How Internet Explorer supported free software

Internet Explorer, the nightmare of all web developers and many Internet users, the vendor lock-in application of the worst kind, has significantly contributed to the advancement of free software. How is it possible that such a product could help us?

When Internet Explorer appeared all the (at the time) modern and popular web browsers were proprietary products widely used by most people, including free software users. The leading web browser, Netscape, was another such product, distributed for free. That free beer was so popular that there was little demand for a free alternative and the presence and monopoly of Netscape effectively blocked development of a modern free web browser. That was a big problem: The Web, an emerging universal platform for information interchange, was here without any good free software to access it. It was ruled by a proprietary browser of unclear qualities, e.g. Netscape was suspected of leaking private information (BTW, the suspicion was probably false 20 years ago while the private information is routinely leaked these days through web sites and services; see IceCat for partial fixes). And then Internet Explorer started to grow and initiated the war of browsers.

It had taken some time before Netscape realized that their browser couldn’t compete against the universal desktop computer monopolist. At one time the numbers became more than clear and Netscape completely lost its market. It happens sometimes that companies finally, although quite late, recognize their mistakes and manage to help saving their works before they bankrupt (see Sun’s Java for another example). So did Netscape and the Mozilla project was founded. The project was successful, led to the development of Firefox and so we have a modern free and working web browser today. If Internet Explorer didn’t destroy Netscape market, the development of a competitive free web browser could be delayed by many more years.

So we can celebrate the end of Internet Explorer development twice: First for getting rid of the horror and second for helping us to get a good free web browser. It’s a good illustration how bad things can, contrary to their intentions, do something good. Turning bad things into making good is a very important general principle. This should be part of our strategy when making things better.

25 years of Indies Records

I had the opportunity to attend the 25th anniversary festival of Indies Records last month. Indies Records, founded 25 years ago and later split to Indies Scope, Indies MG and Indies Happy Trails, has always been a great music label supporting Czech high quality alternative and non-commercial music. They did a lot of hard work to support good music one can listen to. Most Czech music I buy comes from Indies or from artists related to the label; Indies was also one of the first Czech labels selling non-DRM music on-line.

The party was great. I could enjoy my favorite bands as well as music previously unknown to me. Good music is about freedom and sharing, sharing emotions, something fine and our love for music. Good music provides variety one can choose from, without artificial barriers we often meet in our everyday lives. And that was felt in the audience, consisting of both Indies musicians and Indies fans, during the party.

Thank you, Indies Records, and happy next years!

Starting another week

Real life makes a lot of things hard to achieve and I feel quite exhausted after last weeks. But there were also many good news last week: Someone finally escaped the danger of death and is back at home with good chances for complete recovery. My soul got another pardon. I should get the required signatures for my new Debian key. IceCat got a new maintainer and may become properly maintained. One of the Firefox security plugins finally started working for me. I got a bunch of interesting software tips. I’ve found a way to replace some proprietary software devices with free software ones at my home. Some important work got done in time.

I’m sure the following days won’t be easy and the bad part of the world will continue to undermine useful activities. But listening to good news can help us proving that life is still maintainable and there is even some progress.

Debian GNU/Linux on Android

Android tablets are useful portable devices. Unfortunately Android makes them less useful than they could be. There are several problems with Android, one of them being lack of applications. While there are free Android applications for many common tasks, they are typically not suitable for serious work and many applications are completely missing, most notably (real) Emacs.

But it’s possible to partially overcome the problem by installing GNU/Linux in a chroot environment on Android, making an Android tablet a poor man’s substitute for a laptop on occasional traveling. Here’s what I’ve found about running Debian GNU/Linux on Android after some experiments and testing a couple of alternatives:

  • Get a Bluetooth or other hardware keyboard. The software keyboards take screen space, are not suitable for touch typing and are especially uncomfortable to use with X.
  • Install XSDL X server, available also on Google Play. The other Android X Server, available on F-Droid, doesn’t work very well, nor the free VNC servers I tried.
  • Install GNURoot, together with one of its root images, available from Google Play. GNURoot environment works very well for many tasks, as long as you don’t need real root access.
  • Start the X server, start GNURoot, install your favorite Debian packages, set DISPLAY to localhost:0, run your favorite window manager and the applications you need. The X environment is slow but useable.
  • If you need real root access, you can use Lil’ Debi, available on F-Droid. But there are some limitations: Your Android must be rooted (obviously), the file system size is limited to about 2 GB and I couldn’t connect to the X server under user other than root.