust me. Of course, they funded the SCO case, so what could you expect?

Novell Sells out….

So, by now this is a little older news, but I wanted to wait for some more information before blogging. Novell has signed a deal with the devil, I mean Microsoft. When I first heard the story yesterday I thought, “OH sh$t! It’s embrace and extend and it’s with Linux!” Novell’s Press Release spun it as a positive thing for Linux. In reality, if you pay attention for the words, their point is that this partnership is good for Novell and Suse Linux, not all Linux users. I could have said, “Well, at least we have Red Hat in the business spaces to keep things going well.” But, no, Oracle had to botch that up last week. One of the biggest steps backwards this agreement takes, is that now Novell is support Microsoft’s Office XML format. NO NO NO! We were supposed to be going towards OPEN standards! You know, like the IEEE promotes! Why? Because we all know that proprietary standards can really cause things to get locked up when the proprietary vendor stops supporting it. But then again, maybe Novell doesn’t know this since it promoted Netware and other such proprietary produces before trading its stripes for Linux.

But then again, Novell has been a thorn in everyone’s side for a while. For example, developing GLX on their own and then putting it out there, instead of doing open development like a good Linux company. The outcome? Redhat and others are forced to fork into AIGLX since they didn’t have a say in GLX. I can only hope that the power of the GPL can keep Novell’s faustian bargain from shooting us all in the foot!

For another person’s view of Novell’s mistakes, check out Novell-Microsoft: What They Aren’t Telling You , by Bruce Perens, a very respected Open Source movement Guru.