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Digital Economy Bill

Just a quick post to let you know the Digital Economy Bill has had it’s second reading in the house of lords. This is the first oppotunity for discussion of the bill by the lords. This bill is the one that plans to introduce new measures to fight copyright infringement (amongst other things).

The debate can be watched on Parliament TV, the debate starts at 33:45 (roughly). The default option for watching the debates is Microsoft Silverlight, if you don’t have that you can use Windows Media Player (If you have the correct plugins installed this *should* work on Linux). Unfortunately there is no option for Ogg video which is natively supported in a number of browsers.

A quick word of warning, the debate is very long, several hours in fact.

You can also read the text transcript of the debate.

December 9, 2009 Posted by | Computing, Software | 1 Comment

BBC Redifines “Neutral”

Back when the BBC first created iPlayer the BBC where ordered to make it platform neutral.

In response the BBC has released a new version of iPlayer using Adobe AIR. According to Adobe’s website this runs on Linux, provided your version is “Fedora Core 8, Ubuntu 7.10, openSUSE 10.3″[2].

For those who know about Linux they would notice that these versions are outdated. Ubuntu is now at 8.10[3], Fedora is at Core 10[4] and OpenSuse is up to 11.1[5]. Ubuntu 7.10 also ceases support in April 09[6]. The BBC intends to release it’s new iPlayer publicly in February, so it will only work on Ubuntu for 2 months before 7.10’s support is pulled.

According to the BBC’s Mr Rose

The cross-platform nature of Adobe AIR means the iPlayer will work with Open Source and Apple Mac computers “out of the box” on 18 December, said Mr Rose. It fulfilled the Trust’s demand that the iPlayer be “platform neutral”, he said.[1]

Princeton’s wordnet defines neutral as:

not supporting or favoring either side in a war, dispute, or contest

However the BBC’s version of iPlayer favours a few specific platforms. It will not run on Debian on ARM nether is there a version of for the SPARCS platform. Quite clearly providing versions for one platform and not for another platform is not being entirely neutral.

In the computing world we do have many platform neutral technologies. For instance HTTP is considered platform neutral as the IETF holds a public specification for it’s operation, which they provide to anyone who wants a copy and therefore any platform can chose to implement HTTP.

This is not true of the BBC’s iPlayer. The BBC has chosen to withhold the details of iPlayers operation so that no platform can implement it on their own. They then provide iPlayer to certain platforms. This is not neutral.

It would appear the BBC have a different definition of neutral to the rest of the world.

At the time of writing the BBC Trust have not confirmed whether they consider the BBC to have complied with the platform neutral obligation however they have provided the following statement:

The BBC Trust welcomes BBC management’s announcement today that Linux and Mac users will be able to download programmes from the iPlayer. We will continue to assess progress on the Trust’s requirements for platform neutrality at six monthly intervals.

References used in this article:

[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7787335.stm

[2] http://www.adobe.com/products/air/systemreqs/

[3] http://www.ubuntu.com/getubuntu/download

[4] http://fedoraproject.org/en/get-fedora

[5] http://software.opensuse.org/

[6] https://wiki.ubuntu.com/Releases

[7] http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=neutral

December 18, 2008 Posted by | Computing, Linux, Software, Ubuntu | Leave a comment

Linux Sol #2: MPlayer AF_INET6 Error

Linux Solution #2

Fixing MPlayer AF_INET6 Error

Due to the success of my previous post about fixing unmount problems I have decided another solution to a common problem is in order.

This information is supplied with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY.

Please be careful when entering commands. Particularly ones you find on the Internet. Remember that anyone can post commands on the web so you should only run something if you know what it does. If in doubt use the manual. This is a good idea anyway as it can help improve your knowledge.

For more information about the commands listed use the Linux manual pages (accessed via the man command)

The Problem

When listening to remote streams using MPlayer an error message is displayed that reads: Couldn't resolve name for AF_INET6: example.com (shown below).

The cause of this error message is simple. There is a protocol called the Internet Protocol (IP) which is used to communicate on the Internet. It has two main versions IPv4 and IPv6. When MPlayer tries to turn a name (such as example.com) into an IP address it looks to see if it has an IPv6 address. If it can’t find one it switches to IPv4. However it issues an error message.

The Solution

As many sites do no use IPv6 you can instruct MPlayer not to try IPv6 unless it can’t use IPv4. To do this you can add the following line in MPlayer’s configuration file:
prefer-ipv4=yes

If you only want to make the change for the current user you can use the configuration file ~/.mplayer/config (where ~ is your home directory).

If you want to make this change for all users you can use the global configuration file /etc/mplayer/mplayer.conf or /usr/local/etc/mplayer/mplayer.conf. Which file you use depends on your Linux distribution.

Now MPlayer should not display an error message if it finds an IPv4 address but no IPv6 address.

You may have to close and reopen MPlayer for these changes to take effect.

April 6, 2008 Posted by | Computing, Linux, Software, Ubuntu | 1 Comment

Dell Inspiron 1525

The Dell Inspiron 1525 is available in both Linux and Windows versions. I thought I would take this opportunity to examine the differences. Note that the Ubuntu builds still don’t seem to be accessible from the main Dell site so you need to go to http://www.dell.co.uk/ubuntu , so unless you are specifically looking for Linux pre-installed and already knew about Dells offerings it is hard to find.

Skip to the final prices.

Skip to the conclusion.

The starting prices for the units were:

  • Linux £298.99
  • Windows £329.00

Linux is £30.01 cheaper right? WRONG. Dell’s offerings have different specifications be default so we are not comparing like for like.

My methodology is to alter the machines specifications so they are both identical (apart from the OS of course) as far as is possible. So here goes.

Processor

The default processors were the same. However the choice of upgrades varied. The Windows machine offered a 2GHz CPU which the Ubuntu version didn’t. Prices for identical upgrades were roughly the same (one of the CPUs costed a penny more on the Ubuntu version, but what’s a penny between friends?)

Operating System

The Ubuntu machine came with Ubuntu 7.10 pre-installed. The Windows machine had Windows Vista Home Basic (although upgrade options were available).

Hardware Support

Now you would expect this to be identical for both versions right? WRONG. The Windows version came with a special offer on support upgrades but that’s not the interesting part, even with these discounts the Ubuntu machine had cheaper hardware support.

Support Package Ubuntu Windows (discounted) Windows
1 Year Included Included Included
2 Year £47.40 £67.15 £79.00
3 Year £65.40 £87.20 £109.00
4 Year £83.40 £104.25 £139.00

Webcam and Colour

Same on both with the same upgrades available.

LCD

The Windows machine has a 15.4″ 12800×800 display as standard, with an upgrade to “True Life”. The Ubuntu machine came with the “True Life” version as default, but with no option to downgrade. However the Ubuntu version did offer an increased resolution upgrade (1440×900).

The Windows machine was upgrade to match the Ubuntu machine at a cost of £20.00

Memory

The Windows machine came with a 1024MB where as the Ubuntu only 512MB, this was upgraded to match the Windows machine at a cost of £20.00.

Hard Drive and Graphics Card

The same by default, upgrades identically priced.

Mouse

Neither of the machines came with a mouse but one could be added. Oddly the Ubuntu machine had only one choice of mouse where as the Windows machine had 7. It is unclear whether this is due to incompatibility with Linux or not.

Optical Drive and Battery

The same on both models.

Printers

The Windows machine came with a nice selection of printers however this option was entirely missing for the Ubuntu machine. Of course a printer could be purchased separately but it is less convenient.

Cases

Now this is an interesting one. The physical machines are the same size so the cases should be the same. Oddly they are not. The Ubuntu machine has a choice of 2 the Windows machine a choice of 12. I find this really confusing as the Operating System clearly has no effect on what cases the machine fits in. Neither does the case require driver compatibility in the OS.

Mobile Broadband

Available on Windows, not on Ubuntu.

Accessories, Keyboards and Media Centre Equipment

Available on Windows, not on Ubuntu. Some of the equipment has no effect on the OS such as locks for the laptop. It is strange these are not offered on Ubuntu.

Bluetooth

Again more choice on the Windows machine but still available on both.

Wireless

Only one option for Ubuntu (an Intel WiFi card), the Windows machine featured a Dell Own Brand WiFi card (presumably not compatible with Linux), this was swapped to match the Intel card on the Ubuntu machine for a cost of £10

Wireless Routers and Memory Sticks

A range of these available for the Windows Laptop, none for the Ubuntu Laptop. It is unlikely that this is due to compatibility.

Software

None for Ubuntu, apart from all the software that comes with the OS. The Windows machine came with Works 8.0 (and couldn’t be deselected) and also had the option of Photoshop.

Internet Access

Available from BT or Tiscali for the Windows machine, not offered for the Ubuntu machine.

Accidental Damage Support

The same for both machines.

Software Service

For the Windows machine these included Telephone support and getting started packages. Nothing offered for Ubuntu.

Online Backup and Antivirus

Available for the Windows machine, but not for the Ubuntu machine.

FINAL PRICE

After modifying each machine to the same specification the final costs were:

  • Linux £318.99
  • Windows £359.00

That’s a difference of £40.01

Conclusion

It’s nice to see that Pre-installed Linux is actually cheaper than Windows. However I did upgrade things that made little functional difference apart from the price (namely the Dell to Intel WiFi and the True Life Screen whatever that is) but even if those items weren’t upgraded the Ubuntu machine would still have been £10 cheaper.

I was rather surprised to see the cost of hardware support was lower for the Linux machines even after the Windows prices had been discounted. Maybe Linux puts less stress on the hardware, or Linux users are less likely to phone the hardware support line with non hardware related things. Who knows, but if you are looking for longer hardware support there’s a saving to be had with Ubuntu.

On the downside I was rather disappointed by the lack choices offered. I understand why the WiFi options were limited. But why was there less options for the case? It would be nice if Dell offered all the extras they did for Windows (provided they were compatible). They really should have offered things like the security lock and WiFi routers on the Ubuntu model as well, they don’t depend on the OS either.

It would be nicer if they made the Ubuntu machines easier to find. For example it should ask you which machine you want when you select the laptop name. Maybe even have a check box to switch between Windows and Linux, however that would require the system to disable the options not compatible with Ubuntu. Maybe a “Did you know you could get this laptop with Ubuntu Linux pre-installed plus a wide range of additional software included cheaper?”.

I think they also missed a trick when it comes to the software options. They could have given the user the choice of selecting extra software to be installed for a modest fee, it’s free software so Dell don’t need to get it licensed specially.

All in all Dell are doing a good job here, but there are still a few minor improvements that could be made.

Prices may not be accurate and are subject to change. No responsibility for errors or omissions is accepted. This article is provided AS-IS with no warrant of any kind.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | Computing, Linux, Ubuntu | 7 Comments

Should the Linux community reverse enginner iPlayer and 4OD?

If you live in the UK you are probably well aware of the BBC’s iPlayer[1] and channel 4’s 4OD[2] program.

These are both pieces of (proprietary) software that allows (windows using) people to download TV programs and watch them on their PC.

Linux users have been intentionally excluded from this by Channel 4 and the BBC, despite the BBC’s obligations under it’s charter[3], requests from it’s regulator (the BBC Trust)[4], and protests from it’s license fee payers[5]. The BBC has stated in a podcast[6] that they will not use open source as open source is “insecure” (of course that could have been easily tampered with as a cracker could have broken into their servers as they run open source code[7] on many of them and therefore must be horribly insecure).

So as the BBC have admitted they will not provide us access to the content we pay for (I pay the same T.V. License fee as anyone else!) then maybe we should consider doing it ourselves

If we sit idle it will be almost impossible to introduce people to Linux as Microsoft now have a whole supply of T.V. to go with there OS that we can not compete with. Even though Microsoft never even produced the content in the first place, in fact members of the Free Software community even payed for the production of some of it.

The Open Source and Free Software communities can write good quality code. Linux seems to be more secure, faster and stable than it’s competitors, GCC is one of the most widely used C Compilers and Firefox is increasing it’s market share rapidly, not to mention the Apache webserver (which the BBC [7] and Channel4 [11] both use). So should we write a replacement for 4OD and iPlayer?

To begin writing a replacement we would need to know how to speak with the Channel4 and BBC servers. We also need to know how to read what they send us. To do this we would need to reverse engineer the current programs to determine how they communicate and re-implement it in our own application.

Are choices are few but here are some of them:

  1. Sit back and do nothing
  2. Implement and application similar to iPlayer and 4OD (including DRM) but using other formats and communication protocols
  3. As number 2 only minus the DRM.
  4. As number 2 only reverse engineer iPlayer and 4OD so we can use the same formats and protocols.
  5. Pursue Political options (write to MP’s, MEP’s, the Prime Minister etc.)
  6. Pursue Legal options, the BBC has requirements in it’s charter, we could continue fighting for the BBC Trust and Ofcom to take action or ask the E.U. to intervene in the matter.

If we go for option 1 desktop Linux will be dead (at least in the U.K.) very shortly.

If we go for option 2 we would have a useful application but there is no guarantee that either the BBC or Channel 4 would use it. After all Firefox can access webpages fine but the BBC blocked it from iPlayer.

If we go for option 3 we would have the same problem as option 2 with the added problem that the BBC is s huge fan of DRM and will refuse to consider anything that doesn’t use it (despite it being useless and the one they selected being cracked before the BBC released iPlayer[8], at least we know the BBC’s use of DRM has nothing to do with protecting content then).

If we go for option 4 there would be little that the BBC or Channel 4 could do. We wouldn’t need their help provided we can find enough people with the skills to reverse engineer binaries. There may however be legal issues, perhaps less with iPlayer as the charter imposes limits on when the BBC can actually sue people. Any lawyers out there want to comment on this option?

Option 5 seems good on the face of it, but as there is no election on the horizon any more MPs will no doubt fail to act. This was also tried before and the Prime Minister himself refused to provide any reassurance to the 16 thousand people who signed a petition to number 10[9].

Option 6, this is still a good option. But the E.U. have taken years to bring a judgment against Microsoft for actions it committed years ago and if we wait this long again then it will already be too late. Ofcom and the BBC Trust have said they consider Platform Neutrality to be important but have refused to actually do anything about the BBC’s refusal to comply. (it would appear compliance with regulators is optional).

If done correctly Options 2, 3, and 4 could all be done at the same time. After all if we place the code for protocol communication in a separate library or module then we could simply attach entries for iPlayer and 4OD once it’s been reverse engineered and the legal issues clarified. Again for the DRM code it would be in a separate module which could be removed to generate option 3, it would be present in option 2, and it would contain the reverse engineered formats for option 4.

One question remains, who should fund this venture and who provides resources? Let’s be straight reverse engineering is possible but difficult. (Although the Samba guys managed to reverse engineer Microsoft’s file sharing protocol reasonably well.) We would also need some kind of legal protection. Maybe the FSF would be willing to provide that?

Of course producing options 2 and 3 would be easier. And if we can make it run on all platforms easily we would have a strong case for forcing the BBC at least into replacing their current code (and hopefully returning the money they wasted back to us the license fee payer).

Some other questions:

  1. What programming language? Python, Java, C?
  2. What formats and protocols? Bittorrent, TV-Anytime, OpenIPMP, Java DReaM?
  3. FUNDING (again)

Why have the desktop Linux vendors done nothing? Do they consider the U.K. completely unimportant? I would have at least expected Canonical (of Ubuntu fame) to have stood up for us, does the U.K. not matter to them anymore? How about it Jono, will Canonical stand up and help?

Feel free to comment below.

Links:

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/
[2] http://www.channel4.com/4od/index.html
[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/charter/
[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/consult/closed_consultations/ondemand.html
[5] http://defectivebydesign.org/iPlayerProtest
[6] http://backstage.bbc.co.uk/news/archives/2007/10/iplayer_drm_and_1.html
[7] http://toolbar.netcraft.com/site_report?url=http://backstage.bbc.co.uk
[8] http://news.cnet.co.uk/software/0,39029694,49291676,00.htm
[9] http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/iplayer/
[10] http://toolbar.netcraft.com/site_report?url=http://www.bbc.co.uk
[11] http://toolbar.netcraft.com/site_report?url=http://www.channel4.com
(I am not responsible for the content of external links)

November 4, 2007 Posted by | Computing, Free Software, Software | 17 Comments