Sunday, August 16, 2009

Please, Marc, why RockMelt?

Marc Andreessen is backing a new web browser, to be called "RockMelt". What no one can figure out is, why? The RockMelt website is no help (link), and neither, apparently, is Andreesen himself, who is quoted as saying, "There are all kinds of things that you would do differently if you are building a browser from scratch," in an interview with the New York Times. Perhaps so, but we're in the dark as to what those things might be.

Andreesen rose to fame as the founder of Netscape, the wildly successful browser that dominated the market until it was killed off by its own stagnation coupled with stiff (many would say "unfair") competition from Microsoft Internet Explorer, which comes bundled with Windows.

The thing is, competition is good if you're bringing something new to the table. Today we've got browser competition in spades. Most of these browsers have their selling points... MSIE, Safari and Konqueror are tightly integrated with their respective operating systems; FireFox offers unmatched extensibility; Chrome, simplicity; Opera, speed, tight coding, and strict adherence to published standards. It's not clear what, if anything, RockMelt will offer, and the tight-lipped silence doesn't cause me much excitement. I had enough of that when Segway teased us for months with "this is IT!" leaving us to ask, "that's it?" at the launch.

The fact is that Marc Andreesen just doesn't have a lot of credibility for me anymore when it comes to browsers... Netscape was popular, yes, but that was when it was the only game in town. When competition appeared in the first browser wars Netscape quickly became bloated, buggy, and slow. It went under not only because MSIE was free, but also because MSIE was a better product, and that was under Andreesen's watch. It took spinning off the Mozilla foundation and the creation of Firefox to come up with a better browser. So while it's nice that Andreesen wants to get back in the game, I hope the offering will be truly worth the effort, and not the product of some garage inventor who comes up with a better carbeuretor, ignoring the fact that the industry has long since moved past that.

But the secrecy thing...? That's just silly, so I won't waste a moment of time on speculation or anticipation.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Now THAT'S how you do textbooks!

I can kvetch forever about California's budget crisis and the fiscal irresponsibility that led to it, but in the midst of that bad news is this wonderful example of how the Creative Commons works to the betterment of society.

Some time back Gov. Schwartzenegger launched and initiative to "Open Source" digital textbooks for students (press release). Technically, these aren't "Open Source"... rather they're Creative Commons, but I can't blame him too much for latching onto the better known buzzword.

FYI, the difference is this... "Open Source is a trademark of the Open Source Initiative, and describes software that can freely be modified and shared within certain reasonable restrictions that give proper credit to the authors and ensure the continuing freedom to use a work, while Creative Commons does the same for other creative works that aren't compiled from source code, such as music, literature, or visual works. For instance, I use Open Source licensing for programs such as TimeTool, and Creative Commons licensing for my music. Linux is Open Source; Wikipedia is Creative Commons.

The Phase 1 report of this initiative is in (press release) and has been covered by Slashdot and on blogs such as the Christopher Dawson's Education IT Blog. The report shows that the successful entries were dominated by a new non-profit organization named the CK-12 Foundation.

To me, there is no part of this news that's bad. Educational material is a prime example of the type of information that should by every right be free (that is unencumbered by copyright restrictions). We require our children to attend school; we as a society and as individuals pay for it; we require each and every student to have access to this information. It make exactly zero sense to treat the information as proprietary when in point of fact we require it to be disseminated universally. Therefore conventional copyrights on educational material make no sense, and I really don't think there's any possible successful argument to the contrary.

Nevertheless, we've perpetuated exactly that nonsensical approach to producing textbooks for the entire history of our educational system, primarily because it has been expensive to write and publish these materials. The hurdle of expense has in recent years all but disappeared. It is now possible to collaborate real-time, from anywhere, with any number of contributors, and to publish the results at near-zero cost. Mistakes can be corrected and disseminated immediately rather than waiting for the next expensive printing. The works can be searched electronically, annotated, cross-referenced... and our children aren't stuck lugging around backpacks filled with 20+ lbs of dead trees each. Instead, textbooks in PDF or other electronic formats can be carried on a single ebook reader such as a Palm eReader, Kindle, Cool-ER, Sony eReader, or other reader for access anywhere, at any time.

I've been waiting for such an initiative for years. Even someone as capitalistic as I am can recognize that some things are truly a part of the Commons... no one has exclusive rights to facts, and if we are to agree that education is mandatory, then all textbooks produced to government specifications for government use should be looked upon as works for hire. There are a number of proprietary textbook publishers who would take exception to this, I'm sure, but they are clinging to an out-dated, out-moded, expensive, obsolete system of publishing that keeps the costs high. Change the publishing method, change the collaborative model, and costs can and should be drastically lowered while retaining similar profit margins for publishers.

There is no downside to this.