FOXTROT/ALFA: For-Pay LibreOffice, Robot Subs, US to Backdoor All End-to-End Crypto

Welcome to another issue of FOXTROT/ALFA. This is number 135 for Tuesday, 7 July 2020 and, to be honest, things aren’t getting any better in the realm of tech news. So today’s stories range from completely absurd to depressing to downright infuriating. Nothing I can do, I don’t make the news, I just report on them.

LibreOffice to Commercialise Because …Money?

Apparently for-pay LibreOffice versions are planned?

The LibreOffice community has protested at the appearance of a “personal edition” label in the forthcoming version 7.0 of the hitherto free office suite, and the suggestion that paid-for enterprise editions are in the pipeline. The trouble began with a bug report earlier this month, raised by a user who spotted that version 7.0 is now branded as “Personal Edition” with the statement in the About dialog that “The Personal edition is supported by volunteers and intended for individual use.”

On asking for the background to this alarming statement (in the context of free software), the user was referred to a patch in the code repository; not the most transparent way to introduce a major policy change, but it was there if you looked.

Community disquiet was sufficient to prompt a board statement on the matter from The Document Foundation (TDF), the non-profit set up to oversee LibreOffice when the project was forked from OpenOffice in 2010. “None of the changes being evaluated will affect the license, the availability, the permitted uses and/or the functionality. LibreOffice will always be free software and nothing is changing for end users, developers and Community members.” This is true but not the whole story. What appears to have happened is that TDF was gearing up for a big strategy announcement to be announced on July 15th, but as can happen with open source software, the community spotted changes to the code that broke the embargo. It is all about money and the business model of TDF and LibreOffice, with the broad idea being to enable “ecosystem partners” to provide paid-for products badged “LibreOffice Enterprise”.

There is something odd though, which is that the board statement frames this as a “marketing plan” which “is still under development and discussion” but the detailed slides prepared by TDF’s media relations and marketing guy Italo Vignoli suggests something that is well-baked, with a proposed implementation from August 5th to follow the July 15 announcement – hardly time for the community to have much material input. Leaving that aside, Vignoli’s presentation included a detailed rationale for the proposals, beginning with the observation that “the global open source ecosystem has evolved, and there have been lengthy discussions about the relationships with business using OSS (Open Source Software) without contributing back to open source projects.”

Oh great. The global open source ecosystem has evolved and now it’s our time to make some money. Yep, that’s exactly why OpenOffice was created and LibreOffice was forked when that became to commercial.

Micro Focus in Macro Trouble

Well, UK tech consultancy business Micro Focus isn’t doing so good with the lockdowns and general panic going on everywhere:

Things seem to be going from bad to worse for Micro Focus: its shares took a bath this morning on the back of a $1bn plus loss, largely due to a whopping goodwill impairment charge made to account for uncertainty caused by COVID-19.

The retirement home for legacy software brands was already facing internal challenges, a hangover from the buy of the much larger HP Software business that it swallowed for $8.8bn in 2017 and has struggled to integrate. Now the external threat facing Micro Focus is one that everyone, everywhere is confronting too. Revenues reported for the first half of fiscal 2020 ended 30 April were down 12.2 per cent year-on-year to $1.45bn, with declines across all areas of the business.

Well, retirement homes are in a bit of a pickle at the moment, that’s true. Ouch.

Robot Submarines Incoming

Well, this sounds kinda cool. And a bit scary. AI weapons are scary as shit to me. Butlerian Jihad and all that.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence is offering a £400,000 pot of cash to anyone who can develop an autonomous submarine capable of withstanding naval depth charges. In the latest phase of its “autonomy in challenging environments” R&D programme, the ministry wants to hear from companies who can build underwater robots that can survive “sudden and enduring pressure or acoustic extremes underwater” as well as “congested and contested [electromagnetic] environments (including radio frequency (RF) emissions)”.

I mean, makes sense. EMP would be the issue here, I’d think. Since computers don’t need oxygen, you’d presumably wouldn’t need a pressure hull on an AI submarine, right? You could dive deeper, too…

Lest the robot sub go bananas under the strain of being depth-charged, the ministry also wants solid ideas on “how the autonomous system continues to conduct the mission effectively and safely in line with the human operator’s intent” if it loses comms with the meatsacks twiddling its knobs back at base. They also want to ensure the autonomous vehicle makes an effort to get back in contact with humans to finish its duties after losing touch, rather than doing a Marvin the Paranoid Android and stomping off in a huff.

I still think Beluga whales are the way forward, personally.

Amazon Prime Video to Develop …Drumroll… User Profiles!

Breaking news: Amazon Prime Video will finally offer one of Netflix’s most basic features

At long last, Amazon Prime Video is catching up to competitors like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+ with a key feature: user profiles. The feature is rolling out in the mobile and set-top box versions of the Prime Video app starting today.

The feature allows multiple people sharing an Amazon Prime subscription to maintain separate watch histories and watch lists. Additionally, Amazon has made a distinction between user profiles for kids and profiles for adults, with different rules. Users can configure up to six profiles in any mix of children’s and adults' profiles. All this is rolling out starting today, but it won’t reach all users right away.

Holy crap, that’s genius! Give that program manager a raise! Christ…

US Wants to Backdoor All End-to-End Encryption by Law

A global pandemic and media-engulfing culture wars are incredibly handy if you want to pass a law that backdoors encryption on all communication platforms.

An amended version of America’s controversial proposed EARN IT Act has been unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee – a key step in its journey to becoming law. This follows a series of changes and compromises that appear to address critics' greatest concerns while introducing fresh problems.

While the revised version steps away from creating a federal standard that will apply across the country, the revised EARN IT Act will instead empower individual states to introduce their own rules. That could well result in the same impact critics warned about in the earlier drafts: that websites and apps would be obliged to add backdoors into their encrypted services after all.

If forced to remove end-to-end encryption in some states, it is very likely software makers would simply remove it entirely rather than try to provide different versions of the same product depending on where users were located. In effect, it would be a backdoor bill through the backdoor. Or communications providers could simply kill off those services altogether.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) warned: “It will only take one state to inspire a wave of prosecutions and lawsuits against online platforms. And just as some federal law enforcement agencies have declared they’re opposed to encryption, so have some state and local police.”

Dumb Shit Nobody Needs

I’m closing with a collection of the dumbest stories of the day, both from The Verge. Go figure.

The future of video chat will look more like Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update than it will Zoom. That’s the bet being made by Phil Libin, who led Evernote as CEO during its glory days and has returned to the intersection of consumer and enterprise software with a virtual camera that could reshape video communication. The product has a name that is ridiculous even by the standards of Silicon Valley – it’s called Mmhmm – and the company said today that it had raised $4.5 million led by Sequoia Capital.

Mmhmm – “it’s important to have a name you can say while eating,” Libin jokes – is a virtual camera that can be used with Zoom, Google Meet, YouTube, and other video streaming services. Turn it on, and the app transforms your room into a virtual stage. Like other videoconferencing tools, Mmhmm offers a variety of still and animated virtual backgrounds to enliven your conversations.

But that’s just the start: the real power of Mmhmm comes in the way it lets you easily manipulate slides, backgrounds, and your own image — either for fun or for business reasons. With a simple gesture on a trackpad, you can move your face around the screen, shrink or enlarge your image, or disappear completely. (You can also turn a grainy, opaque blue in a touch modeled after Jedi holograms.) You can post slides that appear over your shoulder and advance them with a tap. And you can team up with another Mmhmm user to create a collaborative presentation, with each of you able to manipulate images on the screen and advance the show.

A group of Formula One and Formula E drivers is starting a new racing series that will pit competitors against each other on ultra-fast custom-built electric scooters. The series – dubbed “Electric Scooter Championship,” or “eSkootr” – is set to launch in 2021, and the launch video shows riders whizzing through city streets on Tron-style vehicles and wearing matching neon-accented gear.

There are, unfortunately, few other details about the series, like how it’s being funded or who the competitors will be. All the organizers say is that the “category’s affordability removes the high barrier to entry seen in most other motorsport series, and its versatility means the series can recruit from a truly diverse cross-section of competitors – including racing drivers, cyclists, skaters, snowboarders, motorcyclists, and even esports racers.”

What the fuck, man. These tech bros. It’s either LET’S CHAAAAAAAAANGE THE WORLD SOCIAL JUUUUUUUUSTIIIIIIICE!!!!!!! or this crap. There’s no reasonable middle ground with these fuckers. Unbelievable.

Also Noteworthy

A few other stories I’ve been reading:

I’ve also released this podcast episode today, maybe you’ll find it interesting:

A discussion of the current state of journalism around the world and how it impacts all of our lives with my good friend and fellow critical thinker Michael Mullan-Jensen.

This is an archived issue of my daily newsletter FOXTROT/ALFA. You can find more information about it, including how to subscribe via email, on this page.