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2013 — That Was the Year That Was

Now that the celebrating is out of the way, I thought it might be time to take a look at some of the stories we covered on FOSS Force this year.

1. The NSA. The biggest story to come down the wire this year undoubtedly had to do with Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s bag of dirty tricks. Even those of us who have long understood that the Internet isn’t necessarily a place to expect privacy were surprised at how deeply the NSA has managed to reach into the Internet. Odds are, if you’ve been using social networks, everything you’ve posted is now on file with the NSA. What’s worse, every email you’ve sent probably has a copy resting on a NSA server somewhere.

In God We TrustWhen the story broke at the beginning of the summer, surfers who usually gave little notice to security issues where scrambling to find some way to conduct searches that were safe from the prying eyes of the federal spooks. For a while, encryption seemed to be the easy solution, until it was discovered that even some formally trusted encryption schemes had been compromised. Even TOR, the Internet twilight zone where careful users could remain invisible was compromised.

The feds, or course, were entirely without a sense of humor about their secrets being exposed, even going so far as to block Internet access by military personnel, for a brief period, to The Guardian, the UK newspaper that initially broke the story. Snowden is stuck in Moscow, looking for a new country to call home, since the State Department revoked his passport and the DOJ made it clear there’s a set of handcuffs with his name on them just waiting for him to return to the USA. Recently, however, some at the NSA have been hinting they might make a deal if he promises to quit leaking the agency’s secrets.

An unintended consequence of this has been the damage that’s sure to come to the U.S. tech sector, especially for the proprietary guys and gals. Already, data resting on U.S. based servers is considered suspect. Bitten especially hard is Microsoft, which got caught with its hand in the cookie jar, so to speak, with the news that Redmond had cooperated with the spy agency by building back doors into Windows.

While the proprietary software companies are scrambling to do some damage control, it appears this will have a positive effect of FOSS.

2. Patents. As in years past, patents were big in FOSS news this year. The online retailer Newegg, which has vowed to fight all unwarranted patent claims, lost a major case just a few weeks ago and the Swedish telcom Ericsson decided to go trolling.

The biggest patent story of the year, however, was Rockstar Consortium’s lawsuit against Google and a collection of Android handset makers. Rockstar is a patent troll jointly owned by Microsoft, Apple and three other tech companies which holds patents purchased from bankrupt Canadian telcom Nortel. The latest news is that the patents purchased by the group may not be as valuable as thought. Time will tell.

3. Ubuntu Phone. Another big story last year was Canonical’s announcement of plans to build a phone based on the Ubuntu operating system. This became huge news during the summer when Mark Shuttleworth attempted to raise $32 million in an Indiegogo campaign to fund the production of about 40,000 units of the Ubuntu Edge, high concept phone. Although the campaign raised its first million in only five hours, in the end “only” $12,809,906 was raised. However, development of a Ubuntu phone continues.

4. Microsoft. As usual, Microsoft was all over the news this year. In addition to the big brouhaha over its already mentioned dealings with the NSA, it also attempted an internal restructuring which was evidently a move by CEO Steve Ballmer to solidify his position within the company. That effort didn’t work-out as planned, for not long after the restructuring was put in place, Ballmer announced he would be stepping down within the year. A search is now going on to find a new CEO.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

Steve Ballmer–stepping down and moving out

In spite of massive television product placements, mostly on CBS shows, the company has had little success with its Surface tablets although it’s promised to hang tight, even after taking a $900 million write-off on the RT version, which runs on ARM processors.

The year did see Redmond finally making some modest gains with Windows Phone in the EU, where it now holds a market share of a little over 10%. This gain was evidently made at the expense of the iPhone and not Android. The folks in Redmond are bound and determined to get more traction with Windows Phone, however, ponying-up $7.2 billion to buy the handset division of Nokia.

On the desktop, news hasn’t been good. Windows 8 has been even less well received than Vista. At least with Vista, the problems were mostly technical, meaning they could be somewhat fixed. With Windows 8, however, the company seems to have shot itself in the foot by insisting that desktop users use the same overly simplified and boxy interface as handset users. Even Microsoft’s partners don’t seem to be in any hurry to embrace the OS.

5. Oracle & Java. Anyone who thinks that Oracle’s failure to build a healthcare website for Oregon was just a fluke should take a look at the company’s handling of Java security, which got so bad that the Department of Homeland Security was advising all Americans to disable browserside Java during the early part of the year. Indeed, for a while it seemed as if every day brought a spate of new security vulnerabilities in Internet facing Java. Guess what, even after patching over fifty security holes, Java is still unsafe. Disconnect it from your browser unless you absolutely have to use it.

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All Things Open

All Things Open in 2013

These are just the highlights. There were other big FOSS stories in 2013, of course. Like the All Things Open conference in Raleigh, which was so successful it’s now slated to held annually–look for it to return in October. We also finally lost Groklaw, over concerns over email privacy in the NSA age. Also last year, the publisher of Tuxmachines, Susan Linton, decided to move on, selling the site to Techrights.

So, what’s in store for 2014? Who knows? Undoubtedly there’ll be more stories concerning the NSA, patents and copyrights–and the PR folks at Canonical will continue to try to keep us people who write about free tech busy. Microsoft will be in the news, as will Oracle.

I’ll be able to tell you more exactly one year from today.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux.

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