1x65: Soft Bricking


#1

Jono Bacon, Jeremy Garcia, Bryan Lunduke, and Stuart Langridge bring you Bad Voltage, in which we have now basically become a show about guitars, there is a great deal of argument and fighting about whether companies screw us because they're incompetent or because they're evil, and also:

  • 00:02:20 Nest decide to remotely shut down purchasers' Revolv home hubs with minimal notice. The internet gets very cross. Nest begrudingly decide to give refunds. Is this a harbinger of bad things to come, where devices we buy require an online service for no reason and stop working because the company get bored? Or is this just the price we pay for having new stuff which can be controlled from anywhere and update on the fly? Where's the consortium awarding "this doesn't shut down if the company does" brand marks?
  • 00:31:55 Jono reviews the MOD Duo stompbox, a multi-effect guitar pedal funded on Kickstarter and based on Linux and open source software
  • 00:45:19 To answer our questions about the MOD Duo, we talk to company founder Gianfranco Ceccolini about the software and hardware inside the box and their views on openness
  • 01:02:15 How do we attract the next generation of open source enthusiasts? Do we need to, or are we beyond that now? What's stopping this happening?

Also, Bryan is speaking at LinuxFest Northwest in Bellingham, USA on April 23rd/24th 2016, and Stuart is at Fosstalk in London, UK on August 6th with other Linux podcasters, if you want to buy them drinks or expensive laptops or something!

Download the show now!


#2

#3

(Think up your own dietary fibre joke here)


#4

About the community topic:
I can’t talk about the “Anglo” community, but I’m quite worried about the (lack of) evolution of the Spanish-speaking FOSS community: it’s become stagnant in a very weird “naive enthusiast” stage that gets excited with the new release of Ubuntu but doesn’t understand, e.g. the consequences of Snap packages. Spanish-speaking blogs usually talk about artworks and how to customize your desktop environment, which is fine, but it is absolutely impossible to find someone getting into deeper topics or reviews in a blog in the Spanish-speaking community. A podcast like yours is absolutely impossible, for instance.
I don’t know whether this is due to the language barrier or what, but I find that the “Anglo” community is much more cohesive than ours. OK, you guys have first-hand information from packages, while most of our blogs have to live off poor translations from English-speaking blogs. I’m fortunate to be an almost-native speaker of English, but I’m just an isolated case and my blog sucks as a blog (I have long streaks where I just can’t write a post due to my job).
Why is this important and related to what you’ve discussed? Because a community of low-quality blogs hinders access to good information on FOSS… and that makes things harder to people that don’t read English and have to rely exclusively on blogs or documentation written in Spanish. This means that a lot of enthusiasts in Spain and Latin America are in a very, very evident disadvantage with respect to the people who are part of the “Anglo” community. The very sad consequence I’ve observed (and I know this is not scientific at all… this is just my own observation) is that we’re getting a lot of people that are interested on FOSS, but end up using it in the same, suboptimal passive way that they’d use Windows os OS X… Very few end up doing and talking about interesting and important stuff that matters.


#5

I’m surprised by the reaction @sil, @jeremy, and @jonobacon had to @bryanlunduke’s argument in the first segment. I expect these comments from people in the general tech community, but I’m surprised to see them coming from such large figures in the open source world. I’m also surprised because usually I agree with whatever @jeremy says because he’s a pragmatist, whereas @bryanlunduke has no problems with being more of an ideological purist.

Nonetheless, I empathize with Bryan’s point here. That the Xbox One requires an Internet connection to the extent that it does is a conscious decision that is not necessary to deliver a product that lets users play games and use Internet services (the Wii U, for example, does not limit you in this way). A broader example of this would be comparing modern day open source desktops to proprietary ones. The latter collects more information about users and uses the Internet to enforce DRM in a way we don’t see in the former. That’s thanks to open source developers making the explicit decision (and as Bryan argues, ethical decision) to uphold certain standards of privacy and transparency. Those of us who use open source desktops aren’t sitting around missing out on the technological innovations of the closed sourced ecosystem. We don’t get certain software, sure, but we are still Internet users and participants in the digital world. And we can do more with our Linux desktops today than we could back when the original Xbox launched without giving up our freedoms.

Another example would be the way mobile OSes are designed relative to desktop OSes. The latter (even the closed source ones) will let you do a great deal of work without constant support from a company. Even Chromebooks will let you continue to browse the web and manage files if Google were to stop supporting them. But our phones are so heavily intertwined with online services that they are significantly hindered if those servers shut down. Google Play services is integrated into so many aspects of Android that a large number of apps would simply stop functioning even though they’re not explicitly tied to a service.

To suggest that mobile OSes should be developed more similarly to desktop OSes is not to suggest we go back in time or move into some fairy tale land. It’s to acknowledge that the values and practices we’ve come to accept in certain markets should be actively challenged and rejected. It’s to acknowledge that some products are still currently developed in a way that doesn’t require giving up so much access and control. To suggest that modern computing and Internet usage requires us to be so beholden to every company that makes a product buys into and encourages a developmental model that all four hosts agreed, to varying extents, is not desirable.

As to what we do about it, there, I again agree with @jeremy that transparency is the answer here. Get companies to be upfront about what they’re selling. It’s okay for a consumer to opt to buy a service that comes with a product if that’s what they want. As long as the company is being straightforward, I wouldn’t call this unethical.

That said, I do agree with @bryanlunduke that we as consumers should stop buying smartwatches that effectively turn into digital watches with crappy battery life the moment Google or Apple stops supporting them. We shouldn’t invest in fitness trackers and scales that give us no way to use the advertised features without giving our data to the manufacturers. We shouldn’t accept a market where “smart” TVs don’t last nearly as long as dumb ones from our parents’ generation entirely because the makers have no interest in making products that will last longer than their own personal desire to make money off of us. And opting out does not mean not getting to use watches, scales, activity trackers, or TVs. It just encourages development of technology that better respects users, the likes of which we see regularly made for our Linux distributions, traditional digital cameras, Bluetooth speakers, and other products where companies haven’t yet convinced us that it’s okay to expect our device to only last a year or two.


#6

I’m not sure what our surprising reaction was?


#8

Nice of me to write so many words and still leave that part unclear. Oops.

Ultimately the segment sounded like everyone thought Bryan was being
ridiculous, that he was arguing that we reject the modern world and go
live in the past. I don’t feel that Bryan was doing either of these
things.

Edit: I wrote this reply twice and deleted one because I couldn’t tell if the first response showed up as a reply to you or a reply to the topic as a whole.


#9

Now, I don’t think we were arguing that. It’s possible we may have descended a little into hyperbole, but when making an argument against Lord Hyperbolic himself, sunk in the depths of his anguish and lunch, that’s sorta unavoidable. But I think the argument we were (certainly I was) making was a little more nuanced: yes, we all agree that it’s bad for companies to do this, to build a product which needlessly depends on a remote service and needlessly stops working if the remote service goes away. But companies are still doing it, and there’s certainly benefit for them in doing so, even if not for we customers. So, what can we do about it? Tearing one’s clothes and donning sackcloth doesn’t actually help. Bryan was arguing, I think, precisely that visible anguish does help; we were suggesting that doing something more constructive was a better and more productive and less self-indulgently useless thing to do :slight_smile:

Of course, this is all subject to correction from any of the other three who may feel mischaracterised…!


#10

hat tip.


#11

How bertel describes it is pretty much how I remember it, too. :slight_smile:

I love that I am declared a Lord. This pleases me.

… What does “sunk in the depths of his anguish and lunch” mean? Don’t get me wrong… I like it! But I haven’t the foggiest what it actually means. :slight_smile:

Kinda sorta, not quite.

I was saying that we (as a people) need to talk about this – publicly and loudly – in order to effect change. That’s a given. If we start this conversation by, immediately (before the other side even responds), watering down our position… well that’s just silly. If something sucks, say it sucks. Say it loud, say it proud.

But a significant portion of the “not Bryan talking time” (which, I must admit, made up an awful lot of that segment) was used up by declaring that, if we make devices that are not reliant on proprietary online services, we might as well be “in the stone age”. And that’s just plain silly.

That’s like suggesting that all cars must have a switch where the manufacturer can “Brick” the car whenever they like. Because, without that threat of your car ceasing to function, we can not have awesome cars with cool features. It’s a bad argument. It is, basically, fear-mongering. Not that I think any of my three, esteemed and handsome, co-hosts have anything to gain by spreading fud on this topic – but I think it was still present during the discussion.


#12

This is the second time in recent shows that Bryan has me seemingly arguing against a principle I believe in because he’s so far to the side I believe in that he’s outside the range I can agree with and his position becomes in my mind so unrealistic/idealistic that it becomes unproductive.

–jeremy


#13

I don’t think I was watering down my position though. Where we disagree is that simply talking about it will not usually effect change in my experience. Coming up with a way for the average consumer to 1) care about the problem/understand why it’s improtant and then 2) be able to make educated decisions so that they can vote with their dollars, has a much higher chance of actually making a difference. We both believe things are heading in a direction we don’t like. However, if even YOU keep buying the products in question I have no idea how you think talking about it will make any difference.

–jeremy


#14

@jonobacon provided another good review. And I enjoyed the subsequent interview. I admit my ignorance in what the product does exactly, but I am enthused by the open sourced approach to it. I do hope that the example they are providing will stir others into going in that direction. Thanks for the show.


#15

A number of years back, I was deeply involved with a web application development environment that was all browser-based. The idea of writing an application that was fully dependent on some non-portable service was, at the time, very new, so there was much consternation on the part of possible consumers of the framework (web developers). As a result, the framework authors added a clause to their terms of use that, in plain language, required them to open source the framework in the event the business fails.

While this in no way guaranteed the service, it did reassure developers that there was a way out, an option to independently persist the service, and a way to make the product reusable in another form.

Why this hasn’t become common in an age of services truly is a mark of our collective stupidity.

While the idea of an ‘if I die’ standard is nice, I think this idea, the open-source-coffin for a dead service, is software equivalent of donating your organs to science in the event of your death. There’s a huge opportunity to benefit from something that the host no longer gives a shit about anyway.


#16

No doubt. I’ve become an idealist on many things. For sure. No disagreement there.

On the flip-side… If we’re talking about this particular topic (companies building hardware/software products that are intentionally reliant on a proprietary service) – if my position is on one side. And the position of the companies doing this are on the other side… I would say that you, Jono and Stuart fall into a bit of a “centrist” category. During the episode it was argued that this sort of tactic was fundamentally necessary in order to keep us from going back to the stone age.

So… really. I don’t think you and I actually agree all that much on this topic. We don’t completely disagree, either. But we’re not in the same camp, that’s for sure.


#17

I don’t think we disagree there at all. My stance is not (and has never been) “simply talking about it will effect change”. But talking about these issues in public, high-profile, honest ways is one component that is necessary to achieve that change.

Communication and education. Aka… “talk about it”. :slight_smile:

Talking – in big, open ways – is an early step in effecting change. If we go silent on the topic… does that help effect change? No. Of course not. We need to talk about these things. We need to talk about how even the idealists among us have a hard as hell time ridding these products/services from our lives. Going silent on them would be absolutely horrible to do.

Is there more to be done? Yes. Definitely. And most of what needs to be done is built on a foundation of talking about the problem and working with a growing number of people to spread the message.


#18

Yes. A thousand times yes.


#19

I in no way think that. What I do think is that some companies (likely most companies) that ship products today will do so. Sometimes deceptively so by not making that fact clear. Getting them to stop immediately, because you think it’s immoral, is just not on the table realistically. Full stop. What I think is on the table and quite possible is getting some companies to clearly articulate what features are cloud dependant and what features aren’t, along with including a minimum support time-frame for those features. Once some companies do this, we can do everything in our power to shine a spotlight on the companies we believe are doing the right thing and make that policy a competitive advantage for them. If we can get companies to start competing on privacy and offline accessibility, then I think we have effected real change that benefits the vast majority of people.

–jeremy


#20

So, a question, which we sorta circled around in the episode but I don’t think ever actually directly landed on.

Imagine a company who want to build something like an Amazon Echo or a Mycroft, which records your voice, sends it to the cloud for interpretation and translation into text, and sends the text back to the device (which then does something with it, which might be controlling something local via a Zigbee hub, or something in the cloud, or just answering a question).

This company say the following two things: we do not believe that local speech recognition is good enough, so we’re going to do speech recognition in the cloud. And we’re not open sourcing the server code which does that recognition, because we don’t want to.

I think there are, roughly, the following positions that could be taken on such a device, in a rough order.

  1. The company should be prohibited from selling such a device, because if their servers go away, the device is a brick
  2. The company can sell it but have to declare up front what will happen if their servers go away (which can include “the device becomes a brick”, but they have to say that so customers know it)
  3. The company can sell it and have to make some provision so that the device will not become a brick if their servers go away (this could be promising to open the server code, declaring that the servers will be kept running for five years even if the company dies, etc)
  4. The company can sell it and some sort of external organisation will likely rate the device with a bad rating for this customer-unfriendly policy, and the company must display that rating on their packaging
  5. The company can sell it and some sort of external organisation will likely rate the device with a bad rating for this customer-unfriendly policy, which the company don’t have to mention
  6. The company can sell it and it’s up to the customer to do due diligence themselves on whether this device is a good idea.

I think we’d all agree that the current state of affairs is (6), yes? I think we’d also all agree that talking about this device in “big open ways” and saying it’s a bad idea applies to all six of these potential approaches; that is, regardless of which is chosen, we should talk loudly about how this is a crappy device and shouldn’t be purchased. I, personally, think that any of the above situations 1-5 will be better than 6, and that applies regardless of whether it’s talked about loudly or not; that is, making a big noise about this device being crap is orthogonal to the above choices. I believe that what Jeremy was advocating for (and I was agreeing with) was something akin to point 5, where in addition to conversation about the device there’s some sort of semi-objective standard by which these things are measured, because distilling an opinion out of all the talk is hard work. And given that any of the positions 1-5 are better than 6, then “move to position 5 and also talk loudly about the device” is an improvement over “talk loudly about the device”, isn’t it?


#21

In the first segment I felt that @bryanlunduke was being overly berated for his claims that certain companies were being unreasonable in insisting certain devices are utterly reliant on a particular web service.

To me at least he was not saying companies should be forced to offer products which are to still useful in the event that the service goes away. But that companies should be encouraged to offer products which can provide as much functionality as possible locally.

I understand why people buy a Dropcam, though I personally wouldn’t, because it needs a server to store the data and while many of here could, if given the option, set up a local server most people would find the process daunting.

Also @sil 's comment that Nokia should not be allowed to offer a particular phone because it would be effectively bricked if the phone network goes misses the point because there are several competing networks and if in the UK O2 were to disappear I could simply pop into my local phone shop and get a different SIM. I am not utterly reliant on a single network.

@jonobacon suggested that you should have future segment on the effectiveness of activism. I think you should. Activism works, but not the way most people think it does.

The way activism works is that when for example I am at a protest I am not talking to the company or politician I disagree with because they couldn’t give a expletive deleted what I think.

I am talking to the general public. Companies can only sell products if we buy them and politicians can only enact stupid policies if they get elected. By educating people why something is important and they should care we change the market or political outlook.


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