Cabinet Office’s open source fail

A PQ from Conservative shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude:

To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office what her policy is in respect of the installation and use of (a) Internet Explorer, (b) Firefox and (c) Opera website browsers by Government departments.

To which Angela Smith replies:

Government policy regarding installation and use of web browsers is that all decisions must be in line with value for money requirements. In addition, the Open Source, Open Standards, Re-use strategy requires Departments to consider open source browsers such as Firefox and Opera on a level basis with proprietary browsers such as Internet Explorer.

A slightly disappointing answer on a few levels. It shouldn’t necessarily be seen as an either/or thing. A Strategy which says ‘we don’t have any specific preference’ isn’t really a strategy. Oh, and without wanting to be too picky, Opera isn’t actually open source.*

I’ve had trouble finding a copy of it online; so here’s the key section of the Opera licence:

All intellectual property rights such as, but not limited to, patents, trademarks, copyrights or trade-secret rights related to the Software are exclusively the property of, and remain vested in, Opera Software ASA and/or its suppliers.

You shall not modify, translate, reverse engineer, decompile or disassemble the Software or any part thereof or otherwise attempt to derive source code, create or use derivative works therefrom. You agree not to modify the Software in any manner or form or to use modified versions of the Software including, without limitation, for the purpose of obtaining unauthorized access to the Services or disabling features of the Software or Services.

See that bit about ‘You shall not attempt to derive source code’? Well, that’s basically the complete opposite of Open Source. We’re going to have real trouble making this debate happen if we can’t even get the basics right.

* Although, in an unexpected moment of charity, I’m wondering whether it’s actually a punctuation failure. Perhaps they meant ‘open source browsers such as Firefox, and [non-open source browsers like] Opera’? No, I doubt it too.

Update (er, a year later): To their credit, I suppose, they did issue a correction in Hansard a few days later: ‘Errors have been identified in the response given to the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) on 24 February 2010. The words “such as Firefox and Opera” and “such as Internet Explorer” were incorrectly included in the answer.’ – maybe this blog does have influence after all.

Gordon Brown on your Wii

One of the more inspiring developments at the BBC recently has been the extension of iPlayer away from the desktop PC. Back in April, they launched iPlayer on the Wii – but it wasn’t the breakthrough moment it might have been. Leaving aside the fact it didn’t stream especially smoothly on my machine, the interface was optimised for a screen resolution which the Wii couldn’t deliver, making for a horrid user experience. Last week they made amends, with a Wii-optimised screen setup – and it’s truly brilliant. Try it on your desktop PC, but to appreciate its full glory, you need to be sitting on the living room sofa, in proper telly-watching mode.

I’ve been a bit surprised that people haven’t done more optimising of content for ‘games consoles’ – particularly the current generation, with their online capabilities. And with the Wii (again) selling like hot cakes (set to get even hotter too), it has tremendous potential for video-on-demand in the living room.

Inspired by the Beeb’s efforts, I wondered how much effort it would take to put a Wii-friendly front end on some YouTube content. So I took a few hours last night to build a prototype – and here it is: wii10.puffbox.co.uk

It’s basically the same concept as the BBC’s design, rebuilt from scratch using a combination of PHP, RSS and Javascript (specifically, JQuery). The code pulls in the last 10 items from Downing Street’s YouTube account, and puts them into a JQuery-driven carousel. When you click on a clip, a popup fades into view, and the embedded YouTube player autoplays. The big buttons left and right make the playlist scroll beautifully from side to side.

I want to stress: I’ve done this completely off my own bat. Although we have a continuing working relationship, I wasn’t asked to do this by Number10. It’s purely a proof-of-concept, using publicly available (publicly funded) material. It’s a bit rough round the edges: some of the link highlighting isn’t too smooth on the Wii, the word wrapping isn’t polished, and it doesn’t seem to work properly on (desktop) Firefox for some reason – although curiously, all other browsers seem OK, even IE! But having proven the concept, to be honest, I may not bother going back to fix these issues. There’s also a risk of YouTube changing their code, as has happened before: the Wii’s Flash player is a bit behind the times, and YouTube’s improvements have caused problems in the past.

But for now – it works, really quite nicely, and I’m dead pleased with it. You need never again say the words ‘there’s nothing on telly.’ 🙂 And with more and more government content going on YouTube, if anybody thinks this might be useful in a proper business context, please get in touch.