OSCON 5.1: Friday Morning Keynotes

by Geoff Broadwell

Related link: http://conferences.oreillynet.com/os2005/grid/

Asa Dotzler of Mozilla started off the Friday morning festivities with his views on ways the Linux desktop needs to improve to appeal to a wider audience:

Ease of Migration

Install alongside Windows and bring over every document and config setting possible.


Guarantee API and OS-level standards stability, to ease the burden on application vendors.


Optimize for the core 90% as Firefox does, rather than the rare, squirrelly, option-profuse edge cases.


Make Windows users comfortable -- he even suggested swapping OK and Cancel in dialogs to match the Windows placement, rather than the Mac placement.

Drew Endy of MIT explained how the technology for DNA synthesis has gotten so easily available that you can now enter base pairs into a web form, and get the appropriate DNA shipped back to you; you can mess with a creature's DNA, create new organisms, and see what happens (fluorescent mice, anyone?); you can even do exotic things like make bacterial colonies that act as photographic film.

Unfortunately, the vast potential in this field is being stunted by a painful intellectual property environment -- it is now considerably harder to license the rights to various biological processes than to recreate them in the lab. It would be nice if any DNA or biological process found in the wild, or whose information content (base pair sequences, for example) were found on the web, were freely available to all researchers. Sadly, this is far from the case, and the licensing hell is greatly holding back basic research.

Thankfully, academia is starting to fight back. MIT is now hosting a Registry of Standard Biological Parts, and the BioBricks Foundation is getting underway to fight this battle on multiple fronts.

On a more corporate note, Tony Gaughan of Computer Associates discussed the licensing mistakes that CA made when open sourcing Ingres (and no, he assured us, Ingres was not an end-of-life IP dump -- the Ingres team is still growing, and many CA apps are built on Ingres). CA created a new license, but now believe that was the wrong choice. Tony argued that in fact a major license consolidation (or at least removing most of them from the lists of standard open source license options) would be a major help for the corporate world.

Danny O'Brien gave a very funny talk on evil in the software world, and what he has done about it. Perhaps his most important point was this: It's worth fighting the bad guys (even much bigger, nastier ones) because even being seen as a David fighting Goliath can have an effect on the war, no matter what the individual battle's outcome.

Saul Griffith of Squid Labs then showed off his company's main product, Howtoons. They are comic strips that teach kids how to do hacks of all sorts, from air cannons to soda bottle rockets. They also offer parties where kids can make all sorts of toys. Very cool stuff; I can't wait until my children are old enough to start playing with these. I particularly liked Saul's comparison of toy hacking to programming: building techniques are subroutines, code for hacking the universe.

It was quite an interesting morning, though it either had less punch than the day before, or the crowd was exhausted. I'm leaning towards the latter. Still, the Howtoons and open-source biology talks were worth the time by themselves.