Category Archives: software development

Legal Sense: CMS Edition

This one is even more exciting than the SecondLife statement.

After the announcement that the USPTO was reexamining its patents in a case against open source course management software, Blackboard incorporated is announcing that it is specifically not going to use its patents to sue open source and other non-commercial providers of course management software.

From a message sent to users of Blackboard’s products and relayed by the Moodle community.

I am writing to share some exciting news about a patent pledge Blackboard is making today to the open source and home-grown course management community.  We are announcing a legally-binding, irrevocable, world-wide pledge not to assert any of our issued or pending patents related to course management systems or transaction systems against the use, development or support of any open source or home-grown course management systems.

This is a major victory. Not only for developers of Moodle, Sakai, ATutor, Elgg, and Bodington course- and content-management solutions, but for anyone involved in the open and free-as-in-speech approach to education, research, technology, and law.

Even more so than in Microsoft’s case, Blackboard is making the most logical decision it could make. Makes perfect business sense: they’re generating goodwill, encouraging the world’s leading eLearning communities, and putting themselves in a Google-like “do no evil” position in the general public’s opinion. Also makes perfect legal sense as they’re acknowledging that the law is really there to protect them against misappropriation of their ideas by commercial competitors and not to crush innovation.

A small step for a corporation … a giant step for freedomkind.

Google Feature Overload

You know that feeling when you just realize that something really neat has been hidden in plain sight for a while and that most people had realized it before you did? It's my feeling with the current state of Google's products and features. Wasn't completely out of the loop: did learn about many features through tech podcasts and blog entries (Spreadsheets, Calendar, etc.). But some things just passed me by, like Co-Op and the Notebook browser extension (which does work on Mac OS X!).

One reason for my not noticing those items might have to do with the disparate classification of their products, tools, features. Some neat things are found in the labs, others in Web Search Features, yet others appear only as content for the personalized homepage or as gadgets/plugins for Google Desktop. What's tagged as "new" is not always so new while some seemingly new things aren't tagged as "new." And, as is well-known, Google tends to call "beta" products which appear quite stable and to not label some cutting-edge features as beta.

All in all, it's quite overwhelming.

There's certainly the perfect blog, podcast, mailing-list to learn all the important news about Google's new stuff. But that implies knowing how active Google really has been, recently. Just amazing, really. And following yet another tech company's product shouldn't be a task in and of itself for the average user.

It must all be because of their policy to have developers work on their own projects a certain proportion of the time. An excellent approach to development, certainly, and the result isn't even a lack of direction. But the task of understanding the Google universe is daunting because the possibilities are endless. Some products are still rather pedestrian but some may imply deep changes in workflow or approach to the online world.

The Google Hacks book should be updated every week… 😉

Microsoft Disinforms on Open-Source and Free-Software

Can Windows and Linux Learn to Play Nice?:

A commercial company has to build intellectual property, while the GPL, by its very nature, does not allow intellectual property to be built, making the two approaches fundamentally incompatible, Muglia said.

Interesting take on “intellectual property.’ Would benefit from a bit more of an explanation. Is “IP” the very foundation of any commercial company?
What's more awkward, though, is that Microsoft veep Bob Muglia talks about the GPL in the context of open-source. As he surely knows, this is exactly where the terms “open-source” and “free software” are not interchangeable. While the two are quite similar, “free software” refers to a movement in favour of free (as in speech) or “libre” development in direct opposition to the notion of “intellectual property.” “Open-source,” on the other hand, refers to a development process through which source code for software is shared by multiple developers in an open fashion, whether or not that code is meant to be protected as “intellectual property.” In fact, many open-source projects are not only interoperable with commercial software but do in fact have commercial licenses through which they protect their IP. Whichever model we prefer, free or open, they're models of very different things. The two models are quite compatible in practice. They are both used in resistance to Microsoft's hegemony. But confounding them serves little purpose in the discussion. It might not be a strategy on Muglia's part to confuse the two issues. Interestingly enough, the “free software” vs. “open source” issue wasn't even the main thrust of the Slashdot thread on the subject, at least in the beginning.

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RefWorks, Reference Software

A "Personal Web-based Database and Bibliography Creator"

Apparently, people at IU South Bend asked several users for comments about different tools and ended up with RefWorks. Can see why. In terms of ease-of-use, it's very good. And it has many interesting features, including some that aren't found in the typical dedicated desktop applications.

I must admit, I'm rather impressed with their rate of release. They seem to follow the typical open-source model of "release early, release often."
In fact, although it's proprietary/closed-source/commercially-distributed (through CSA) and not necessarily inexpensive/free-as-beer, it's almost open-sourcesque in its approach. At least, much more so than Thomson/ISI products.
Funnily enough, CSA integrates with Endnote (made by ISI) better than ISI products do. 😉

Of course, there are several good bibliography solutions around. A cool open-source one is BibDesk. Originally meant for BibTeX data, it now does much more and serves as a cool solution to autofile PDF versions of academic articles (realising part of the dream of an "iTunes for academic papers"). What's neat about RefWorks is that it can be shared. Not only is it possible to make any number of accounts for specific projects (very cool solution for classes) but it has a specific tool for reference sharing. Didn't use it yet but the rest of the program is good enough that RefShare can't be all bad.

Well, this is getting into a pseudo-review, which would be much more difficult to do. One thing that's rather impressive for an online system is that it accepted a submission of tens of thousands of references from an Endnote file without complaining too much (apart from server delays). So they don't seem to have a limit in the number of references.

Which leads us to an interesting point on reference software. [Start rambling…] A given item, say a reference to a journal article, will be present in many people's reference lists. Most of the data should be standardized for all occurrences of that item: author name, publication date, complete title… Some things are added by the user: date accessed, comments, reading notes… In good database design, RefWorks should only keep one copy of that item (with the standardized information) and have links to that item in people's lists. The customized info could probably be streamlined and will probably not amount to a lot of data. Now, there's an interesting side-effect of this as common references should in fact be standardized. One of the most nonsensical things with online reference databases is that you might have "Smith-Black, John D.," "Smith, J.," "John Daniel Black-Smith," and "Black, J.D.S." referring to the same person. Many programs have ways to standardize references locally but the power is there to have, once and for all, one standardized author ID with all associated info. Sure, the output might still end up as "Smith, J." in some bib formats. But at least the information would be kept. And there could be author pages with a lot of info, from institutional affiliation to publication lists and professional highlights. The main advantage of having a centralised system is that changes could be applied globally (as in "across the system") as opposed to customised by each user. Authors could register themselves and add pertinent information. Readers could send comments to authors (if allowed explicitly). Copies of some publications could be linked directly. Comments by many users could linked to a given publication. Think of the opportunities for collaboration!
And the simple time-saving advantage of having, once and for all, the correct, "official" capitalization of the title.
One important point: reading notes. Bibliographies are great. The maximal information needed for a given item in a bibliography would seem quite minimal (author(s), date(s), title(s)…). Presentation/format became an important issue because some publications are quite strict in their opinion that theirs is the "correct" way to display a reference. Yet there's much more that can be done with a database of academic references.
Yes, including reading notes.
Maybe it's just a personal thing but active reading implies some type of note-taking, IMHO. Doesn't need to be very elaborate and a lot of it can be cryptic. But it's truly incredible to see how useful it can be to have a file containing all reading notes (with metadata) from one pass over a given text. With simple search technology, looking for all things you've read that made you think of a specific concept can be unbelievably efficient in bringing ideas together. Nothing really fancy. Just a list of matches for a keyword. Basic database stuff. But, oh so good!
Again, it might be personal. What I tend to is to create a file for a given text I read and write notes with associated page numbers. Sometimes, it's more about a stream of consciousness started by a quote. Sometimes, it's the equivalent of underlining, for future use. And, sometimes, it's just a reminder of what's said in the text. This type of active reading is incredibly long but the effects can be amazing.
Of course, we all use different systems. It'd just be nice to have a way to integrate these practices with reference software. And to PDAs, of course! And PDFs!
The dream: you read an article in PDF format on your PDA, you "enter" your reading notes directly in the PDF, and they're linked to your reference software. You could even share some of these notes with colleagues along with the PDF file.
Oh, sure, many people prefer to do their readings offline and few people have the inclination to type the notes they scribble in the margins. But for those of us who do most of our reading online, there could/should be ways to make life so much easier. Technologically, it should be quite easy to do.
[…Stop rambling. Well, for now, at least.]