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31st July 2005


Brian Grainger

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NASA got me irritated this week and afterwards I got to thinking whether it is right that public bodies should force us to use proprietary products.

This last week the space shuttle rose to the skies again for the first time for 2 years. After the postponement of the flight on July 13th I was quite looking forward to it. I knew that a flight date of 26th July meant the launch would be around 15:39 here in the UK, so I would be able to watch it, via NASA TV on the web. That's what I thought.

I have been watching NASA TV on the web for quite some time at work. I saw the return to earth of the Genesis probe, with a thud! I saw most of the stuff when Hygens landed on Titan earlier this year on NASA TV, this despite the fact that Hygens was the European part of the Cassini-Hygens mission. One would expect it to be covered by ESA TV. It was, but ESA TV is not on the web! The Americans are so much better than Europe when it comes to letting people know what is happening, even when they are airing their dirty washing. Compare the web coverage of the inquiry into the Columbia shuttle disaster with the secrecy surrounding the investigation into Beagle 2 when it failed to phone home!

Anyway, I was full of expectation of seeing the shuttle launch. Came the hour I clicked the NASA TV home page and clicked the link to use Windows Media Player and ... Run time error! To say I was fuming was an understatement. I had used this before. Why was it not working now? NASA had a press release about the NASA TV web coverage of the shuttle mission so I read it. They proudly announced that in order to provide more bandwidth they had subcontracted the provision of the Media Player feed EXCLUSIVELY to Yahoo. As well as providing more bandwidth this was going to save the American taxpayer money because they did not have to fund the bandwidth.

So what was the problem? An investigation of the code that came to my PC when I clicked the NASA TV link revealed that all kinds of checks were being made on my PC. It fell over where it checked to see whether it had Flash Player installed. This is a business PC - it doesn't and I cannot install it. Not that I want to, even if it was my PC. I missed seeing the launch live. I did manage to find another feed which I hooked onto about an hour before launch. It worked fine, until after about 15 minutes the feed dropped and I have not been able to get it back again since. Was this a line NASA had forgotten about and suddenly took it down when they realised someone was using it? I can generate conspiracy theories as good as the next man!

It was not long after that I asked myself, "Why should I have to have Flash Player to watch a streaming video?" I shouldn't, of course. Yahoo wanted to stream adverts as well as the video feed and this is why Flash Player was being demanded. The stream that worked for 15 minutes was from a web link that had 'noads' in the address - funny that!

Now that I have had to time to compose myself I got to thinking about the general provision of stuff from public institutions. NASA TV on the web is provided via Media Player or Real Player. While free of charge, both of these are proprietary products. Should Mac users or Linux users miss out, (or have to jump through hoops to view these proprietary formats). Some NASA web sites use QuickTime format videos. This is another proprietary format - from Apple this time.

I would propose that all items from public institutions must be based on open standards, not closed ones - even if they are popular. This would help to promote open standards as well as not forcing users to lock into Microsoft or Apple or Real products.

OK then, NASA TV is not a big deal. I do not HAVE to watch it. What worries me is that more and more interaction with Government is being web based. At the moment, private individuals in the UK are encouraged to file their tax returns via the Internet. Small businesses MUST file their tax returns via the Internet. I believe this compulsion to use the Internet, if you have business to do with the Government, will become more and more prevalent and I am worried. It is bad enough that it is demanded that you have a PC or similar way of accessing the web. I have never tried to file my tax return via the web but I wonder. Does the Inland Revenue site work if you are running Linux and the Firefox browser say? Or is it like the online banking of the Nationwide that demands you use Internet Explorer 5 or above. This forces users to follow the Microsoft path. Is that right? The Nationwide online banking is an optional service but filing a tax return isn't. Can you submit your tax return as a text file, or does it have to be in the proprietary format of a Word document or some such? You have to be very careful to avoid lock in to proprietary products. Open standards MUST be used for all data. Just because the proprietary products do not cost anything does not make them OK.

I don't think anyone in our Government has the intelligence to understand the concept of lock in, and even if they did they cannot be trusted to ensure it is avoided. We had had two reports recently. One, a little while ago, suggested open source software could be used in Government departments. The most recent, from BECTA, came to the conclusion that savings could be made by using open source software in schools. Nevertheless, Bill Gates keeps coming here and having chats with Tony Blair and his minions and the government keeps buying Microsoft software.

Now, I don't want to demand government does not use Microsoft software, although it might save us poor taxpayers some money if they didn't. I am worried they might demand WE use it, or some other proprietary solution.