Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Friday, August 20, 2010

iPhone: Getting back to 3

I’ve always kept my iPhone pretty much up to date with Apple software. After all, upgrades are free, and they often deliver exciting new stuff. Over the two years I’ve had my iPhone 3G, it has got more and more capable due to improving software.

Then Apple pushed iPhone OS 4 – or iOS4, as it’s now called – and the trouble began. Programs on my phone kept crashing, the sound kept getting interrupted and it became glacially slow. My phone went from being a thing of beauty and a joy to use to being a clunky machine to be endured and cursed. Using Wellington’s helpful text-to-park feature became nearly impossible because the parking machine would time out in the time it took me to send it a text message. And, in what was the last straw, it started ignoring incoming calls and going straight to voicemail.

This is the story of how I fixed all that by going back to iPhone OS 3.

posted by colin at 1:29 pm  

Saturday, April 10, 2010


The Princeton online dictionary define disingenuous as: “not straightforward or candid; giving a false appearance of frankness”. I can’t think of a better way to characterize some of the responses to the Commerce Select Committee’s sensible decision not to allow software patents in New Zealand.

I’m delighted with the decision. I’ve written before about the iniquities of software patents. Here are five reasons not to allow them:

  1. Patents are private monopolies permitted because they are supposed to encourage innovation. Yet there is no shortage of innovation in software in countries that don’t allow software patents.
  2. There is serious harm in software patents because their existence threatens software innovators who can’t tell if some idea is patented and have no way to evaluate a threat from someone who claims a patent over their work.
  3. Allowing software patents lead to unintended bad consequences such as the existence of patent trolls – companies which appear to exist just to threaten developers with patent suits.
  4. Patents cause a large deadweight cost in legal fees. That’s money which simply disappears from the software economy to the enrichment of patent lawyers.
  5. Software patents can’t be awarded fairly. Patents offices and courts seem incapable of making sane decisions about what is and is not an original “invention” in software.

There has been a chorus of approval of the Committee’s decision. But there have also been some people arguing against. Two come to mind:

posted by colin at 5:13 pm  

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Can anything save OOXML?

Apparently not. Let me explain.

Two years ago I went as part of the New Zealand delegation to a meeting in Geneva called to determine the fate of a proposed new ISO/IEC document format standard, called colloquially OOXML or Office Open XML. Despite its name this standard had nothing to do with the OpenOffice word processing and spreadsheet program – which, in fact, uses a well established ISO standard format called ODF. Rather, OOXML was a an entirely different format invented by Microsoft for use by its Office 2007 suite.  Microsoft was very keen that OOXML be made an ISO standard, taking a full page ad in the Dominion Post claiming all kinds of benefits, including, mystifyingly, “provid[ing] choice about which software we use to exchange to documents” and “fostering innovation”.

The OOXML specification weighed in at 6,500 pages. At the time of the meeting in February 2008, national standards bodies had already voted not to standardize it. Their objections covered a huge range of technical problems with the standard, concerns that the standard might be encumbered with patent claims, and a view among some that setting multiple standards for the same thing would hinder the ability of people and businesses to swap documents between different word processors. The meeting I went to was intended to deal with the technical concerns.

By the time we arrived at the meeting 1,500 pages of changes had been proposed to the draft standard. The meeting, which had about 50 countries with an average of three attendees each, then tried to work its way through these changes to see if they could ‘fix’ the technical problems in the draft standard. Needless to say, it didn’t get a long way through and ended up voted to accept a lot of the proposed changes en masse.

posted by colin at 7:15 am  

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Uncle Sam likes Free Software

Two interesting things came out of Washington DC in the last couple of days – both endorsements of free software by Uncle Sam.

In the more widely published of the two announcements, the Whitehouse has gone to the free and open source Drupal content management system, replacing the commercial one installed some years ago. All the Whitehouse websites including have been changed over.

There are stories like this one about the move all over the web. The reasons the Whitehouse staff give are that they are moving to modern, state-of-the-art platform that will allow them a lot more flexibility in how they engage with citizens. They also expect greater security of the software through the open source development model.

In the other story, the US Department of Defense has just issued a policy statement (pdf) telling all its component parts that they should be seriously evaluating open source alternatives. The reasons they give are reduced cost of ownership (well, d’oh!), better security, and that the ability to modify the software gives them the chance to alter it to meet their changing needs.

The DoD also takes aim at that hoary old chestnut, the notion that the GPL might somehow force a company that was was altering free software for its own internal needs to republish the resulting source code. The company can chose to do that, but it absolutely doesn’t have to, unless it wants to distribute software outside the organization.

The real story here is not that open source software is being more widely used, and used by some famous and influential people. It’s that free software released under the GPL – as Drupal is – is more than acceptable for government work; it’s positively encouraged for its low cost, high security, and flexibility.

To close – I’ll alter a slogan published by Data General when IBM entered its main market:

People are saying that the US Government’s endorsement of free software will legitimise it. The bastards say: Welcome!

posted by colin at 8:30 pm  

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Software Freedom Day

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talk about Software Freedom Day, what it’s celebrating and how you can enjoy it. There will be events in several parts of the country.

The site for the Wellington event is here, the Waikato one here, and if you know of others please put them into the comments.

I’ll be on just after the 11am news. Listen live, or after the broadcast you’ll be able to download the audio as ogg or mp3. (more…)

posted by colin at 7:27 pm  

Thursday, September 3, 2009


This Dilbert cartoon.

posted by colin at 7:13 am  

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Software Patents – end the madness!

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talk about the deranged world of software patents, where someone can claim that an idea they had five years ago suddenly means that entire industry owes them a fortune. I’ll be on after the 11am news.

Read on for my speaking notes, or after the broadcast you’ll be able to download the audio as ogg or mp3. (more…)

posted by colin at 7:06 pm  

Friday, June 19, 2009

Software patents – unwelcome and unwanted

Software patents are not currently available in New Zealand, although several companies have tried to get “by the back door”, i.e. by tying the software idea they want to patent to some piece of hardware.

A software patent is a state-enforced monopoly on a idea. They exist in the US and some other countries, but not in many places including New Zealand. We don’t need or want them here. If you want some reasons, here are five good ones:

1) There is no benefit. Patents are intended to incentivise innovation by allowing an inventor a monopoly they can exploit for money. There is no shortage of innovation, however, in countries and communities that do not use software patents. The whole of Linux would be a good example.

2) There is serious harm in software patents, because they prevent others from using ideas. The whole of our technology, and in fact our whole culture as the human species, is built upon us using ideas others have had and developing them further.

3) Software patents lead to unintended bad consequences. Software patents have proved hugely detrimental in the US where they are often used for anti-competitive purposes. Just the threat of being sued over a software patent is often enough to stop a new product in its tracks, without that patent ever reaching court and being tested.

4) There is a large deadweight cost in legal fees and court costs which simply does not exist without software patents.

5) They can’t be awarded fairly. Patent offices overseas have proved incapable of determining what a valid software patent is and have consequently awarded patents on all kinds of obvious things. Sometimes these get overturned some years later after pressure from the community, but often they hang around and frustrate new software.

We don’t need or want software patents in New Zealand.

posted by colin at 9:01 pm  

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Free stuff on the Internet

Today on Radio New Zealand National I’ll talk mainly about a free stuff you can use and downoad legally from the Internet. My point is that a huge amount of useful and world-class stuff is just there for the using. No cash required. Who said the best things in life weren’t free?

I put out a call for suggestions for this program by email and on my blog a few days ago. If you were one of the helpful people who replied – thanks. This program’s yours as much as mine. Don’t you love the Internet!

Listen live at 11:05 or download the audio as Ogg or MP3.


posted by colin at 7:17 am  

Monday, March 30, 2009

Free stuff

This week I’d like to talk about free stuff on the radio. That’s free as in beer – I won’t be worrying about the ideology, just about what sort of software and services that ordinary people can use without paying money.

Please feel free to put suggestions in the comments!

posted by colin at 9:12 am  
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