Category Archives: Open Source

Unloved Patches

For a long time I have admired the WordPress project, for developing such a robust blogging platform that is ultimately open, and free, and anybody can contribute improvements to it. I encourage many of my customers to use WordPress with MarsEdit, because it seems like a “safe bet” going forward.

My admiration has diminished a bit in the past 7 months because … I haven’t succeeded in contributing to it.

For a long time, I heard reports from my customers that dates were being set wrong in posts to WordPress. The issue in summary is that if you have a draft post on WordPress, changing its status to “Published” doesn’t update the publish date from the time the draft was originally saved.

I didn’t really get a handle on this problem until it started affecting me. Sometimes I write the show notes for my podcast, Core Intuition, ahead of the time the podcast actually goes public. In these situations, the blog post has a published date corresponding to the time I first starting writing the post, and when we finally go to publish the podcast, the date remains the same.

I did the hard work of not only diagnosing the problem in WordPress’s source code, but also writing a fix, and writing unit tests to confirm the fix. I filed a bug with a patch that will fix the problem for my customers, and any other clients of the WordPress API:

#45322: Editing a draft post with wp.editPost causes its published date to be set

Shortly after filing the bug, I went to the WordPress Slack to see what I could do about having my fixes integrated. I was lucky to have a positive response from a couple members of the WordPress team, and my bug fix seemed slated for integration.

Time passed. I wondered. I didn’t want to nag the hard-working members of the team, but I also didn’t want my hard work to have been for naught. Also, my customers, as well as other clients of the WordPress API, would benefit from this.

It’s been on my TODO list for 7 months now to “check in” with the WordPress team about this. Unfortunately, every time I do, the only thing I’ve noticed is that nobody substantially responds to my inquiries. I’m in the dead zone.

I don’t think the WordPress team is bad, by any means, but I think this reflects a problem in their process. When somebody comes to your project with a well-thought-out, unit-tested fix, and is met by radio silence? The chances are high that they will never come back again. I have submitted WordPress patches in the past, but after this experience I don’t know if I will bother submitting them again. That’s a big change in my perspective on how the WordPress team works, and on how it should work.

This post is about WordPress, but I think there are lessons for every open source project. Obviously, you can’t coddle every contributor. Some submissions will be bogus, some will be contrary to the aims of the project. But mine was a clear fix to a defect that affects multiple clients of the API. If it’s not a clear fix, I’m at least owed an explanation for why it hasn’t been committed after 7 months. In. My. Humble. Opinion.

Saying Goodbye to NetNewsWire 3

In case you haven’t heard the news, Brent Simmons recently regained the rights to NetNewsWire, the groundbreaking Mac news reader, which also happens to be the progenitor of MarsEdit.

I have been a fan of NetNewsWire since before Brent sold it to NewsGator. Since before NewsGator sold MarsEdit to me. Before they sold NetNewsWire to Black Pixel. For a long time.

After Black Pixel took the reins, they put a lot of effort into a massive overhaul of the app, modernizing the look and feel and adding a robust, in-house syncing mechanism. When they released NetNewsWire 4 in 2015, it seemed as though the future for the app was bright.

As nice as NetNewsWire 4 was, it also differed a lot from NetNewsWire 3. They pared back the feature set a lot, in ways that made switching inconvenient to me. So I soldiered on with 3.3.2, thinking that I would update to 4.x eventually.

I never did. For whatever reason, work on NetNewsWire seemed to stall, and I never found the updated version of the app to fit my needs. NetNewsWire 3 worked just fine.

The meaning of “just fine” started to shift as macOS changed underneath the app. Subtle bugs emerged, the app’s lower-resolution graphics started to look fuzzy, and the networking infrastructure of the app is from an older era that is failing to connect to some SSL servers. In short, it’s no longer the great app that it once was. One particular bug with the size of the “Clippings” folder icon has been bugging me for years:

Screenshot of NetNewsWire showing blurry icons and a missized Clippings folder icon.

Over the years I considered other news readers such as Reeder (which is free for a limited time, by the way), but none of them scratched that NetNewsWire 3 itch. I rely upon some arcane features of the app including “scripted feeds,” which allow me for example to run Python scripts on my Mac that connect to Twitter and generate RSS feeds from search results. That’s not possible in most feed readers.

I used to fantasize about getting access to the NetNewsWire 3 source code and sprucing it up. I wondered how things might have turned out differently if, in addition to acquiring MarsEdit from NewsGator, I had acquired both? I can’t say I would have done a better job than Black Pixel, but I would have preserved the features I care about, and that Clippings folder icon would be the right size!

Because Brent and I are still close friends, we have been in conversation about NetNewsWire and the various options for moving it forward into the future. I’ve also been contributing to the NetNewsWire open source project, which is based on an entirely new code base unrelated to NetNewsWire 3.

Since I’m not the only stalwart NetNewsWire 3 user, one of the things Brent was curious about was whether he could give that version “one last hurrah,” so to speak. Fix a few of the most glaring bugs, build against a modern SDK, and not only create an artifact for history to more accurately judge the app’s virtues, but to give long-standing users something to tide them over while development continues on NetNewsWire 5.

I was honored when Brent handed me the keys to the castle, so to speak, by sending me a copy of NetNewsWire 3’s source code. To heavily paraphrase what he said, it was basically “let me know if it’s worth saving.”

I got the app building with Xcode 10 on macOS Mojave beta 9. There were some major glitches. The sidebar was pure black, fonts were rendering wrong. Probably whole subsets of functionality were not working, or working unreliably. I sent the source base back to him with a report that it builds and runs, but would probably take some work to get into shippable shape.

Brent made the pragmatic choice not to release an updated NetNewsWire 3. Putting the bugs aside, he recognized that any time invested in that old version is an investment in older technology that does not have a viable future. It’s a distraction from the New World NetNewsWire.

To be honest, the decision doesn’t sting at all. I’ve switched most of my news reading to development releases of NetNewsWire 5, and only use NetNewsWire 3 for a handful of those geeky script-based RSS feeds I am still relying on.

I was grateful to have the opportunity after all these years to take a peek at the source code to the app, and to get a feel for what it would take to salvage what’s left. I couldn’t resist fixing at least one bug before I passed it along though:

Screenshot of the NetNewsWire window with Clippings folder icon restored to normal size

If you’re curious: the Clippings icon is obtained from the Mac operating system. At one point in history it must have come from the system at just the perfect size to fit the source list in the app, but as Apple modernized and adapted to higher resolution Macs, they must have updated the icon to support drawing at much larger sizes. NetNewsWire 3.3.2 doesn’t manually set the size to the expected 16x16pt size, but 3.3.3j (for Jalkut!) does.

Goodbye, NetNewsWire 3. You were a great app, but your time has passed. Long live NetNewsWire 5.

The Price Of GPL

Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic, downloaded his competitor Wix’s iOS app. It looked eerily familiar, and he confirmed it contains source code stolen from WordPress. He called them out on his blog, getting right to the point in addressing the problem:

Your app’s editor is built with stolen code, so your whole app is now in violation of the license.

Wix’s CEO, Avishai Abrahami, responded with a round of non-sequiturs that carefully evade the point that his product is built from source code for which they have not paid. One of his engineers equally misses the point, focusing on the circumstances surrounding the violation, rather than taking responsibility for the theft.

Some will take issue with the use of strong words like “stolen code,” and “theft,” with respect to a GPL violation. But that’s exactly what it is: software has been taken and deployed in Wix’s product, but the price for doing so has not been paid.

Many developers (and CEOs) seem to prefer remaining willfully oblivious to the consequences of using GPL code. They loosely interpret the terms of GPL to suit their own wishes for what they implied:

  • “It’s OK for us to use GPL code anywhere, as long as we contribute back changes.”
  • “It’s only a small amount of GPL code, so the license doesn’t apply.”
  • “We contributed to this GPL code, so we have special rights to use it.”
  • “We give back to the community in other ways, so it balances out.”

All false, yet all common interpretations of GPL, and echoes of the poor arguments presented by Wix’s CEO and engineer.

The price of GPL is fairly obvious and easy to understand, even if there is some bickering about what constitutes “linked code.” You don’t have to be a legal expert to get the gist of it: if you want to link your software with GPL code, you must also make your software’s source code available. Specifically, you must make your software’s source code available to customers who install your software, under a GPL-compatible license. You have to give your code away. That’s the price of GPL.

Many developers understand, and view the price of GPL as perfectly justified, while others (myself included) find it unacceptable. So what am I supposed to do? Not use any GPL source code at all in any of my proprietary products? Exactly. Because the price of GPL is too much for me, and I don’t steal source code.