Thursday, February 21, 2008

Taxation without web presentation

The Library of Congress recently signed a deal to accept 3 million dollars worth of "technology, services and funding" from Microsoft towards building a new website powered by Microsoft's Silverlight plug-in. I (Casey) usually leave the blogging to Tim, but I've got to say something about this.

Microsoft, in general, is very good to libraries, and libraries are very good to them. Microsoft gets huge tax breaks for donating software licenses -- something that doesn't really cost them a thing -- and libraries get software they couldn't afford otherwise.

This is a different beast, however. It sounds like Microsoft technologies will be used from the ground-up -- if you use Microsoft's Silverlight to do the front-end, your developers pretty much have to use Visual Studio and Microsoft languages, your database admins have to use MS SQL Server, and your systems admins have to use Windows and IIS. In any case, it seems unlikely that Microsoft would consult on a project and not recommend you use Microsoft as much as possible.

Once you're locked in to the entire Microsoft stack, you pretty much can't change a single piece without completely redoing your entire IT operation from top-to-bottom. When the free deal expires or you need new servers, you end up having to buy new Microsoft licenses and software. It's like giving somebody a kitten for a present -- they'll still be paying for and cleaning up after your gift 10 years from now.

Most disturbingly, users are locked in, too: anybody using an iPhone, an old version of Windows, any version of Linux, or any other operating system or device not supported by Silverlight will be unable to use the Library of Congress' new website. How is that compatible with the principles of democracy or librarianship? It's taxation without web presentation. And how exactly is that a quantum leap forward? (If the LOC really wanted to make a quantum leap, it would open up its data.)

Giant package deals are the wrong way to make both technical and business decisions about software; it doesn't matter who's doing the packaging, or how. You should be able to use the best operating system for the job, the best database for the job, and the best programming language for the job. You should be able to hire developers and systems administrators, not Microsoft developers and Windows administrators, and should give them the freedom to use the best solution, not the Microsoft solution. Sometimes the Microsoft solution is best, sometimes it isn't, but that's something that shouldn't be dictated unilaterally.

"I take comfort when I see one of our competitors looking to hire Microsoft developers instead of software developers, for reasons the hacker/entrepreneur Paul Graham explained well:
If you ever do find yourself working for a startup, here's a handy tip for evaluating competitors. Read their job listings. Everything else on their site may be stock photos or the prose equivalent, but the job listings have to be specific about what they want, or they'll get the wrong candidates."

"During the years we worked on Viaweb I read a lot of job descriptions. A new competitor seemed to emerge out of the woodwork every month or so. The first thing I would do, after checking to see if they had a live online demo, was look at their job listings. After a couple years of this I could tell which companies to worry about and which not to. The more of an IT flavor the job descriptions had, the less dangerous the company was. The safest kind were the ones that wanted Oracle experience. You never had to worry about those. You were also safe if they said they wanted C++ or Java developers. If they wanted Perl or Python programmers, that would be a bit frightening-- that's starting to sound like a company where the technical side, at least, is run by real hackers. If I had ever seen a job posting looking for Lisp hackers, I would have been really worried."
But it's disappointing to see an institution you respect, admire, and fund with your tax dollars going down that same road. It's even more disappointing because the Library of Congress does make smart decisions about technology. They announced another major project a few months back that took an entirely different approach to selecting the tools they would use. The people behind the World Digital Library sat down and thought about the best tools for the job, and they came up with an interesting and eclectic list: "python, django, postgres, jquery, solr, tilecache, ubuntu, trac, subversion, vmware". Those tools are free, open-source, designed with developer productivity in mind, aren't tightly linked to each other, and don't inherently limit who can access your website. That's what should matter.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well-said; I think even non-techies can understand the problem involved here, thanks to your clear post. Any chance the LOC could review/reverse this decision, if they receive public comment?

2/22/2008 6:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow...That is scary.

True capitalism at work...


2/22/2008 7:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the site is written in Silverlight, what about disabled access? Is it in violation of the ADA?

Given that this was an argument the MS itself tried to use to torpedo ODF in MA, I think it's a good tack to try.

2/22/2008 7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Most disturbingly, users are locked in, too: anybody using an iPhone, an old version of Windows, any version of Linux, or any other operating system or device not supported by Silverlight will be unable to use the Library of Congress' new website."

You're kidding, RIGHT! How can they be do that!?

2/22/2008 7:39 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Damn, that's one fine guitar. I could make some excellent music with that instrument. Funny how we just bumped into each other at this crossroads. What did you say you want from me, again? Huh. Don't think I'll be missing that. And that's sure one fine guitar.

--Robert Johnson

2/22/2008 7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am surprised that information that is required to be freely available and is paid for by the taxpayer can be locked into a format that locks you into purchasing an operating system and applications from one vendor, and out of free software.

In other countries this would be considered corrupt and a misuse of taxpayers money - since the money paid to generate the content provided by the Library of Congress is being misused by being limited to purchasers or licensees of Microsoft corporation.

2/23/2008 10:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a serious matter ... a federally convicted "unrepentant predatory monopoly" is allowed to lock the LoC into their (middling-to-bad) technology and shut out users of other technology. This looks very much like a field rep <=> clueless manager sweetheart deal.

I would very much like to know where I can make my dissatisfaction known, so that it has the greatest effect in reversing or at least mitigating this decision. A single letter to a senator or representative isn't likely to do much, but if there's an organized campaign to do this it will have an effect. Where is that campaign?

ps @Barbara: took me a minute to get your post, but yes, that's it perfectly.

2/23/2008 12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems to break most of the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science's guidelines

NCLIS Guidelines

2/24/2008 7:33 AM  
Blogger SB said...

Not to be ignorant but what systems (OS, SB etc) do they use currently? If they're already using all Microsoft stuff then isn't it a logical step?

Silverlight (and Flash for that matter if they chose to use a similar 3rd party products) disabled access issues aside this sounds a bit like MS bashing.

While I wait for people to abuse me can I just say that I do use a Mac (Not that I believe that will save me).

2/24/2008 5:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous: "In other countries this would be considered corrupt and a misuse of taxpayers money ..." Too true. There are British government websites that require MS software. The BBC's iPlayer download service only operates for downloads using IE and only very recently was made available to Mac users for streaming after lots of protests. The British Library has MS doing a Google in digitising lots of books and the recent upgrade to its 'Turning the Pages' software is MS only. It would be a real abuse if LOC excludes non-MS users.

2/24/2008 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The BBC's iPlayer was rolled out first for Microsoft, with other platforms under active consideration (they said). The Mac roll-out was after protests, but it's not all that obvious that the protests were responsible.
The alternative would be to have deferred iPlayer launch until other platforms were available (all platforms?). Would that in fact have been better?
Yes, I'd like it for Linux too. No, I don't know whether it will happen. Do please complain - but don't assume that a Linux client will represent a triumph for the power of complaining.

2/25/2008 8:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish Microsoft would give out free kittens instead of software. I'd rather clean the litter box than administer IIS.

2/25/2008 12:49 PM  
Anonymous muninn said...

I second the "write to your congress person approach." Maybe even barrage them. A targeted barrage though: my understanding is that the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on House Administration is the body that holds oversight hearings for the Library of Congress. It sounds like the best place to start.

Members of that committee for the 110th congress are as follows:
* Bob Brady, Chairman, Pennsylvania
* Zoe Lofgren, California
* Michael Capuano, Massachusetts
* Charlie Gonzalez, Texas
* Susan Davis, California
* Artur Davis, Alabama
* Vernon J. Ehlers, Ranking Member, Michigan
* Dan Lungren, California
* Kevin McCarthy, California

So...anyone up for some emailing/letter writing/telephoning?

Also, usually members of congress respond a bit better when the person who contacts them is someone who lives in their district. If one of the Representatives listed is yours, please contact them. :)

ps @anonymous (2/25/2008 12:49 PM post)
Yes, please free kittens, not software. ;)

2/25/2008 1:08 PM  
Blogger Kent said...

This is not true: "if you use Microsoft's Silverlight to do the front-end, your developers pretty much have to use Visual Studio and Microsoft languages, your database admins have to use MS SQL Server, and your systems admins have to use Windows and IIS". You can create Silverlight apps with a plain old text editor and deliver them using any HTTP server such as Apache. You can develop Silverlight apps just as well in javascript and ruby as well as C# and VB; you dont need SQLServer or IIS.

Silverlight is MS's response to Adobe's Flash - they are strongly encouraging (or "bribing" if you like) content providers to create Silverlight enabled content because unless there's great stuff available via Silverlight, noone is going to download their plugin and potential customers will be even less likely to use integrated MS tools to create silverlight content.

I dont know what the $3M means - maybe it is all in-kind IIS or SQL-Server licences, in which case it is no advantage at all to LoC, but maybe some of that $3M is for actual content creation that wouldnt be done otherwise.

As for "Taxation without web presentation", summaries of desktop and browser stats indicate that well over 90% of clients have systems that can run silverstream, and silversteam support for W2K and linux is coming soon (although W2K use is dropping fast)
Hopefully the LoC are less concerned about the well heeled with their latest IPhone gadget than the challenges of receiving any rich content for those unable to afford broadband.

Silverlight may well evaporate - some of its major capabilities such as flexible 2D rendering will eventually be delivered as part of HTML5, and meanwhile, Flash does everything most people want. The worst thing LoC management could do would be to treat any of the free tools MS gives them as "strategic" - they should make sure they dont lock their content into one faddish format.

2/25/2008 4:11 PM  
Blogger JLH said...

Yea! Yeah! I'll throw that tea in the harbor, too, and will look at the World Digital Library. Informacion libre siempre! And I'd like to ask whether you're related to the Durfees my mother knew in Newport -- Ray or Geoge?

2/25/2008 9:03 PM  
Anonymous andyl said...

I thought Microsoft said it would have Silverlight running natively on the Mac as well? However it still leaves out Linux and what I think will be the growing market of mobile phones and ebook readers.

Unfortunately this particular technology space is up in the air - Flash/Flex/Air and Silverlight/WPF are proprietary and won't run everywhere. JavaFX ties you into a particular language (Java and JavaFX Script).

However the first question should be "What is the advantages in using RIA tools (whether Flash/Flex or Silverlight or JavaFX or something else) for this application?". Could it be implemented and provide a decent user experience without too much difficulty using established Ajax based toolsets in an open language? Possibly, possibly not. Only then should the LOC look at these essentially untested-on-this-scale alternatives and choose the best on a technological basis and not on essentially a "bribe" basis.

These type of deals (both BBC and LOC) are bad for the licence-fee/tax payer. As well as the technology lock-in (which although never as bad as the suits say is still pretty significant), it is really just about getting a significant project out there using a new technology. It is cheap and usually effective PR for Microsoft. Unfortunately it is also cheap publicity for the other organisation. On both the BBC and the LOC case there should be a strong presumption that they should provide a service for the entire nation that they serve - not just those who have bought into a particular technology. The tech lock-in aspect is troublesome from a financial viewpoint (and I have been involved in projects where we had to hastily rewrite software because of lock-in - which we had warned about 3 years previously when the system was first written) and is also worth mentioning in your letters to your political representatives.

2/27/2008 5:41 AM  
Blogger David Butler said...

I'm a programmer who's been working with the latest Microsoft technologies. If you build a Silverlight front-end, you are not tied to any particular technology in the middle-tier or backend. Silverlight can communicate with nearly any technology out there via web services, XML-RPC, or REST. You aren't even tied to hosting it on Microsoft's operating system or web server. As long as you design your system properly, you can swap out the entire middle tier and backend, and the front-end UI remains unchanged.

From the client side, I expect most browsers will support Silverlight once it is released, just as most browsers nowadays support Flash. It's simply another plugin you have to install, that's it. Last I heard, Microsoft was working with the Linux community to ensure Linux compatibility.

Accessibility is required on government web sites by law. It's not very difficult to create a text-only, accessible version of your web site, as long as as you design your architecture correctly. In fact, ASP.NET has built-in mechanisms to ensure accessibility. From what it sounds like, Microsoft will be working with the libraries to make sure they are educated in how to use the technology to fulfill their particular requirements.

The Silverlight / .NET 3.5 runtime is actually free. It costs nothing to host the technology on your web server. (Unless you're hosting it in IIS, in which case you have to shell out for a copy of Windows 2003 or Vista.) Only the development tools (i.e. Visual Studio 2008, Expression Blend) cost money. This is a one-time investment. From what I understand, Microsoft is actually donating this software to libraries, so actually the cost to them will be zero.

So, I really see no problem with this whole idea. You could argue that the libraries will be "locked-in" to Microsoft technology. But no matter what technology you choose, you will end up being locked in. At least with Microsoft products, you have something with lots of documentation and guaranteed support for years to come. There are no guarantees with open source software. Aside from posting on forums, you're sort of on your own if something goes wrong.

Is Silverlight the best technology for the job? Well, consider that a Silverlight application is much more powerful than AJAX, and more robust than Flex or Flash. It's like having a Windows app running in your browser, with lots of potential for innovative graphical interfaces. I'm interesting in seeing where they go with this.

Well, there's my two cents, from somebody who actually uses this technology.

3/02/2008 12:22 AM  
Anonymous Pierre said...

Everything about Microsoft's sick tactics is true (and even behind reality).

But saying that "Perl/Python developers are chosen by real hackers -while this is not the case with C/C++ coders" is, ahem, total crap.

Do I have to recall you that Perl/Python (as well as Apache and Linux) are written in C?

You obviously meant something different: the fact that choosing tools that are not depending on a vendor is a good choice.

That's precisely the case of ANSI C, an open standard with 40 years of existence.

And C can hurt Microsoft more surely and deeper than Perl/Python, see:

Your article might need clarrification in this matter.

9/01/2009 2:08 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

It's a quote.

9/01/2009 12:21 PM  

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