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Open Source Software

By: Shane Dempsey
By now, most Internet users have heard something about ‘open source’ software or the ‘open source’ initiative. For many, the idea that some programmers are willing give away their programs for free to anyone (usually via the Internet) seems a bit strange at first. Non-technical users often wonder about the meaning of these words and how members of the ‘open source community’ can religiously revere them. Many people already use open source software. The Linux operating system (www.linux.org) is perhaps the most famous and vocal open source project. Web users utilise open source software whether they know it or not. They download web pages from web servers and the most popular web server is developed by the Apache open source project (www.apache.org). Similarly, a large proportion of email on the Internet is handled by sendmail (www.sendmail.org), an open source mailing system. Therefore, in many ways, the Internet itself is built on a series of foundation blocks that are open source software projects.
Most software is developed in high level languages (e.g. C++, C, Delphi) and then converted into a binary version for distribution and sale. In order to make changes to the software, programmers need access back to the original source code in the high level language. In traditional software development, the company who developed the software jealously guards this source code. They then release updates fixing bugs (errors) or adding new features, often for an additional upgrade fee. Open source software is very different. Any programmer can download the source code and change it. Companies who work in this area make money by selling a service based around the software, rather than the software itself. However the concept is a bit more complex that just freely available source code. The authoritative definition of open source can be found here, it covers these points:
* Free distribution – The source code or software itself may be included in another project and freely distributed without restriction or royalty payments to the authors.
* Source Code – The complete source code must be openly, freely and publicly available.
* Derived works – The open source license must allow derived works. These may be distributed under the same terms as the original software.
* Integrity of the author’s source code – The author may restrict distribution of modified code to publicly available ‘patches’ or may require a different name or version number for the modified code.
* No discrimination again persons or groups – “The license may not discriminate against any person or group of persons”
* No restriction of field of endeavour – The code may be used by any project regardless of the field of endeavour.
* Distribution of license – The rights with which the software is distributed apply after redistribution to additional parties without requirement for an execution of the license agreement for those parties.
* License must not be specific to a product – The license should not depend on the software being part of another software program. For example, an open source part of a commercial project may be extracted and used under the terms of its original open source license.
* The license must not restrict other software – The license should place no restriction on other software that is distributed with the open source software. For example it should not mandate that this software may only be open source
These rules may seem complicated and quite abstract but it is worth remembering that a software license is legally binding. As such, the license needs to provide extensive coverage of legal issues regarding usage of the licensed software. Not all open source licenses adhere strictly to the definition outlined above. A brief, perhaps flippant, look at some of the commercial, closed-source licenses is instructive. The open source community’s wary attitude towards Microsoft’s End User License Agreements EULA’s seems justified. Software in general is sold with an ‘as is’ warranty, meaning there is none and no obligation to provide support. Anyone who has installed a Microsoft product has effectively agreed to a contract with Microsoft that contains lines like the following:
8. DISCLAIMER OF WARRANTIES. THE SOFTWARE IS DEEMED ACCEPTED BY RECIPIENT. THE SOFTWARE CONTAINS PRE-RELEASE SOFTWARE AND MAY BE CHANGED SUBSTANTIALLY BEFORE COMMERCIAL RELEASE. TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED BY APPLICABLE LAW, MICROSOFT AND ITS SUPPLIERS PROVIDE THE SOFTWARE AND ANY (IF ANY) SUPPORT SERVICES RELATED TO THE SOFTWARE (“SUPPORT SERVICES”) AS IS AND WITH ALL FAULTS, AND HEREBY DISCLAIM WITH RESPECT TO THE SOFTWARE AND SUPPORT SERVICES ALL WARRANTIES AND CONDITIONS, WHETHER EXPRESS, IMPLIED OR STATUTORY, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, ANY (IF ANY) WARRANTIES, DUTIES OR CONDITIONS OF OR RELATED TO: MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, LACK OF VIRUSES, ACCURACY OR COMPLETENESS OF RESPONSES, RESULTS, WORKMANLIKE EFFORT AND LACK OF NEGLIGENCE. ALSO, THERE IS NO WARRANTY, DUTY OR CONDITION OF TITLE, QUIET ENJOYMENT, QUIET POSSESSION, AND CORRESPONDENCE TO DESCRIPTION OR NON-INFRINGEMENT. THE ENTIRE RISK AS TO THE QUALITY, OR ARISING OUT OF THE USE OR PERFORMANCE OF THE SOFTWARE AND ANY SUPPORT SERVICES, REMAINS WITH RECIPIENT.
Extract from an actual MS EULA
This is clearly far from the ideal from a consumer’s point of view. While software development is complex, the money the software vendor receives provides the user with no guarantees as to the quality of the product. This is one of the reasons that open source software is becoming popular despite common flaws such as:
* Lack of documentation or poor documentation;
* High level of technical proficiency required for successful usage;
* Very little technical support.
For the experienced user these problems are lessened and the cost saved makes the hassle seem worthwhile.
So you may already be using open source software indirectly when you access the Internet, and over time this model may become more important in desktop applications and business applications.

Ubiquitous Computing: Can you say U-bik-WIT-us?

By: Ray Carroll
You go to the supermarket, find the trolley bay and pick a shopping trolley. As you begin to push it a small screen on the handle welcomes you by name. The trolley has recognised you through some small device that you carry such as a mobile phone, a special badge or maybe even your watch. The smart-trolley uses this identity to access the shopping list that you created at home before you left and displays the products you need, including their price in this supermarket, and the shopping aisle where they are located. Alternatively if you didn’t have a shopping list, it could display the list of products you bought on your last shopping trip, even though it was in another supermarket, and again the price and location in the store. When you go to the checkout the total is charged to your bank account automatically (including 2 euro for the trolley) and the list of products you bought are stored for your next shopping trip (which could be in a different county or even country).
This is a practical yet relatively simple example of how ubiquitous and pervasive computing could affect you. And if you are interested in more futuristic visions of ubiquitous computing then the film Minority Report puts forward some interesting ideas and might be worth taking a look at.
Ubiquitous and pervasive are two of the current technology buzzwords and like many buzzwords, not everyone understands what they mean. Understand them or not, however, these are the concepts that will some day change the way you live.
Ubiquitous is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “being or seeming to be everywhere at the same time” and Pervasive is defined as”spread throughout”. In this context the term ubiquitous computing is used to generalise the vision of a world where computers as we know them, have disappeared from view and are integrated into the world around us. More specifically, ubiquitous computing puts forward the notion that computer access is not just available in one place (e.g. sitting at your PC), its available everywhere. The user has the same computing capabilities and access to information wherever he goes giving the appearance that it is everywhere at the same time.
With pervasive computing technology the computing is spread among numerous devices, as opposed to the current situation where computing tends to be centred around one specific device.
With processors becoming so small and inexpensive, computers (or ‘chips’) will be everywhere. In devices, appliances, equipment, in cars, homes, workplaces, factories, and even in clothing or jewellery. We will be surrounded by computers without even realising it, extending your computing capability throughout the environment.
It may seem that the descriptions of the above terms appear very similar. Well they are, and in truth most do not distinguish between the two as the different terms but simply focus on different aspects of what are essentially the same paradigm.
The key factor in this ubiquitous and pervasive new world is communication. All these distributed computers (chips) must be able to communicate with each other on a common network in order for their full potential to be realised.
Wired communications is not a realistic solution as potentially hundreds of devices need to be connected and may be embedded in anything from the wall to your watch, where mobility is essential. Hence wireless media such as radio frequency or infrared are needed to allow a truly ubiquitous computing environment. Coinciding with this is the development of a global integrated telecommunications infrastructure. That is the movement towards the convergence of Internet and telecommunications networks that is currently taking place. This could be of great benefit to ubiquitous computing, as a unified network would greatly improve the level of service that could be provided.
So with ubiquitous and pervasive computing you can have numerous unobtrusive computing devices inhabiting the same area or space, wirelessly connected and capable of communicating with each other and the outside world. These areas with distributed intelligent devices are known as smart spaces. For instance a smart space could be in your home, your office, a shop, the cinema etc. The TSSG has recently undertaken a project called M-Zones (www.m-zones.org) that deals with the collaboration and management between and within these smart spaces.
Ubiquitous and pervasive computing is in its infancy and like any emerging technology, no one can predict for sure what direction it is going to take. Nonetheless it’s guaranteed to be an interesting one.

Democracy – Power to the PC

By: Jonathan Brazil
Just recently I was sitting down to a tea break, thinking about the many ways in which we accept computers as part of our everyday lives. As a person who works with computers day in day out, I sometimes forget just how much of our everyday lives are entrusted to these boxes of electronics and the people that write software for them. Over the past twelve months there has been a number of high profile events in the news, often under the most horrific of circumstances such as abductions, paedophile activity, etc where the police have been able to trace evidence related to the case to Internet activity. The Internet has become an aid to the law in solving these crimes. On a less terrifying level, supermarkets are now completely computer controlled; every time you use a “clubcard” somebody somewhere knows what you’ve eaten for breakfast. Even our own system of democracy is falling into the grasp of this electronic quagmire.
E-voting was the term coined in this years election, when for the first time in this country people were allowed to cast their votes electronically at certain polling stations. At first glance this seems like a great advancement. The counting of votes under these circumstances should be almost instantaneous and one would hope that no recounts would be requested but if they were, you would hope that the results would be exactly the same. The Minister for the Environment at the time, Noel Dempsey, suggested that electronic voting “will dramatically speed up the counting process, with results for the constituencies likely to be available within a half an hour of the final module, on which the cast votes are stored, being delivered to the counting centres.”
However, we must remember that e-voting will happen on a computer running software. The voting system is the very foundation of any democratic country and it is paramount that people have faith in the system so that they can make their country work for them.
Two important points to note when thinking about this situation are:
Fact: Software can contain bugs that cause errors, and electronic records are easily changed (either by accident or on purpose)
Myth: People have complete faith in computers
Are there any risks associated with e-voting? I cannot answer that question directly but I can provide background to the type of suspicions that people may have. Any techie type person will tell you that to change the behaviour of any piece of software is a very simple task that is achievable in a number of different ways. Tweaking the operating system or software of the computer accepting the votes can change every vote accepted by that system. Then there is the ever-present issue of bugs in software. A bug in a piece of software can cause dramatic events. Some years ago an emergency call centre in England launched a control system for dispatching ambulances. This system had a bug that caused extreme delays in notifying the ambulance crew, almost to the extent that undertakers where arriving before the paramedics.
People are very shrewd and when it comes to political matters they are doubly so. It is reassuring when they can see their vote entering the ballot box on a piece of tangible paper and that they can visit the counting houses if they want to. I am not suggesting that anyone would try to rig an election but could you imagine the widespread panic that would ensue should somebody question the rigging of an election when there is no paper evidence to prove otherwise?

Get Unwired with WiFi

By: Shane Dempsey
What is WiFi? Well, WiFi is a trademark for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ (IEEE’s) 802.11 set of wireless networking standards. These standards specify the technology required to create computer networks using Ultra High Frequency (UHF) radio communications. The WiFi trademark is owned by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA, www.weca.org) who had the good sense to see that Wireless Fidelity or WiFi is a snappier and more accessible title.
Most people who use wireless networks in work or even at home are familiar with the hassles and limitations of connecting computers using Ethernet cables. These include the difficulty and cost of installing cables and restriction of movement. So wouldn’t it be nice to be freed from those wires?
WiFi is an excellent alternative in many situations. Basically how it works is that using a WiFi card, which acts as a transceiver installed on their PC or laptop, users can communicate using radio frequencies with wireless access points (sometimes called wireless hubs). For example, hardware compatible with the 802.11b standard communicates in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz radio frequency band. This is the same frequency as Microwave ovens but, understandably, 802.11b transmits at a much lower power ranging from 50 to100 milliwatts. The range is limited to about 150 metres with line-of-sight between transmitter and receiver but with different power and antenna configurations the range can be considerably extended. Areas within the range of a wireless card and hub are called ‘hotspots’.
The 802.11b specification claims 11 Mbps(megabytes per second) transmission rates although half this rate is achieved in practice. These speeds are comparable with a slower specification Ethernet Local Area Network (LAN) with two busy users competing for network resources. It is worth remembering that transmission rates decrease with signal strength and hence distance. The transmission rates compare very favourably indeed with the 56Kbps (kilobits per second) dial up services that most Irish Internet users connect with. The 802.11a standard however, provides almost 5 times (54 Mbps) the bit rate of 802.11b using the 5 GHz frequency band. And the latest standard, 802.11g should double the data-rate using the same operating frequencies as 802.11a.
WiFi equipment is relatively inexpensive. WiFi cards cost under EUR100 and wireless access points start at around EUR300. A home or office network can be created quite cheaply and quickly.
WiFi’s worldwide popularity is growing as enthusiasts and corporations recognise its usefulness in delivering high-speed wireless access to workers, customers and friends. For example the Starbucks coffee chain is rolling out WiFi access for customers across its 4,000 North American cafes.
WiFi data is sent over the air and this means that data and network resources need to be protected from computer hackers. WiFi specifies Wireless Equivalent Privacy (WEP) for data encryption. WEP is flawed however and alternatives such as creating Virtual Private Networks between wireless devices are often preferable.

Residential Gateways – connecting your home to the web

By: Michael Crotty
Picture this: It’s a dark and miserable winters night, you just spent the day hard at work, and you can’t wait to sit down and unwind. You park the car, climb out and walk up the driveway, put you hand in your pocket, and guess what no keys! What do you do?
In future, you may have more choices then you think. Imagine being able to take out your mobile phone, (Internet enabled of course!), surf to a page, enter your pin number, and have that lock opened for you. Still not convinced? Perhaps another scenario might help. Imagine you are working later than you expected and by the time you get home you have missed your favorite program on television. How useful would it be to go to a secure web page, and set your video recorder to record this program?
Well, this is the dream of many companies, who, in addition to supplying you with a single box which provides high-speed Internet access, telephone service, email, and interactive television, also acts as a gateway to the myriad of other devices in your home.
Ericsson have released a product called the eBox, which provides many of these features, including Internet access, and the ability to download and electronically pay for music tracks. Motorola’s set top box offers a cable modem, high definition TV decoding as well as providing a platform for future services. Planned services will extend to Internet connectivity, and a personal video recorder capable of recording 30 hours of programs.
Other vendors are lining up with similar Internet offerings: Nokia’s Media Terminal adds a broad range of Internet-based services to a normal TV set, Indrema’s Entertainment System is a set-top device that converts a TV into a high-end gaming system, and TiVO’s “personal video recorder” has a large capacity hard disk for up to 30 hours of TV program storage.
The key constraint on the popularity of these devices will be cost. Currently these devices cost the same as a new wide screen television. However, not all of this cost need be passed to the consumer, the cost of mobile phone handsets for instance are heavily subsidised by the mobile phone operators themselves. Could not a similar arrangement be made with cable television providers (NTL), phone operators (Eircom, ESAT etc.), or even electricity providers? Only time will tell.
Further information:
Open Services Gateway initiative (OSGi)
Ericsson’s eBox
Motorola DCT5000

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