Linux, Desktops, and Holy Wars
It's a good time to be alive, as always!
I remember my Amiga days fondly. We had choice... both a command-line interface AND a graphic user interface! The system was designed by enthusiasts, and it showed. It even started as a rebel system. The original investors thought they were fronting money for an arcade game machine platform, not a personal computer. He he! Little did they know!
But, alas, the Amiga system had it's problems. Although the Amiga was initially light-years ahead of other personal computers with regard to graphics, sound, and operating system, it suffered serious growing pains as time went on. The tight integration of the software to the hardware became difficult to overcome. It was a very proprietary system and eventually could not keep up with a somewhat open hardware platform (the PC). Granted IBM probably never realized how easy it would be to "open" the hardware end of their system. But the fact is that as soon as the BIOS was reverse-engineered, PC hardware was bound to become a true commodity market. A free market as it were, where hardware is cheap, plentiful, and diverse.
Apple, with their Macintosh systems, have been lucky to remain alive in the face of this competition. If it were not for huge leads in specialized markets, Macs might have suffered much the same fate. Desktop publishing may have been invented at Xerox PARC, but the Mac built the market -- and still dominates to this day.
Truly, you can now run a publishing house, music studio, or what have you without Macs. But there is still a history of market domination in certain areas that is helping to keep Apple afloat. For now. Commodore/Amiga should have been so lucky with the computer video market. But alas...
Apple have steadfastly stuck to the proprietary hardware model. They pull this off by building very high performace systems. They have to in order to compete against the entire PC clone market. How long they can stay ahead of the curve is anyone's guess.
But things change. And Apple, as reluctant as they have been, seem to grasp the notion that a a proprietary hardware platform married to a proprietary operating system can only survive, long term, in very specialized markets. And that's quite a risk. Computers, after all, are the most general purpouse instruments ever wrought by man. Recently Apple has made moves toward an open operating system, to the mutual benefit of themselves and OUR-selves, the Open Software community.
Evolution is the key word in all of this. We in the computer world are an excellent example of how easily people can become caught up in 'religious wars'. Often the squabbles we have with eachother are likened to just that. Now I don't want to start the 'other' kind of religious war here, but just for the sake of argument it could be said that evolution IS the hand of god, working in those mysterious ways.
Mankind has a long history of trying to reign in the force of evolution, but it is the supreme arrogance of our species that compels us to do so. We do it with plants. So we do it with animals, such as dogs and horses, and we do it with our own. But blue blood runs thin as water. (Hemophilia is a recessive genetic disease). Big Blue it seems had to learn a thing or two over the years. Hard lessons they surely did not wish to learn. And now that IBM is supporting Linux, maybe - just maybe - they have learned something.
Biology shows us that a healthy gene-pool is a diverse gene-pool. Much to the chagrin of the racists, I am sure. While we work hard at infecting plants, animals, and soon ourselves with human-krafted code (DNA), endangered species are showing us just how important bio-diversity really is. Species just cannot survive in nature without some diversity. In fact, whole ecosystems seem to depend on a good amount of diversity amongst their members.
For all the talk in the world about universal truths, there is one thing about them - they are universal. The problem seems to come when we try to pin them down. Dogma is eternally debatable but, in beautiful cosmic irony, Change appears to be a universal truth. And how can you pin down change?
So if change -- evolution I dare say, is a part of the truth in our known world, then it must be reasonable to expect such a pervasive force in the universe to have a bearing on our world of computers. Ours is but a microcosm - should it not reflect the macrocosm of which it is a part? It's only a theory, but it has a fractal sort of beauty to it, no?
Proprietary systems are like closed gene pools. Over time it becomes increasingly difficult for them to survive. The more we domesticate our pets, the more they need us in order to survive. Likewise, a proprietary system requires an ever increasing commitment on the part of it's patent and copyright holders to keep it "alive".
Look at the juggernaut Microsoft has had to become in order to pursue Bill's goal of dominating the user interface. That is, of course, what it is all about. Controlling access at the gate. You create a monopoly over the software architecture and you create a bottleneck between the user and the applications - or the experience. Bill is a wannabe troll. He's not about building bridges... he's about sabotaging every other bridge and setting up a toll both on his.
If Bill had his way I would pretty much have to use Internet Exploiter, er, um, Explorer to write this reply. But thanks to all of you, my brothers (and sisters) in arms of the Open Systems, Open Software, and Free Software movements I am using Mozilla's Firefox. If that burns Bill, I am glad. It is good for him, as Prometheus may attest.
IBM used to be the big, bad, monopoly. Things change. There is a reason Microsoft has invested in the console market... they realize that, eventually, Sony will be a challenge to them. Or perhaps Nintendo, Sega, some descendent of TiVo, or a bastard child of your digital cable box. The challenge will come. Now I know this seems irrelevant to many computer users, but I assure you it is not. Our technologies are evolving, both hardware and software. Our great challenge goes beyond just getting Linux on Aunt Emma's desktop.
Apple may weather the immediate storms on the horizion. As portable, cross-platform systems evolve in the Open community, hardware becomes more and more "abstracted". This makes it possible for an Apple to survive selling top-rate hardware systems that work with Open software systems. That is a marriage that has potential. But the necessary - and I mean necessary - trade-off is that they must then fully open themselves to hardware competition. Then they will survive on their merits. Just as it should be in any evolutionary system.
If Apple backs down and tries to remain proprietary at both ends they will surely die one day. They will cut themselves off from the diversity of our community, the evolutionary force at work through us. Their gene pool will become harder and harder to sustain. But if Apple, IBM, or any other hardware company today is smart they will support the Free Software movement.
If a Microsoft or some other company becomes a truly mighty troll, then they will be in a position to dictate which platforms live and which platforms die. The issue of controlling a bottleneck works both ways. Today, Microsoft already has enormous sway over hardware vendors. A viable alternative operating system is vital to their self-interest, lest they become Bill's lap-dogs. It may seem like a cozy arrangement, but remember our earlier lessons about domestication.
Attempting to build another proprietary bridge in the face of Microsoft's present market share is all but impossible. But we, the open community, have the resources, the manpower, the will, the energy, the spirit to make it happen. Supporting us means that bridges are more than a dime a dozen... they are FREE!! Importantly, they are not just free of monetary cost... they are free of TROLLS, and that means free as in freedom. Freedom for the users to find their own path to the hardware, freedom for the hardware vendors to develop divergent platforms that can appeal directly to the users.
This issue of freedom is central. Microsoft is already pursuing "trusted computing" and pressuring and/or persuading hardware manufacturers like Intel and AMD to come closer to their fires. The direction this is heading in can be scary. Now the troll is building an army. On the suface it may seem noble. It is certainly sold as such. Oh how noble they are to Mr. Company's IT Security Officer, who now knows that he can have total control over the desktops in the enterprise. Oh how noble they are to Mr. Copyright holder, as this troll can now controll access to digital media. Digital Rights Management is about building not a better troll-bridge, but a military-grade fence with one Gate. How appropriate for Mr. Gates. And it's not just the RIAA who will be singing a happy song.
Now for some this may seem just fine. But beware, boys and girls, beware. Control points create a focus of power. And power corrupts. Eventually the "powers that be" who come along in the next several years may decide that access to all digital media is a good thing for them, too. It makes George Orwell's vision that much more practicable.
In perhaps the greatest of ironies, the US Department of Defense (Ministry of War) wanted to create a computer communications network that was impervious to physical attack. Thus DARPA (DoD Advanced Research Projects Agency) set the seed for what has become the Internet. The global connectedness that has brought about is the fuel for a global cultural Renaissance happening right before our eyes!
Yes, it is the best time to be alive! Don't you ever doubt it! Oh my Amiga days... we had a choice in how we interfaced with our computers. KDE versus GNOME versus FVWM or what have you? The more the merrier! Isn't it great to have the choice? In fact it is in our best interest to have more than one. One of them should be that cutesy-pie desktop that will get your Aunt Emma using Free and Open Source software. Give her that choice, to help protect your choice (lean, mean, text-console interface machine if you so desire). I know the likes of Mr. Gates, or Sony for that matter, are not interested in you having a choice. But if Emma's Easy Distro furthers the Free Software Movement, it is truly a goodness.
And if you still think Digital Rights Management and Trusted Computing are a good thing, check out Lawrence Lessig's very truly excellent writings, expecially FREE CULTURE. His website is www.lessig.org (http://www.lessig.org). Free and Open Source software is more important than just some Geek Mission to control his own PC. It's a greater cause to help keep self-determination alive for all of us.
Have faith in the Free Software movement. We are the evolutionary force at play in our own world. Though we may feel ourselves to be haphazard, unfocused, or even reduntant at times, remember: This is how evolution works. Like life, it is mysterious - sometimes befuddling - but it is also magical.