Looking beyond the numbers: the worm in the Apple

This is a long overdue post about Apple and what exactly they mean for the future of computing freedom. I’ve touched on several of Apple’s dubious stances on computing freedom in the past, but this recent Fast Company article has provided new inspiration (and to be fair, it is not the only such article of its type).

Most telling is this particular quote from the article (around the third page):

For Apple, the ideas of closed and free aren’t in conflict. “We’re just doing what we can to try and make [and preserve] the user experience we envision,” [Apple CEO Steve] Jobs emailed Gawker blogger Ryan Tate, who had baited the CEO in the wake of Apple’s decision to ban Flash from the iPhone and iPad. “You can disagree with us, but our motives are pure.” The App Store, Jobs wrote Tate, offers “freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom.”

Let’s look at this closely, particularly the Steve Jobs quote, “We’re just doing what we can to try and make [and preserve] the user experience we envision.” Taken on its face it doesn’t seem evil. However, rephrasing and reading between the lines gives us something more like “We’re just trying to keep total control over what we (Apple) give the user, because we know what’s best for the user.” In other words, buy Apple’s gear, forget your freedom, because Apple hates it.

The next quote, “You can disagree with us, but our motives are pure” is pure ego food. And the evidence is within the next quote, “[The App Store offers] freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom.” This abuse of the word “freedom” is something I object to vehemently, as it is a use of the word to mean what is in fact the exact opposite. “Freedom from programs that trash your battery” means “Apple will not let you run this program on your iPhone or iPad if Apple in its sole judgement feels the battery use is excessive.” “Freedom from porn” means “Apple does not care whether or not you want to view porn on your iPhone, Apple is going to step in like a big nanny and say you can’t have it there.” “Freedom from programs that steal your private data” means “Apple will never let you look at the source code for an iPhone or iPad app and will make it well-nigh impossible to release an app under the GPL or a free software license. Trust us, we’re Apple, we’re bigger than Microsoft now, and that means we’re smarter than you, even if you have an IQ high enough to get into Mensa.”

Mr. Jobs has no idea what true freedom is. Freedom means the user, not Apple, is in charge. Specifically, quoting from the FSF’s free software definition:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Apple’s DRM on the iPhone and iPad squashes freedoms 2 and 3. Lack of access to source code means Apple’s customers don’t have freedom 1 either. Apple can step in and erase programs off your iPhone or iPad, so technically its customers don’t necessarily always have freedom 0, either. Indeed, Cory Doctorow sums it up nicely in this quote:

“If you want to live in the creative universe where anyone with a cool idea can make it and give it to you to run on your hardware, the iPad isn’t for you.”

But this is not the only evil of Apple. From further in the Fast Company article:

It’s not just Jobs’s consistent aversion to complexity that prompts him to say no. Apple thrives on high profit margins, and having the willpower to say no keeps production costs down. Eliminating features also helps build buzz. “The great thing about omitting a feature that people want is that then they start clamoring for it,” says [Glenn] Reid, the former Apple engineer. “When you give it to them in the next version, they’re even happier somehow.” Apple has pulled off this trick time and again, most recently with the iPhone OS 4. It includes multitasking, a feature that customers began asking for in 2007, intensifying their pleas after Palm debuted multitasking in its WebOS last year.

To be fair about it, this is similar to what other companies have done for years. It’s bad business to knowingly withhold functionality today, then release it years later under the guise of making it look “updated.” Indeed, this is why I’m glad we have companies like Palm around. Competition is a good thing, and despite the near ubiquity of the iPhone, it’s good to know choices still exist, otherwise Apple may well try to get away with evolution of phone features on its terms, not those of its customers.

Another tactic that definitely tests the boundaries, even if it isn’t outright over-the-top:

One example: Apple buys up all the bus-stop ad space near the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the San Francisco venue where it has held its recent events. It then switches its posters while Jobs is speaking. So this past January 27, when I walked into Apple’s iPad debut, the street ads depicted something old; when I left, there’s the iPad everywhere you look.

Do I have a thing against aggressive marketing? No, not at all. But there comes a point where aggressive crosses the line. This smacks of something Apple can do because of their sheer size, especially in their hometown. It also makes me wonder, with this kind of brute-force aggressiveness in marketing, how much of the retail price of an iPhone, iPad, or iMac goes to marketing and advertising expenses. Or in other words, if Apple cut back marketing and advertising to a more reasonable level, how much would the price of their products drop?

Moving on:

Apple disregards the entire concept of backward compatibility, which is both a blessing and a curse for rivals such as Microsoft. Over its history, Apple has adopted new operating systems and underlying chip architectures several times — decisions that rendered its installed base instantly obsolete. Jobs killed the floppy disk in the iMac, and he claimed that optical drives were on their way out with the MacBook Air. Now, with the company’s embrace of touch screens, Apple seems to be gunning for the mouse, a technology that it helped bring into wide use in the 1980s. Does this relentless eye toward the future always work? No. Jobs killed the arrow keys on the first Mac; Apple was forced to add them back in a later version, and it has kept them in all its Macs ever since.

While the 1.44 megabyte 3.5″ floppy disk has been doomed for years, with 2.88 megabyte floppies never really catching on, and even technologies like the 20 megabyte “floptical” or LS-120 failing to gain traction, it smacks of Apple playing nanny to decide to arbitrarily kill technologies. I don’t know what Apple was thinking when it got rid of arrow keys. (My original Atari did not have separate arrow keys, the cursor movements were on punctuation keys where one had to hold down Control to access cursor movement. Today, the arrow keys are a feature I could not live without on my PC.)

With regard to touch screens: while Apple may be in love with them, they are not for everyone. I can’t imagine playing a first-person shooter game with a touch screen, for example; the mouse has been firmly entrenched as a part of gaming ever since the original Quake in 1996, and almost a decade and a half later, it’s hard to imagine an FPS without it.

There are many parts of the original article I did not comment on in an attempt to keep this somewhat short. And this is far from the only article of its type. I am not distracted from the truth by Apple’s scant few contributions to free software projects; I am disturbed, not reassured, by the fact CUPS was taken over by Apple almost three years ago. I am grateful for the decision by Michael Sweet to license CUPS under the GNU GPL, a decision which protects user freedoms and, quite likely, annoys Apple to no end.

Apple is a liability, not an asset, to the future of computing and technology, even more so than Microsoft now. I’m not sure how to right the ship; all I know is it’s sinking further with every new Apple device (particularly iPhone and iPad) sold.

Tiebreaker or no tiebreaker? My take on Isner-Mahut at Wimbledon

ESPN reports on a tennis match at Wimbledon that will be remembered for ages. Not necessarily for its players, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, and not necessarily for the eventual winner (the former). No, this match will probably be remembered for its length and final score: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68. No, that is not a misprint: the last set was 138 games and easily took longer than the first four sets combined, and was too much for the scoreboard to handle at one point.

The match may also be remembered for igniting a firestorm of controversy about tiebreaker games in tennis. For the unfamiliar: a tiebreaker game is played when the score in a set is tied 6-6, with the winner of that game winning the set 7-6. Wimbledon does use tiebreakers, just not in the final set of a match (the third in a best-of-three or fifth in a best-of-five).

The well-known tennis player John McEnroe said in a BBC interview (quoted in this article from Fox Sports):

This is the greatest advertisement for our sport. It makes me proud to be a part of it. We often don’t get the respect we deserve in tennis for the athletic demands it places on players but this should push that respect way up.

However, John McEnroe will be among the players calling for a deciding-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon in future years. Others are among the traditionalists that say something like this will never happen again. The latter group is more likely to be correct; the Fox news article mentions a 21-19 final set at the 2003 Aussie open between Andy Roddick and Younes El Ayanoui and a 25-23 set between John Newcombe and Marty Riessen at the 1969 US Open. Both of these seem short in comparison to the most recent set of length at Wimbledon.

I’ve been a moderate fan of tennis over the years; it’s not a sport I really get into that often, but I’ve never hated it either. Hearing about an epic match like this one, however, does get me much more interested in tennis and I might even tune in to watch some of the rest of this year’s Wimbledon. Anything that has the potential to make a hardcore tennis fan out of someone like me can’t be all bad.

And maybe this is a rather crazy idea, but I’m going to float it anyway. I think tennis would be a more exciting sport if we got rid of the tiebreaker games all around. Sure, you’d have the occasional 9-7, 10-8, 11-9, or maybe even 12-10 sets and a few more statistical anomalies like those mentioned above. But I think it would make tennis a much more exciting game, and the sport is due for a rise in popularity since its peak in the 1970s and 1980s.

(Sidenote: The residents’ association for the townhouse complex where my mom and I used to live had considered the idea of replacing the dilapidated tennis courts with a park area, an idea which was ultimately shot down in favor of refurbishing and keeping the tennis courts. The argument against refurbishing the tennis courts was that a majority of residents would probably never set foot on them. At the time, that made sense. Now, of course, it’s another story.)

H.264 licensing revisited and explored

I’ve got a backlog of stuff here, so some of these might be a bit short.

First up, revisiting video codec patents, which I originally wrote about in February.

A recent post on librevideo.org was also written after Ben Schwartz’s post “No, you can’t do that with H.264” as mine was. From the article:

In the interest of clarifying the ambiguous claims regarding the licensing terms of using the AVC/H.264 video technology, Libre Video has taken the time over the past few weeks to contact the MPEG-LA directly, the licensing authority responsible for administering the patent pool for the H.264 specification. We have asked them various questions related to what we feel are important issues surrounding the terms under which normal people are permitted to use hardware products that they have purchased and the resulting multimedia content created with them.

Obviously, there is way too much to quote here, but the important conclusions to draw from Libre Video’s correspondence with MPEG-LA are:

  1. The simplicity of the analog media era where one buys, say, a VHS tape deck and can pretty much do what one wishes with it are over. Software patents turn what should be simple tasks into a legal minefield ready to explode under those that least expect legal obstacles.
  2. Even professional products do not include a professional H.264 license. This includes, say, Final Cut Pro.
  3. The AVC licensing only applies to an end product, and can be avoided by transcoding the video to, say, Ogg Theora or the upcoming VP8/WebM.
  4. The patent licenses required to legally decode H.264 make it impossible to write a free software (GPL) H.264 decoder. This is most unfortunate on the part of MPEG-LA and the companies that have chosen to embrace this standard.

I’m disappointed in MPEG-LA and the companies which formed it. This is perhaps the biggest step backward for user freedoms since the DMCA; many otherwise law-abiding free software users will wind up breaking the law just to convert their H.264 video to formats like Ogg Theora.

I propose the following solution:

  1. For personal use/non-profit videos, MPEG-LA waives the royalties on software-based decoding of H.264 for the purposes of conversion to another video format.
  2. Apple, Microsoft, and other developers voluntarily rename video editing products with the word “Pro” or “Professional” in the name (such as Final Cut Pro) to a new name not including the words “professional” or “pro” and putting a prominent disclaimer on the box: “The H.264 decoder and encoder are licensed for personal use only. Use of the H.264 video format allowed by this software product may require additional licenses from the MPEG Licensing Authority (MPEG-LA).”

These are the fair things to do. The first would make the H.264 decoder in ffmpeg legal for most of its uses. Maybe MPEG-LA would need to raise their royalties to compensate for “lost” revenue. I have news for MPEG-LA: many of the users of ffmpeg would never pay you one red cent anyway. A few are effective scofflaws, but most are easily convinced that having to break the law to convert their home movies to another digital video format without paying even more money is at best ludicrous and at worst insane.

The second just makes sense. This, of course, is exactly why the companies in question will never do it. But that’s another rant for another day.

Microsoft Windows, updates, reboots, and the principle of least surprise

It’s been a while since I’ve ripped on Microsoft, which I was reminded of after seeing Matt Mullenweg’s recent blog entry about Windows and it’s horrid habit of rebooting to install updates, without specifically being told to do so. This wouldn’t be nearly as bad, if Matt didn’t link to a blog entry he wrote six years ago describing the same exact thing which at the time cost Matt quite a bit of unsaved work. (At the time of this earlier entry, Robert Scoble was working for Microsoft and apologized to Matt in his blog. By the way, this is something I suspect would never be allowed from a Microsoft employee now, and looking back at it, I’m a bit surprised Robert got away with it.)

Now, most people would think Microsoft would listen to their customers(*) and fix what is widely perceived as a bug, even if it was originally an intentional design decision. Especially after someone as high-profile as Matt has blogged about it, now twice. For the uninitiated, here’s what Matt is talking about in those entries:

  • The Windows Update tool downloads its updates and installs them. There are three options: manually download and install, automatically download and manually install, or automatically download and install.
  • At the conclusion of the install, if one of the updates requires a reboot (which, given this is Windows we’re talking about, is almost always the case), a dialog box pops up with the option to “restart now” or “restart later” with a timer. Originally, this timer was 5 minutes; I think it’s been changed to be longer (15 minutes?).
  • “Restart later” just means the dialog box pops up again some time later. I’ve never measured how long it is, I just know it keeps nagging until you reboot, and there is no way to select “go the #%&$@ away, I’ll reboot when I damn well please.”
  • “Restart now” does what it says.
  • If no action is taken when the timer expires the system reboots. This is almost never what the user (who is in effect Microsoft’s customer) actually wants.

This last bit is why people like Matt write blog entries like that one. This is also why people like me quit running Windows at all. My first choice for a new PC is “one without Windows on it.” My second choice is “one I can wipe the Windows install from as soon as I get it.” (I’ve been stuck using a Windows XP system enough to know this is how it worked as of that version. I quit using Windows at the first opportunity, for reasons that should be obvious. No PC that I actually own has run any version of Windows since 2002 April, which is now over eight years ago.)

The reason the timed reboot is such a disaster is that it violates the principle of least surprise (also called the principle of least astonishment). A computer user expects the computer to stay running absent a specific command to reboot. (I’m being generous here, given this is Microsoft Windows in question, an operating system not exactly known for its stability.)

In addition, Microsoft puts scary warnings in the Windows Update component which encourage users to select “automatically update.” From Matt’s post:

I can’t reconcile that it was due to a feature of an operating system, a feature I was told to turn on to stay safe, and a feature that bugs you when it isn’t activated. I trusted the computer because of the improvements to stability Microsoft had made in XP and SP2. Trust like that is slow to build and easy to break.

Now, Ubuntu gets it right (or at least did as of 9.10; I lack the experience with 10.04 to confirm). Most updates do not require a reboot. Those that do (new kernel versions), pop up the dialog box once. Yes, that’s right, once. If you say you would prefer to reboot later, the dialog box is gone for the rest of the session. The only bad part of this is that hibernating is broken from that point forward until you reboot and you just have to know this from experience. Since Ubuntu’s Update Manager is relatively unobtrusive (it pops up once per day if dismissed) this effectively becomes a non-issue. If you don’t use hibernating mode it’s not an issue.

Anyway, my point is that it’s inexcusable for Microsoft to allow what most users consider a horrid bug in place all this time, especially given a competing operating system shows how it should be done. I don’t know the right way to fix this in Microsoft’s world. I do know defaulting to a reboot after a time delay is not an acceptable answer to the majority of computer users (note, that’s computer users in general, not just PC users or Windows users). Then again, maybe the answer lies in not requiring a reboot after just about any system update. I’m not holding my breath waiting for Microsoft’s fix for that one, though.

(Note: When I refer to Microsoft’s customers here, I refer to the end users of Windows. I know technically Windows is usually sold to OEMs like HP, Dell, Compaq, Gateway, etc. but they aren’t really the customer here. It is the end user that Microsoft ultimately aims to please.)

Cops vs. citizens with recorders: who wins?

A recent Gizmodo post discusses videos depicting police abuse and what is a dubious at best reaction from law enforcement. Specifically, some states are now making it illegal to record or photograph an on-duty law enforcement officer. From the article:

In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.

Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.

The most alarming example comes from Christopher Drew, who recorded his own
arrest for selling $1 artwork on the streets of Chicago. The charges of
peddling in a prohibited area and not having a peddler’s license were dropped;
instead, Christopher is being prosecuted for eavesdropping, a class I felony.

Christopher documents his experience with some very pointed commmentary in this blog entry which includes a quote from Robert Lederman’s instructions to artists in New York City about documenting everything. Christopher also delivers this white-hot flame against the sad state of affairs in Illinois with regard to the eavesdropping law, which I quote in part (and agree with completely):

If you are a corrupt public official or a person involved in corruption its in your favor to have an eavesdropping law that prevents anyone from recording anything in public without the fear of a felony. A corrupt person feels more comfortable in a state like that. Unfortunately, its possible for a lot of honest people to end up felons while the real felons walk free. That’s why I ask – what is the state of our police in this state we are in?

Christoper’s experience is a huge blemish against the reputation of the city of Chicago as friendly to artists and those who express themselves. A blemish that a city of that size cannot afford.

Radley Balko wrote an editorial about Christopher’s rejected motion to dismiss the case, which asks many pointed questions, and also points out the history of the Illinois eavesdropping law, which originally had an expectation of privacy exception, but has not since 1994. Quoting Radley’s article:

Here’s where it gets even worse: Originally, the Illinois eavesdropping law did also include a similar expectation of privacy provision. But the legislature stripped that provision out in 1994, and they did so in response to an incident in which a citizen recorded his interaction with two on-duty police officers. In other words, the Illinois legislature specifically intended to make it a Class I felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, to make an audio recording of an on-duty police officer without his permission.

The fact that this came about in response to an incident involving a conversation with two on-duty cops should say everything about the intent of the state legislature. This already-bad law, of course, has not gotten better with age; in fact technology and the ubiquity of small devices capable of recording audio and video has made this bad law even worse.

So is it always risking arrest to record an on-duty cop in those states? Well, not really, as quoting from the Gizmodo article:

In short, recordings that are flattering to the police – an officer kissing a baby or rescuing a dog – will almost certainly not result in prosecution even if they are done without all-party consent. The only people who seem prone to prosecution are those who embarrass or confront the police, or who somehow challenge the law. If true, then the prosecutions are a form of social control to discourage criticism of the police or simple dissent.

This kind of law, combined with blatant selective enforcement, is entirely out of place in free society, and a mockery of the standards by which decent people live. Indeed, I believe the criticism and challenge of unjust laws to be an essential part of a free society. I’ve used this quote from the FSF before, but it applies yet again:

The idea that laws decide what is right or wrong is mistaken in general. Laws are, at their best, an attempt to achieve justice; to say that laws define justice or ethical conduct is turning things upside down.

Indeed, the abuse of eavesdropping and wiretapping laws is another example of how those charged with enforcing the law often view themselves as above the law. It’s in the same general category as cops conveniently disregarding stop signs, traffic lights, speed limits, prohibited turn signs, etc at their convenience (when not responding to a bona fide emergency, and I specifically exclude the donut shop closing for the night in five minutes from the definition of such an emergency). Indeed, it’s incredibly convenient that getting video of these types of reckless acts by those sworn to serve and protect is risky business in some places, yet one could easily take all the video one wants of, say, a cop hugging his daughters.

I’d expect the kind of insanity in certain other countries: UK, Germany, France, maybe even Mexico or Canada. But the United States of America was founded on freedom from tyranny, and it is in the direction of tyranny that these laws take us. This egregious trampling of the First Amendment cannot continue unchallenged, lest those who fought to acquire and maintain that freedom and others are to have ultimately done so in vain.

Finally, I encourage everyone to support Christoper Drew’s legal defense, either financially or just by raising awareness of this serious issue. This is wrong and the real criminals here are the ethically bankrupt Chicago police and prosecuting attorneys. I’ll post more details on exactly what Christopher needs as I get them.