Swirly Mein Kopf

Sunday, July 17. 2005

Launchpad, Google and why Microsoft is not the problem

Debian

I just came out of scott's talk on revision control and package management. He also talked about Launchpad, a probject by Mark Shuttleworth's Canonical Ltd. Launchpad collects, as far as I can tell, all (relevant) Free Software in source format from everywhere including the complete history, as well as all modifications done by the distributions, and puts it in a single revision control system. Supposedly, this has happend to a certain extend already, and fills up 1700 Gigabyte on their drives. This can be accessed then, for example, by the Debian mainter to very easily integrate the changes that the Red Hat maintainer did to his sources, and the other way around, and so on. The technical usefullness is almost unlimited, and it seems as if this might be a service to the Free Software community larger than sourceforge.net and freshmeat combined.

So why would I blog about it? Because this is as dangerours as it is useful. What Canonical is trying to achieve here is to collect all the work that the free software have made and will made, and put them under their control. Sure, it is all accessible, sure, the code might even be free software someday (where someday is probably the moment that launchpad is so established that competitiors, even with the same software, have no chance of etablishing themselves), but the data is in Canonical's hand, and by this, we all depend on Canonical to continue providing the service.

This way, Canonical does to Free Software code what Google did to data of the masses: Google not only provides a search engine that might beat Internet Explorer's market share, but has a hand on people’s mail (GMail), discussions (Groups), shoppings (Froogle), they are about to become the single important source for maps and satellite images and I am sure that I forgot a few services for the public here. Both Canonical and Google do not seem to want to make money by charging for these services - we don't have to pay anything (besides our privacy and our independance, but who cares?). I can not forsee what evil will come from this, may it be monetary by charging for then indispensable services, maybe by secretly blackmailing blackmailable users, maybe by selling profiles to profilers and advertising agencies, maybe by selling out to the government. Maybe no evil at all, but the possibility of evilnees is evil enough to worry about.

And why is this more dangerous than Microsoft? Microsoft did a pretty clever thing: By good marketing, clever programming and commercial pressure, they locked in a lot of people to use Microsoft products and formats. This is evil, but we have found a solution to that: reverse engeneering and Free Software. Microsoft can be coped with. But Google and Launchpad were even cleverer. Instead of locking something in, they open everything: It is free, it has nice usable APIs to integrate in applications, and they suck all that opened data in and keep ahold of it. And while Microsoft has a record of doing a bad job when it comes to technical quality, thus helps the alternative, non-evil, Free Software, Google, and probably Launchpad, excels in what they doing, thus reducing the immediate need for alternatives altogether.

Are there alternatives? What can be the answer to these threats? Decentralized services. Just like e-mail, like the web itself, like blogs and like Free Software currently work: No central entity having control over the service, but everybody being able to control a little bit of it. There are plans for a decentralized search engine to reduces Google's power, and like that, we should thrife to provide the features Launchpad provides: Easy cross-distribution patch exchange, bug tracking system integration and so on, but in a networked, peer-to-peer way. Also, try to use alternative services if possible and convienient. Do you really need GMail, or can you live with a squirrelmail installation on a friend's server? Do you really need Launchpad for your new software project, or would you rather host it on sf.net or nongnu.org or savanna or alitoh or (insert as many alternatives as possible).

I know this is a radical approach, more radical than practical. Just as I use google now, I will most likely use Launchpad. But if you notice that you are about to become dependant on such a service, you should really consider alternatives. I am looking forward to a constructive and fruitful discussion.

Trackbacks


Launchpad
The more I read about Launchpad, or Canonical’s plans generally, the more uneasy I get. They don’t necessarily seem committed to free software: Launchpad is not free, and one worries about the “single point of failure” problem. The
Weblog: Stephen Laniel’s Unspecified Bunker
Tracked: Jul 17, 15:26
Weblog: slef-reflection
Tracked: Sep 21, 15:41
Evil Self-Irony
Regular readers might remember me ranting about how evil google is. It seems that they are not only evil, but also very self-ironic. Check out their newest product, conquering yet another product field:My favourite quotes are No personally identifiable
Weblog: nomeata's mind shares
Tracked: Oct 26, 18:01

Comments

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*Yes, but! Yes, those that take the initiative and put money on the table get rather more control than those that don't, and Canonical is a rather opaque private corporation, not something like the FSF or SPI.

But it is a bit too late: Google is the least because most obvious of the examples.

What about SourceForge.net or FreshMeat.net? Yes, using a shared resource creates dependency, but there are even more dependency creating tactics.

What about the major vendors having purchased >90% of the top Linux kernel developers and many of the developers of important frameworks like GNOME or KDE? Isn't this to give them more control on where such technologies are evolving? Isn't Canonical's purchase of a significant number of Debian developers in the same vein?

Is there a freeware developer who hasn't realized that if they try really hard to displace other developers in the top ten committers for a significant free sw packages, they have a good chance of being purchased by a big corporation for a good salary doing fun stuff? How is this going to influence their thinking?

Entirely their right and privilege of course, but what are the implications?

Consider for example what happened to the NBA:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/13/magazine/13NBA.html?ei=5090&en=d87c197d56eaea31&ex=1266037200&partner=rssuserland&pagewanted=all

This kind of things worries me a lot more...
#1 Blissex (Homepage) on 2005-07-17 15:39 (Reply)
*I wonder if "dependancy" is the right word. I don't think free software people are likely to become truly dependant.

If Launchpad (or whatever) were to become too onerous or "freedom" issues with it weren't resolved then it would ultimatly be ditched just like Bitkeeper was for kernel development.

If Launchpad raises the bar (ie provides a more useful environment) then I say use it. If it has to be ditched in future then at least the free software world will have gained both some benefit in the meantime and some pointers as to what would be useful in it's replacement.
#2 Paul McGarry on 2005-07-18 02:49 (Reply)
*I'd rather trust Launchpad than SourceForge... Don't forget that Cannonical also develop
#3 Artis on 2005-07-18 09:03 (Reply)
*Apology to all planet.debian.org readers. I don't know why my blog entries sometimes appear again at the top, even when I don't change anything at all. If this is my fault somhow, please tell me.
#4 nomeata (Homepage) on 2005-07-19 17:40 (Reply)
*Because there is a bug in the Planet software on gluck in conjunction with Serendipity.
#4.1 Philipp Kern (Homepage) on 2005-09-11 13:10 (Reply)
*Is Launchpad actually non-free, or is it just not distributed at all?
#5 Anonymous on 2005-07-19 21:59 (Reply)
*It is not distributed at all, which does make it non-free in my eyes. But you are right, this is an important distinctin.
#6 nomeata (Homepage) on 2005-07-19 22:14 (Reply)
*In the google case: Do you know YaCy? It is a GPL p2p search engine.
http://yacy.net/yacy/
#7 beza1e1 (Homepage) on 2005-07-25 21:28 (Reply)
*This is a well-written blog post, I can't fault your logic, and I understand where your concerns come from. I can only say that I hope, in the fullness of time, you'll be very happy with the way we handle Launchpad.

Over time, it will be open sourced. Right now we compete with Progeny and Red Hat and other companies, so we need to have a unique offering to do so effectively, and that's Launchpad. There are already libraries and tools in LP that we have open sourced on request, especially in Rosetta, the translation infrastructure. But if you want something else, use Pootle, which I also funded.

One thing I *can* say, though, is that a web service (or even a remote app service) can never create the same level of pain that a proprietary OS can do. Having watched what Microsoft has done, I'm largely motivated by a desire to ensure that countries like South Africa never have to pay a tax like that again.
#8 Mark Shuttleworth (Homepage) on 2005-07-26 23:58 (Reply)
*Thanks for that post, Mark. It is a good sign that you adress these concerns personally and in a sensible way. Having met you personally, my concerns are more hypothetical than they would be otherwise: I'm not saying that the Bad Stuff will happen, just that it could and that people should be aware of the possibility. Besides that that I hope that Launchpad as a tool will be a successful and valuable contribtion to free software, as Ubuntu can be to Debian (or the Debian ecosystem, as Mako described it).

So, keep up the work and show us how wrong I was with my post :-)
#8.1 Joachim Breitner (Homepage) on 2005-07-27 09:19 (Reply)
*Because the lack of Trackback support on their side: This is a blog entry from Anthony Towns refering to my blog:
http://azure.humbug.org.au/~aj/blog/2005/09/04#2005-09-04-launchpad-freeness
#9 nomeata (Homepage) on 2005-09-06 12:21 (Reply)
*So have I got this right - Google (and Launchpad, although I've no experience with that) are evil because they don't suck?

They're just Adding Value (tm) to Free stuff and choosing not to make themselves free. That's not evil, that's their choice, surely?

GMail is popular because it is WebMail That Does'nt Stink ( specifically it makes dealing with 2Gb of mail through a html interface feasible and relatively bearable). Squirrelmail could have a license that gave out free pizza to a starving child for each copy downloaded and it would still be unpleasant because of the unwieldiness of form-based interfaces.

Back to Launchpad - isn't it just gathering the code together? They're not relicensing it, are they? I don't really see how this is different to SourceForge (except for the evil/sucking thing maybe :) )

What matters in both cases in my mind is that we have open interfaces and APIs to the data (POP3 for GMail, SVN for Launchpad).

That matters as much as the D&D Alignment of the projects in question.
#10 Dick Davies (Homepage) on 2005-09-16 21:10 (Reply)
*Great, I just read this in my aggregator without checking the date. Nice post though.

It's funny that you've written about a decentralized search engine though, because I was just thinking how nice that would be earlier today! :)
#11 Kevin Wood on 2005-09-21 04:09 (Reply)
*Note that there is one, see http://yacy.net/yacy/
Unfortunately, it needs Java, so I won't run it on my server (too much hassle). Otherwise, I would be happy to support such a thing with bandwidth and processing power.
#11.1 nomeata (Homepage) on 2005-09-21 11:34 (Reply)
*I just have to say that i couldnt agree with you more.. You have nailed benifits and risks that rise while our society becomes more dependent on digital systems. Often this issue is too complex to be handled in mainstream media, but it indeed is an important issue that could use more media attention.. Well said!... The logics of your blog makes perfect sense.. I can do nothing but praise your words..
#11.1.1 just no-one on 2005-09-30 21:49 (Reply)
*Disclosure: I am an employee of Canonical, Ltd.

Something that I find a great comfort in the Launchpad product is that it's all tied around distributed revision control. That means that at any point, anyone can pull the pieces (s)he wants and track them locally or on their own mirror.

Rosetta allows similar things where extracting the pofile information is cheap and easy.

I hope that Malone will allow some sort of distributed bug tracking to also happen. I don't quite know what this would look like, but where it's possible to pull the bug reports, modify them, and sync them back in. That way the data never leaves our control. It ties back to a fundamental freedom of FS: The freedom to take it and modify it in what ways we see fit.

Tks,
Jeff Bailey
#12 Jeff Bailey on 2005-09-30 21:29 (Reply)
*I should post more controverial posts; it's nice to see people I know from different events (in this case, DebConf 3, especially the water slides) visit my blog :-)

I acknowledge Jeff's point in that it is easier to clone Launchpad than to clone google and thus Launchpad is lees likely to become really evil. Does anyone want to sponsor a server or two?
#12.1 nomeata (Homepage) on 2005-10-03 00:16 (Reply)

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