Sunday, 28 March 2010 13:34

Of Mono, apologists, and missing the news for the spin


Miguel de Icaza, a vice-president at Novell and the founder of the Mono project, made a number of statements recently that were diametrically opposed to all that he has said earlier about Microsoft's .NET development environment.

His comments were contained in an article written by Software Development Times senior editor David Worthington. The Mono founder is now trying to cut his losses – and appears to have won at least one recruit to his cause.

For the uninitiated, Mono is a project begun by De Icaza, a co-founder of the GNOME desktop project, in August 2001. It aims to create a free implementation of Microsoft's .NET development environment.

The SD Times posted most of De Icaza's comments — and extremely newsworthy ones too given that he has basically been saying the opposite all along — in a separate piece titled "Does Windows cost Microsoft opportunities?" dated March 17.  The comments were noticed by open source advocate Jason Melton who runs a blog under the name Melton wanted to verify that the comments were made by De Icaza and was mystified to find that the original article had disappeared off the web. It could only be found in Google's cache. He commented on it on March 26.

Alan Zeichick, the executive director of BZ Media, the parent organisation of SD Times, told iTWire that Worthington's story was mistakenly posted as several separate stories. The first of these was dated March 10 and titled "Even with its success, .NET causes some consternation." Zeichick says that after the error was noticed by SD Times, the pieces were reassembled. They are now posted under the March 10 piece. Zeichick says this re-assembling was done on March 23.

I wrote a story on the night of March 25 (Australian Eastern Standard Time), quoting material from the March 17 SD Times article. My piece was posted on the American technology news aggregation site, Slashdot. Following that, de Icaza decided that he needed to put things in "context" and wrote a lengthy post on his blog on March 25 (US time).

The SD Times composite article now contains a link to De Icaza's blog post of March 25. When I commented to Zeichick that it looked rather odd to have an article dated March 10 linking to a blog post of March 25, he admitted: "That is odd, since I spotted the problem with the posted story on the evening of March 22 (specifically, that the part of the story entitled "Soviet-style warfare" was posted separately, and it was lacking context). At my request, it was reposted/integrated the next morning, March 23. Let me loop Dave Worthington into the discussion.... Dave?" (emphasis Zeichick's).

Worthington sent me this response: "I just know that the stories were merged online after some subheds (sic) were posted separately. It now reflects the print edition." This does not appear to be strictly correct as it would be impossible to add a link to something written on March 25 into the hardcopy of an article dated March 10 - not unless some remarkable new kind of printing technology has been invented.

But what is extremely interesting about this whole episode is the way that Bruce Byfield, a self-described computer journalist, has gotten involved and tried to make out that there was nothing newsworthy about De Icaza's comments.

Byfield attempted to turn the focus on the fact that Melton and others had questioned the disappearance of the March 17 article. He lumped a link to my iTWire piece in a portion of his article which had a sub-heading "The Rumor Mill Grinds Coarsely" — though everything reported in my piece was strictly factual — and, for good measure, also took aim at Roy Schestowitz who runs the BoycottNovell website. There is some history between Byfield and Schestowitz.

In other words, Melton, I and Schestowitz comprised the rumour mill. The oracle of truth was apparently Byfield.

But Byfield's piece is riddled with so many inaccuracies that he ends up looking like some kind of apologist for De Icaza.

One of the first incorrect statements he makes is: "The trouble is, none of this story is true." And the story he refers to is the removal of the March 17 article (which actually happened – the SD Times has confirmed this), and the comments made by De Icaza which he claims were taken "so wildly out of context that their intent has been lost."

The only context that De Icaza offered to Worthington — before he said that Microsoft had shot the .NET ecosystem in the foot by its constant patent threats since 2001 — is that he was speaking as someone who is a fan of large parts of .NET. This in no way changes the substance of his comments.

If this is what a fan said, one can only guess at what he would have said if he did not have a favourable impression of .NET!

Byfield makes reference to De Icaza's post of March 25, wherein the latter attempted to add some spin to his comments to Worthington in order to put them in "context". In other words, De Icaza gives an interview to a journalist. He claims he provided context for his remarks about Microsoft having shot the .NET ecosystem in the foot. He then writes a long blog post, aiming to provide "context" for his earlier "context."

And it is worth noting that while De Icaza waxes voluble in his attempt to provide "context" to his earlier "context", he quotes only one question from Worthington: "Given your familiarity with the (.NET) framework, are there any iterative changes that you find questionable or you feel require some explanation?" Is this all that Worthington asked him?

Worthington's piece — which ran into nearly 3000 words and interviewed a number of people besides De Icaza — looks to have been a painstaking job and it seems extremely unlikely that he would not have provided De Icaza sufficient context to make his remarks.

Let me point out here, gentle reader, that in the past De Icaza has been caught out quietly removing parts of his blog posts that contradict his own words.

De Icaza begins the March 25 blog post by saying "It seems that David's article on Windows strategy tax on .NET lacked enough context for my actual quotes in there." But, as Melton, who, in truth, shows more of an analytical mind than both Byfield and De Icaza combined, points out, De Icaza had already congratulated Worthington on the article, posting a tweet: "@dcworthington I am in whole agreement with you there; Btw I loved the article, good balance."

Let me echo Melton, who, in a long analysis of the episode, asked: "So did the article lack enough context or was it a good balance?" It surely can't be both!

Byfield, of course, did not bother about minor contradictions like this. He was on a path to uncover the "The Mono Mystery That Wasn't" – that's the headline for his article, which makes it appear to be some kind of fairytale, as indeed it turns out to be.

What is particularly shameful about Byfield's article is that not once does he admit that De Icaza's statements in the SD Times article directly contradict stances that the Mono founder has taken in the past.

As one person, saulgoode, who added a comment to Byfield's article put it: "The point that your article seems to be overlooking is that for the better part of the last decade, Miguel de Icaza has pronounced as 'hate-mongers', 'FUDsters', 'fanatics', and 'flame-seeking trolls' those who have dared express exactly what he himself has now stated in Mr Worthington's interview: i.e., Microsoft threatening .NET implementations with patents."

What's worse, Byfield admits to having a brief interview with De Icaza before he wrote this Mystery piece. So, if I get it right, Byfield first read the SD Times piece (which had De Icaza's quotes in context); then he read De Icaza's blog post of March 25 and obtained more "context"; and finally, he still did not have enough "context" so he spoke or emailed — he does not make it clear how he communicated with De Icaza — the Mono founder in order to get even more "context"!

As Byfield correctly (for once) points out, De Icaza has not changed his opinions – but this is the first time he has openly ventilated them. They directly contradict what he has said openly to date. Surely that constitutes news, especially when it concerns a subject of much controversy like Mono?

Not for Byfield, who keeps talking about "rumors (sic)" as though the speculation about what happened to the original story is the real news focus here.

One classic bit of spin with which he allows De Icaza to get away is this quote from the Mono founder (on the third occasion when Byfield looked for "context"): "Basically, I'm trying to get Microsoft to open source more stuff. I'd rather have had a private session than a public lambasting, which this became."

And, of course, De Icaza was completely unaware that, when he spoke to Worthington, he was speaking to a journalist who would write an article which would be available to world plus dog on the big, bad Internet! Naughty man, Worthington!

No journalist would allow spin of this kind to pass his or her radar. Byfield has gobbled it up, hook, line and sinker. You, gentle reader, are free to make your own judgment.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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