Java ME Fragmentation

Sun acknowledged in 2008 and 2009 that Java ME was fragmented – and had been for years – without any help from Android.

[youtube http://youtu.be/wx_YhPJWNhs]

More in today’s article on ComputerWorld UK.

Making Hybrid PDFs

It’s easy with LibreOffice. Send people attachments you can be sure they can view, but which can also be edited with free, open source software.

Here’s a how-to video that explains how to make Hybrid PDF files – that’s a normal PDF file, but with the ODF source of the document embedded so that anyone with LibreOffice is also able to open and edit it. Both ODF and PDF are widely implemented open standards, so you can be sure that there’s a choice of free and open source software for editing and viewing them and that they will remain accessible in perpetuity.

[youtube http://youtu.be/EuVZcygoZsI]

The instruction sheet I edit in the video is available for download. Naturally, it’s an editable PDF!

☆ Promoting Document Freedom

Today is Document Freedom Day. It’s not the easiest subject to explain. It’s easy to explain why being free to video a police encounter in the USA is important, or why it’s wrong for your eBook to be remotely controlled by a vendor, but many people fail to understand the subtlety of why a document format is important.

Having your work in a format that will still be readable in 20 years makes sense, and being able to be sure when you share a document with others that they will be able to read it and work on it is also good. But people glaze over when you try to explain that an ISO standard is not enough. Having a document format standard that is beyond the control of any individual vendor and is fully implemented in multiple products is crucial, but seems esoteric.

So when it comes to practical actions, most people still just save their work in the format their office software chooses for them by default. They send it out to everyone without a thought for the fact they are adding their own energy to a market monopoly that restricts choice and innovation and sells our future to one of the worlds richest convicted monopolists. It’s convenient now, but who knows if the files will even be readable in the future? The largest corporations can change (Nokia started making rubber products) or even go out of business (I’ll leave you to think of an example!)

The fact it is so hard to explain to ordinary people why their choice of document format matters, why a little effort now can make all the difference in the world, is what led me to the conclusion it was worth promoting hybrid PDFs. As I wrote yesterday on ComputerWorldUK, it is possible to create a PDF that can also be fully edited.

Like ODF, PDF is a standard. Sending a PDF makes the maximum number of people able to read your work, so it’s worth the small extra effort to create it. Developing an instinct to always send PDFs ensures maximum readability, and it’s safe to assume PDFs will continue to be readable for the indefinitely long future. Using online storage instead of attaching the file can be good, but plenty of mobile and out-of-office people will be inconvenienced or excluded by that, so I’ve found people reluctant to rely on it at the moment.

Sending PDFs is the right answer. The only issue is editability. Most people just want to send one attachment, so they opt for the one from their word-processor or presentation program. By a simple software upgrade to LibreOffice, that problem is solved too. LibreOffice makes PDFs very easily, and now also comes configured to create PDFs that can be edited. I’ve created full instructions which you are welcome to pass on to others – and edit if you need to!

While I am naturally a huge supporter of Open Document Format as the best protection for our digital liberty, pragmatically I think educating and encouraging people to send PDFs instead of .DOC/.DOCX files is the best next step. When they learn the benefits of editable PDFs, they are also using ODF, of course – that’s the format that’s embedded in the PDF. But it’s a smaller, easier, less controversial step to send a PDF to all their friends and collaborators.

So celebrate Document Freedom Day with me today. Send a friend my tip about editable PDFs, or just the how-to sheet. The journey to freedom starts with the first step.

☆ Making Google+ Work

Close RaceI sometimes see complaints by people that Google+ is not as exciting and/or useful as a social media service they are already using, like Twitter or Facebook. They both looked just as perplexingly dull when you started using them as an outsider – you’ve just become comfortable there and forgotten that experience! Treasure the chance to once again experience social media as ordinary users do when they first discover it…

Google+ is a different medium to the other social networks you’re using, and the techniques and expectations you’re bringing with you may not apply – you need the right horse for the right course. That feeling nothing is happening is unlikely to continue for long if you engage on Google+ in ways that make it work well as a social environment. My take is those are:

  • post interesting stuff publicly, preferably with pictures – Google+ is not a great place for private networking;
  • comment on what you post, don’t just post unexplained links or pictures;
  • engage in intelligent and respectful discussion on other people’s posts, as well as your own;
  • respect other people’s discussion threads as you would a conversation you were drawn into at the next table in a cafe;
  • track ripples (a feature on the context menu of any post that’s been re-shared) and cultivate new relationships by adding those who repost the same things that interest you to your circles;
  • use the delete-comment button to prune comments on your posts where necessary – always to remove spam and sparingly to sanction trolls.

What other suggestions would you make to new users, especially those with good experiences of other social media systems? The Google+ thread for this post is public

☝ Java and Ubuntu

Despite a panic caused by a misleading headline, not only is Java not being removed from Ubuntu, but the Java reference implementation is actually a package in the main repository. My article today on ComputerWorldUK has the details.

☆ Contribute To The LibreOffice Conference

I am on the Programme Committee for the upcoming LibreOffice Conference in Paris, and as a consequence I get to see the stream of paper submissions. There have already been a lot of diverse submissions and it’s already clear it will be a very interesting conference, but there is still room for more. Make sure you get your submission in before the August 8th deadline.

Of course, you can also contribute as a delegate. Registration is free and you can do it easily now. I suggest registering early as space is going to be at a premium.

☞ Misguided

  • Ed Vaizey’s views at outrageously uninformed if this report is correct. He seems to think that flawless blocking is possible and that its benefits outweigh its disadvantages. He also seems to be speaking from notes written by the media and proprietary software industries. Exceptionally disappointing lack of insight.
  • Vaizey and the government in general seem to have no clue at all about the technical consequences of their political kow-tow to the media industry. Presumably the lobbyists they are having write their policies aren’t explaining those things to them.
  • I was going to write about this but Dave’s post summarises most of what I think. I have been participating in Harmony to a small degree with the intent of making sure the project includes FOSS community-friendly options (use the License variant with an explicit license choice) and to ensure that there are voices saying we really don’t need these agreements by default, only to handle specific exceptions caused by history and/or bad choices.
  • Forward thinking in other areas (they are pioneers in using open source for local government in the UK), Bristol City Council shows they are not only prepared for zombies but also for pirates.

☆ Brazil Signs Up To Develop Office Suites

Ripening Coffee BeansAt FISL in Brazil last week, I had the opportunity to speak as the co-presenter in a session about the evolution of OpenOffice.org – I think there will eventually be video of it. As Richard Hillesley observes, the developer community for that codebase was always stifled, and while there are some excellent and experienced developers on working on it, very few have affiliations beyond Sun/Oracle. This will prove to be the biggest issue in “rebooting” development, and I believe the overall OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice community needs to set aside its differences to address it.

During the meeting, I called for developers to start work on the code-base now, regardless of their eventual expectations of which of the two open source projects they will join, so that their skills and their familiarity with the code are developed. Change in the codebase is inevitable, but skills and familiarity gained today will remain valuable. This uniting message was well received by the audience.

Also during the presentation, Jomar Silva announced that he had just met with representatives of the Brazilian government and representatives of both the Apache (Jomar Silva) and TDF  (Olivier Hallot) communities had signed a letter of intent with the government that Brazil should start engaging directly with the office suite they depend on, rather than just consuming the code.

This growth in the developer base seems to me to be exactly the sort of news we all need at the moment, and I’m looking forward to hearing from Olivier and Jomar as the first developers are identified and start work on the LibreOffice Easy Hacks.

☆ Bitly and Spam Links

I was interested last week to discover that, unknown to me, the link shortening service bit.ly was displaying a warning message when anyone clicked on one link I had shortened with them. The link was to a controversial but entirely valid political commentary and there had been no indication that this would happen when I shortened the link.  I was even more concerned that the warning message implied I was attempting to hide spam or malware in the link. The message displayed looked like this:

The assertion in the second sentence is completely untrue. The link involved had not been shortened more than once, so the rest of the explanation given there is completely wrong. I got several worried comments from Twitter followers asking what was going on and why I was trying to double-obfuscate links, so I decided to investigate.

Clicking the link myself I started by looking for a way to report a false-positive. (The screenshot above was kindly supplied by bitly’s Chief Scientist, Hilary Mason, after she had quickly updated the last line in the yellow box – prior to that there was no mention anywhere of the possibility of a false positive).  Looking through bitly’s site I found that indeed all the links and pages I could locate were purely for reporting abuse; clearly no-one had anticipated that a mistake might be made.

Buck Passing

I sent a message to their support e-mail address suggesting this was a false positive (possibly created maliciously by a critic of the page I was linking) and to their credit I got a response within a short time. It didn’t help much, though. It said:

Please contact Spamhaus and have the URL removed from their system. We currently have blocked it due to a Spamhaus report. Thanks for asking.

That wasn’t a terribly good answer, for two reasons. First, I checked Spamhaus and there was no indication that the URL in question had been blocked. Second, it’s hardly a job for a user to debug a company’s system like this. I replied asking for clarification and got the reply:

We are Bitly and Spamhaus has it’s own system of how to ask to be removed. They are a spam service that reports a blacklist. I don’t have much knowledge directly of how to get off their list, but I’m sure if you do some research, you can find out quite easily. Thank you.

By this stage I was getting concerned. They seemed to think that they were to free to block any URL without question, and that it was entirely up to me both to detect they were blocking a URL, to diagnose the reason why and to independently go upstream of their filter system and resolve false positives. So I asked for an interview.

Within a few minutes, Hilary Mason called me. We had a good conversation about the spam blocking system she had designed and which bitly have implemented. It uses multiple upstream sources to identify potential abuse, as well as looking for usage patterns that might also be indicative. Unfortunately, despite the fact they have multiple triggers to deciding a link is suspect, they only use a single mechanism to react to the trigger, and it seemed to me that no-one had considered the system from the perspective of a link publisher.

Hilary was also unable to explain why the URL I’d used had been blocked. She did indicate that the URL involved had been on the Spamhaus list in April and that seemed to be the only reason it might have been blocked, but it clearly wasn’t on their list that day, so there’s obviously some engineering work that needs doing. I explained why the text on the alert screen was a problem and she has changed it to the following:

which is a bit less damning of users than the original. But it’s clear that they need to invest time in this to make it more accurate, more informative and to have an actual mechanism for handling false-positives. Hilary explained in e-mail that the original intent had been to have multiple screens depending on the issue that triggered the concern, but that hadn’t made it through to implementation.

Good Approach, Poor UI

All in all, this was a a very unfortunate encounter with what looks like a well-considered approach to handling link-shortener abuse – thanks to Hilary for taking the time to discuss it with me. The fact the alert message includes the option to over-ride bitly’s concerns and just click through to the link is excellent, and an approach that is far preferable to a straightforward blacklist. There’s no doubt that link shorteners offer the potential for abuse and it’s good bitly is taking this seriously.

The fact the system is based on balancing and measuring multiple inputs is also a strength, although  the lack of user feedback to explain the nature of concern is a shame. The fact they don’t alert me, the publisher, to the fact they are going to alert all my readers of a problem is really poor – Hillary assured me that a fix for this is about to be rolled out too. Overall it’s encouraging to see this approach being taken and regrettable the actual implementation doesn’t match the strength of the ideas behind it.

☝ The FT and the App Trap

I got an e-mail from the Financial Times yesterday, announcing their new “FT App”. That sounded unusual; after all, the FT has had an iPad/iPhone app for some time. I took a look, and found the whole world of mobile publishing waiting for me in microcosm. It’s not open source, but I see the same yearning after freedom driving choices here.

What’s happened is that the FT has scrapped their native Apple app for the iPad and iPhone, and replaced it with a purpose-built HTML 5 web site that can be installed on the iPad home screen as an app. The result looks and feels just like the old native app. It doesn’t work on older devices like the first-generation iPod Touch (the redirect to m.ft.com amusingly says “slow device”), but on the iPad it’s pretty slick.

Why have they done this? Read my view on ComputerWorldUK.

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