I have often become confused, angry or cynical over the past few years when seeing self-professed “open source users” with Macs on their desks, or using R under Windows. I once had a discussion with a Linux user group about which laptop to buy: when many had said my laptop was “under-powered” I pressed them and found out that they meant it would have been slow running Windows. Contributors to help forums and on IRC have often assumed that my machines dual-boot Windows and GNU/Linux: “Can you see the partition when you boot into Windows?” I have also seen the insistence, or mere suggestion, of calling the operating system I’m using “GNU/Linux,” instead of Linux, dismissed as “zealotry,” or “mere semantics.” I became angry because I assumed that everyone in these situations had heard of the values of freedom embodied by the GNU project and had rejected them as unimportant. How could freedom possibly be unimportant? What could be more important to Americans, other than money?
There was another possibility that I only considered for a few seconds at a time, but it’s now becoming clear that this possibility is more feasible: these people have never heard of the GNU Project, or the Four Freedoms, or Richard Stallman. They have never heard of the true benefits of software freedom, the dangers of proprietary software, or the full breadth of freedom that is possible. If they have heard of it, perhaps they did dismiss it without thinking it was possible: perhaps software freedom is, to most people, an urban legend. This seems strange, since I came to free software by reading about it on Wikipedia and gnu.org and my interest was primarily motivated by (a) freedom and (b) the possibility of having a Unix-like system to work on. The fact that it was free to download and install merely removed the barriers to enacting those freedoms.
The barrier to my own belief that people have just never heard of freedom is that it seems to me that all systems (in fact all things) are imperfect. We all know how imperfect Windows is, and I got annoyed as hell using a Mac, so as much as its devotees attest to its perfection, it’s not perfect for everybody. However, people complain the most about the imperfections of Linux[sic]. Perhaps this is because they can, as in if they complain, someone will do something about it eventually. With Windows and MacIntyre, you have to get fifty million corporate employees to complain, whereas with free operating systems, you can be just one guy and raise a huge stink about how the buttons on the top of the windows are arranged all wrong (of course, the other advantage is that somebody can explain to you how that’s your fault). Despite the lowered barriers to complaints, I always had the feeling that people were complaining because they feel like GNU/Linux is just not “professional,” or “slick” because it’s not purveyed by a huge corporation. Therefore they complain about all kinds of things that really aren’t important to me.
Nevertheless, you still get people promoting the hell out of Linux[sic]. I could never understand why. Take NixiePixel for example, a YouTube personality who promotes primarily Ubuntu and Linux Mint. I really thank her for doing so, because whether she likes it or not, she’s promoting freedom: better that people have it and not know it than not have it at all. However, she never says why she’s promoting these alternatives. Why is it better to use Ubuntu than Windows, particularly if there aren’t the same games available for it? She even has a new series called OSAlt where she discusses and rates “open source” alternatives to non-free programs. Again the question is why? Is “open source” inherently better for users somehow? I suppose in some ways it is, but how?
This is so puzzling because for me, without freedom, everything comes down to your personal choices. No computer operating system, no anything, is going to work well, or even comfortably for anybody. Life just doesn’t work that way: nothing “just works.” So why promote one alternative over another? Freedom is the only motivator to use GNU/Linux that stands that test. The freedom leads to a lot of nice by-products, but freedom is the prime mover. Some users may not have a choice of what to use; they may have to use a proprietary system at work, and not have time to learn to use something else at home. Additionally, some users like NixiePixel will be unwilling to embrace a campaign for freedom because considerations of freedom are intensely personal at the same time as “political” and the possibility for insulting people is pretty high. There is also a lot of angry, cynical behavior in the open source and free software worlds. That’s bound to happen whenever a community is composed of human beings instead of marketing personnel.
This is why it’s so crucial to let people know about their freedom at every possible opportunity, i.e. every time you mention the system. I know that “GNU/Linux” is a mouthful, but it’s too easy for people to hear about “Linux” and not know there’s anything special about it except that nerds like it. I myself had heard of “Linux” for years before I knew that it was free of charge, much less free-as-in-freedom (FAIF). There’s too much possibility that people will hear of “Linux” and just think it is another operating system. Or, they may get sucked into using non-free software by the “nerd-allure” of it.
Take Android for example: Android is a Linux system, but it only took me a few minutes of using my dad’s Samsung phone to see that Android is not a freedom-respecting system. None of the values of the free software movement were respected in its interface or its operation. There weren’t even subsidiary values (those by-products I mentioned), like organization, clarity and standards. There was an avenue for spam and advertising that was pretty well-lubricated, but the only reason I saw for using the Linux kernel was that it’s adaptable to many devices. After playing Angry Birds for a few minutes, it became clear to me why it’s important to call the system I’m using now GNU/Linux: it’s accurate, and it promotes a mission that is in line with my values. As often as I can inform people of their possibility for freedom in technology, I will do my best.
For more on these issues, you can read The GNU/Linux FAQ
An excellent video condensing the history of Linux into some nice cartoons:
I especially like the portrayal of rms.
Last weekend I thought I just couldn’t wait any longer for Gnome-shell and Gnome 3, so I tried to install Fedora Rawhide on my laptop. After trying to yum update the system, a weird thing happened and the machine turned off spontaneously. Then when I rebooted the Live USB I’d made with Unetbootin, a mysterious mixture of Gnome 3 and Gnome 2 became the default desktop (I am not joking, there was a Gnome 2 panel sitting right on top of Gnome-shell). This was too weird. I decided to just give that up until Tuesday when I knew the Fedora Alpha was coming out.
However, I also knew about a relatively new distro called #! (Crunchbang) that I really wanted to try. The only thing holding me back was that it’s based on Debian. I have had seriously bad times with Ubuntu in the past, and my few attempts at installing Debian had not gone well (the first time the machine completely froze up the first time I opened synaptic). Despite my difficulties with Ubuntu and Debian, I’ve always acknowledged that Debian has a lot going for it, and Crunchbang’s “philosophy” certainly agreed with me. This laptop is not “underpowered” but sometimes I’ve felt like Gnome is a bit of overkill; the only reason I use Gnome is because my two main applications (or “shells”) are Emacs and Firefox, both GTK applications. Much to my delight, I found that Crunchbang has an Xfce version.
I thought I’d give it a try. I download the .iso for the Xfce 4.4 version, made a bootable USB with Unetbootin (no CD drive) and cranked it up. I selected an encrypted system this time, another reason I wanted to reinstall; the university is pretending to enforce rules about keeping student information private, so I’d like to be able to tell them my laptop is encrypted. The only surprise was that the installer took about two hours to erase my partitions before it started the actual install. Once that was done, however, the installation was really nice. The installer asks which features you want to install (Java, web server, development tools like version control systems and the autotools) — this was already much nicer than most other distros I’ve tried — all in a text interface running in a terminal emulator. This is nice because I’d rather just install that stuff before I need it, and while the installer knows which packages those are. In Fedora I can install package groups, but it’s just much nicer to take care of it at install time.
Just about everything that I need on a daily basis works really well with Crunchbang. The laptop speakers work, surprisingly without monkeying around with anything. I had to install the wireless drivers from the Realtek website again, but surprisingly the next morning when I booted the machine the wireless card worked without having to copy any firmware or anything. Nice!
There were two interesting surprises: the default web browser is Chromium. I really like Firefox, so I installed Iceweasel, and have had no problems; I really need Firefox because I use Zotero. Another major surprise is Youtube using gnash works really well. Of course, it’s not perfect, in fact the BAcksliders froze the whole machine when I tried to put it on 1080p.
Remarkably I’ve had no problems yet with package management. Of the three or four times I’ve installed Ubuntu it was only a matter of time before something got really screwed up in the normal course of updating the system. It was pathetic. Once I got a stale file handle of all things and there was nothing I could do to update the system (this would require a fresh install to fix). Nothing’s broken yet. I’ll give it a little time, but I’m taking the blame back from Debian and putting it squarely on Ubuntu.
Probably the nicest thing about Crunchbang is that it lives up its advertisement. I get annoyed when the promo for a software project says their main application or distro is “light and fast”; everybody says their thing is “light and fast.” Crunchbang’s web site merely says Crunchbang offers
a great blend of speed, style and substance. Using the nimble Openbox window manager, it is highly customisable and provides a modern, full-featured GNU/Linux system without sacrificing performance.–Home Page
This also means it’s the antithesis of Ubuntu: I can’t do anything with Ubuntu without it sending a notification my way saying “You can’t do that,” or “Wouldn’t you rather do this?” If I wanted that I would use a Mac.
What I haven’t done
As amazing as the fact that I’ve done all my daily work with Crunchbang for the past week, and only turned on my home workstation for use as a DVD player, is what I haven’t done. I have not changed the theme, I have not changed the wallpaper, I have not changed the … anything. And these are things that I compulsively tinker with, so that’s saying a lot.
If you’ve been hesitating trying Crunchbang for any of the reasons I was (mistaking it for Ubuntu, just not needing to try another distro), I encourage you to try it. It had already changed my mind about swearing off Debian-based distros. I am loving it.
I have long held disdain for laptops. I didn’t need one for most of my life, I use paper for things that undergraduates at my university seem to require laptops for. I also have often thought of laptops as conspicuous consumption, a “thneed” that people express insanely irrational desire for. My wife and I once toured a local preschool and came to a room where some children were using a computer. Our tour guide said in a sad voice “Yes, they’re all desktops now, but we should be getting laptops really soon!” Why? Why is a laptop automatically better computer than the one they already had?
About a year-and-a-half ago, however, I bought a small, used IBM Thinkpad from a member of TriLUG for $20. This machine ran mostly well for a long time, and I found it convenient in a lot of situations, the biggest being ability to move quickly from one part of the house to another, supervising my children.
That machine, of course, had a limited lifespan. I was working on somthing when Emacs told me my /home partition was read-only. Further analysis revealed the hard drive was failing. I replaced this machine with a free ($0) machine from a friend, and although I appreciated the gift, that machine was worth about what I paid for it, so I thought of buying a new computer (for the first time in a while).
Choosing the X100e
The biggest choice to make was whether to go down the netbook road. Netbooks have come a long way since I bought my first one for my wife, one of the first EeePCs that had a number of design flaws that were corrected right after we bought it. Most “netbooks” now have 10 inch screens, and bigger keyboards. However, all the netbooks I could find in stores looked really flimsy compared to one that wasn’t called a netbook, but was still really compact: the X100e.
The X100e comes in two flavors, the single core MV-40 ($400) and a dual-core (“Elite”) version for only $100 more. For a while I was thinking that I would need the dual-core version and it was worth the price. Then I saw a video review where the reviewer plays 1080p video on the single core version and it runs beautifully. This was something that I didn’t plan on doing, so I thought I’d save myself the hundred bucks. I had a minor hesitation when I read a review that said “Don’t buy these netbooks, buy a real laptop.” I don’t want to ruin it for you, but I totally disagree with that guy: this “netbook processor” I bought runs incredibly fast.
I ordered direct from Lenovo. Here’s what came out of the box:
And here are the hilarious instructions for how to turn on the machine:
I had previously created a boot USB stick with Unetbootin. This is so much easier than it was even two years ago: I must say it was amazing. I totally didn’t expect it to work (I love free software but I’m realistic about these things, and I don’t mind a little trouble to get what I want).
I plugged in the USB stick, hit the power button and then carefully watched for the right F-key to press so I could boot from USB. I didn’t find it in time, and saw the dreaded “Starting POS…” on the screen. I hit the power button HARD! and started over again. This time I pressed F12 out of instinct, and the machine presented me with a menu: it already recognized that the USB stick was bootable. I chose that option and saw this:
That was my first “WOW!” As I said, I didn’t really expect it to work. I hit ENTER again and:
Write changes to disk? You bet yer ass! Installation took less than 10 minutes. The next order of business was to cover up that disgusting little sticker:
That’s better! And look: the X100e is so thin that it fits inside a neoprene envelope!
Before buying this machine I knew that it had a wireless NIC that is not supported by recent versions of Linux. Based on another blog post I downloaded the RealTek drivers but could get the build process to go much further. This was befuddling: make returned with an error that said “/lib/modules/$(uname -r)/build” didn’t exist, when in fact it did. Installing the kernel-headers package didn’t help. Finally nirik on #fedora set me straight: I installed kernel-devel and the build proceeded through ‘make’ and ‘make install.’
Free Software Advocacy When Buying a New Machine
I recently read a perspective that buying a “Windows 7 computer” and replacing its OS with GNU/Linux actually hurts our cause. I disagree with the author of that statement for two reasons. One is that wiping out Windows 7 on this machine means that I’m getting out there with a machine that people think of as needing Windows to run, and showing them, at the coffee shop, at the playground, at the library, in the classroom, that GNU/Linux supports every piece of hardware on this brand new machine, even though most manufacturers don’t make it a selling point. Think of how important that is when there are still people saying that when you switch to Linux[sic] you should know that hardware support is virtually nonexistent. That’s bullsh*t, but people won’t know it’s bullsh*t if we all used machines cobbled together from spare parts.
The other reason is that when the difference is between a $400 machine that I can touch and a $1400 machine that I can’t, I’m going to choose the former. Hating the hardware and loving the software on it will not make a good pitch to people who ask about the software: “Yeah I bought this from a free software-oriented OEM without being able to see it, so it runs okay, but I hate the keyboard.” I think it’s far more important to get out there with GNU/Linux and show people how well it works, even if it’s against the manufacturer’s desires (and even if those desires are the result of coercion and harassment from Microsoft). I also just have to put a ceiling on how much I’m willing to spend; one of the only reasons I decided to buy a laptop is how inexpensive they’ve become.
This may be rationalization, but I don’t believe I’m paying Microsoft very much buying this computer: I believe Microsoft makes more money from that added-on crapware (i.e. Office) that people get when they order their machines than they make from Windows. Windows is how they hook people, how they make the world believe that they are necessary. They turn a profit from selling Office to people for $400 dollars with a new machine, chosen by people who basically say “Well, we need this [Office] stuff to do anything with the computer, and we’re already paying $600, so…” I think it’s just fine to buy a computer with just Windows, and never buy another piece of Microsoft crapware. I have no need to do that when I’m running a better operating system, even if I had to install it myself (did I mention how easy that was?).
Factionalism is bad. I agree mostly with the points of people who call the software I use “open source,” whereas I call it “free software.” Most of the time, there is not a big difference. In fact, I feel like acting defensively whenever somebdoy bad-mouths open source software. I hear people do it all the time, and it bothers me, even though when those same people suppose I use “open source” I correct them and say “free software.”
Where does the problem lie? The problem lies in that when I correct people from saying “open source” and tell them it’s my freedom that I care about, they shut up. Many people use software knowing it’s open source, but don’t know that it is also free, and the implications of that freedom. For people who are used to proprietary software, open source is just an alternative that they have no compelling reason to entertain. Freedom, however is compelling. If it doesn’t change the minds of proprietary software devotees, at least they have no comeback. This is why I’m asking everyone reading this to start calling free software “free software.” Free as in freedom.
I’m unimpressed with open source: so are its detractors
The open source movement has not successfully shown that “open source” is a better way of promoting software freedom and their development methodologies. Nor have they shown that promoting user freedom as a primary goal is a bad idea. They have shown rather the opposite. Consider the following:
- Microsoft is now an open source company, without changing any of their business practices or policies on user freedom
- “Open source companies” are now suing other “open source companies,” debasing themselves to the level of corporate greed-vehicles like Microsoft
- The arguments for open source are not compelling to anyone who believes that proprietary software is better than free software
- While there are multiple, confusing uses of the word “free,” there are more confusing uses of the word “open”
By ignoring the moral and social conflict between user freedom and proprietary software developers, the open source movement has made proprietary software okay. That’s not okay. Furthermore, I hear people who cling to proprietary software laugh at “open source” as though it were the retarded cousin of software they believe is better only because you have to pay for it (they typically don’t notice or don’t care about the licensing terms). In 1998 during the height of the browser wars, open source was a good weapon, if not an outright success. Unfortunately, open source has become an avenue for proprietary software to infect people’s lives.
Open source has become a joke
Articles like this critique of Meego are what I mean when I say that Open Source is a joke. The author is even complimentary to open source, but he presents a good argument for how uncompelling it is. Or take this completely insane argument: Google’s ChromeOS will fail because
… Every year for the past decade was supposed to be “The Year of Linux on the Desktop.” It hasn’t happened and it’s not because it was an idea ahead of its time or it needed a stronger champion. The mass market has rejected Linux on the desktop. Linux is nothing more (or less) than a niche OS loved by a loyal group of highly-technical users. Even Google can’t change that, unless it’s prepared to write Linux device drivers for all of the world’s printers, digital cameras, keyboards, and mice. –Jason Hiner, Google Chrome OS: 3 reasons it matters, and 4 reasons it’s irrelevant
I agree with him that “The Year of the Linux Desktop” is a myth that will never materialize (at least it won’t be called “Linux desktop”), but “niche OS” is a bunch of bologna. It ignores the fact that most of the world’s servers are run by this niche OS, but it also ignores the fact that people choose to use software for reasons other than how successful it is in a highly anticompetitive market. People use GNU/Linux not just because it’s easier to use, more featureful and more reliable than Microsoft Windows (if you disagree then you haven’t tried GNU/Linux lately), they use it because of the freedom it allows them. Everything else (ease-of-use, features, stability) just comes along for the ride. (not to mention that his argument about Google needing device drivers is BS, too; he obviously forgot what ChromeOS is supposed to do; I’ve never had trouble with keyboards and mice, as those are most of the time controlled by the BIOS; duh)
By far the most effective argument against adopting the open source stance, as opposed to the free software stance is this:
A pure open source enthusiast, one that is not at all influenced by the ideals of free software, will say, “I am surprised you were able to make the program work so well without using our development model, but you did. How can I get a copy?” –Richard Stallman, Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software
If you don’t believe that distinction is clear, then look no further than your university’s so-called “Linux” servers, which are probably mainly a platform for running proprietary software like Matlab.
Perhaps you consider my perspective a little narrow, and you’d be right: I’m an academic computer user. I have no investment in what “the market dictates” or “the ecosystem” says about what kind of development tools I should use. I make my own decisions about these things. I have the “luxury” of caring mostly about my freedom. Doesn’t that seem wrong to you? If you are in a job where you don’t feel it’s valid to consider your civil rights and the rights of your coworkers, neighbors and friends, maybe you’re in the wrong place.
A few weeks ago I migrated two major projects to distributed version control systems (DVCS), leaving only one project in Subversion, the one hosted on Savannah. As you can read in my prior posts, I have resisted switching over to DVCS. However, recently I’ve understood the benefits propounded by DVCS adherents, and I’ve found that it has more features than most tutorials let on.
Why Did I Resist?
I resisted DVCS so strongly for a few reasons:
- Most arguments for DVCS I encountered were actually anti-Subversion arguments; much of them based on incorrect information about Subversion and CVS
- Much of what I read sounded like knee-jerk trendiness: it sounded like people were doing it just because Linus Torvalds says Subversion is stupid
- I had an important project (my dissertation!) in Subversion, managed with Trac. I didn’t want to lose all that history by doing a crappy conversion.
When the anti-Subversion arguments didn’t hold up, I ignored them. I thought maybe my working conditions were just different or other people just weren’t reading the manual. Those are still possibilities, but the harder thing to examine was my second reason for dismissal: I assumed that anyone who said these things was a total newbie, who had just been told that DVCS was better. I’ve talked about object-oriented programming proponents often just sound inexperienced with programming. I figured the same was true of DVCS proponents.
However, two things happened that really changed my mind. The first was that I’ve realized that the most annoying thing about somebody questioning my decisions is the feeling that they think my decision is poorly considered when it is deliberate, careful and took me weeks of preparation. It’s very easy to take that attitude with people online: when I don’t hear or see people, I don’t have that mirror held up to me. It’s very easy to just brush something off and say that the other person “just isn’t thinking about it.” Realizing how much that pisses me off when people take that attitude with me, I’ve thought a little more about how I consider peoples’ attitudes online.
Many experience hackers have switched
The second thing was realizing that people whose opinions I know I can value, people who definitely have done their homework, have switched major projects to DVCS. Emacs, my favorite piece of software that I am using right now to right this, is kept in Bazaar now. I know the people who made that decision were doing their homework, not going by knee-jerk reaction, certainly not just to copy Linus Torvalds. Bazaar is also part of the GNU Project.
What about my revisions?
svn2bzr answered my third concern. svn2bzr is a featureful-enough tool that will create Bazaar branches or repositories from SVN repository dumps. It’s really freakin’ easy to create whatever configuration you want:
> python ~/.bazaar/plugins/svn2bzr/svn2bzr.py --prefix=subdir svndump newrepo
This will create a new Bazaar repository in the directory `newrepo’ that contains all the revisions in the subdirectory `subdir’ of the svn repository. This is where Bazaar’s concept of repositories shows its difference.
In a Bazaar repository you can have many branches beneath the repository in the filesystem, and you import a branch by branching into a subdirectory. I did’t get this for a few weeks, so let me give you an example. Suppose I have a branch called `branch’ located at `~/Public/src/branch’ and a repository called `repo’:
> cd repo > bzr branch ~/Public/src/branch here
That creates a branch within the repository called `here’. Now I can create other branches, merge them, etc. The only tricky thing about getting my revisions into a place where Trac could use them was that I needed a repository hosted on HTTP. Then I used the TracBzr plugin to add the repository to Trac. I realized that changeset links are only used in Trac tickets, and since I had so few of those referencing current revisions, changes in the revision numbers wouldn’t matter that much.
Features of DVCS
I heard many, many anti-Subversion arguments and some really bogus arguments for DVCS. People have said “you can’t merge,” “you can’t make branches,” “Subversion causes brain damage” and on and on. The bogus pro-arguments I heard were that you can commit without a network connection, “forking is fundamental,” and that DVCS is “modern.” Answering these arguments is simple: committing without a network connection is not a big deal. On the other hand updating without a network connection is impossible, and it’s a situation I’ve found myself in more often, especially working with a laptop, instead of just two workstations. This is where DVCS was nice. Updating is a bigger problem than committing.
As to “you can’t merge” and “you can’t make branches,” we all know that’s bologna. However, what you can do much better with DVCS systems like git and Bazaar is edit directory structure and rename files. This is a huge advantage of DVCS systems. Bazaar, for instance, totally keeps track of all renames and copies in its history. Subversion, on the other hand, does renames with a DELETE operation and an ADD operation. Not so smooth. A good way to do get something better than CVS, but not the best.
Furthermore, DVCS systems are very good at merging. That doesn’t mean you can’t merge with Subversion — I’ve been doing that for years. However, merging between two branches in Bazaar is much simpler than merging in Subversion. I don’t have to read the help when I’m merging with Bazaar; merging with Subversion is not hard, but it’s not as simple. Simplicity is the name of the game, baby.
A Stupid Git Realization
I had tried using git before and didn’t enjoy it. I’m glad to say I was using it wrong. I had tried using it to manage my webpages, but whenever I pushed my local changes to my remote webpage tree on UNC’s servers, I would get messages about not updating the local tree and stuff like that. It was just confusing. It didn’t really make sense. I wasn’t interested in trying git again, hence using Bazaar for some new projects.
I had a weird realization one night: I was working with the git tree of Guile, and someone on irc had told me that the most updated git source had a known problem. I didn’t want to go get the tarball for Guile 1.9-13, so I thought “Wait, I have the git tree, so I should be able to generate whatever release version I want. How do I do that?”
> git tag -l > git checkout release_1-9-13
and there I had it. Wow! That is cool.
I also followed a simple tutorial to get my webpages working with a hook that would update the local tree (the one served as my homepage) every time.
It seems a simple idea: make a repository in a different directory,
and check out to it every time I push to that repository. Why hadn’t
that occurred to me before? Conversion from SVN to git was insanely simple:
> sudo yum install git-svn > git svn clone http://path/to/repo webgit
I think I’m done with Subversion. DVCS, at least git and Bazaar, can do a hell of a lot and I really like their features. I wouldn’t mind using Subversion for an existing project, but I think I’m not going to start any new projects with it. I’m also going to take it easy on people who disagree with me online. I’ve seen that at least some of them were speaking from the same position I hope to.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s really happening. Microsoft’s domination of software is ending and the new hardware era is about to begin. Microsoft has failed to do anything new over the past few years, and no, Windows 7 is not anything new. I laugh when I hear people say that Windows Vista or Windows 7 is a new operating system: it’s the same operating system with a new version.
Soon hardware makers and OEMs will be packaging whatever software they want with their computers, and people either won’t tell the difference or they’ll be glad to see Microsoft go. I say “New Hardware Era” because the computer business used to be all about hardware. From the beginning of commercial computing — with Univac in the 1950s — up until about 1991, selling computers meant selling hardware. Software, although not incidental, was what companies needed to put on their computers so that they would do something after the customer turned them on. The best example is the proliferation of Unix variants that occurred in the 1980s in response to the workstation market: Sun created a market for networked desktop computers that was quickly emulated by DEC, NeXT, HP, Apple, Dell and many others. Companies designed their own Unix variants to run on these machines, while at the same time promoting their products saying basically “That program you wrote on your old machine will run on this new one because it stil runs Unix.” This was the original meaning of “open” in the computing world.
However, the only company that still does business this way is Apple. IBM and HP will still do this with AIX and HP-UX respectively, but those workstations are not their biggest sellers. Apple, however, still sells desktop Unix workstations — complete with the Unix trademark — the same way it did twenty years ago. Things changed in the computing world from hardware focus to software focus mainly because Microsoft pushed companies into making hardware incidental, instead of software. This was a good thing for Microsoft to do — yes, even Microsoft was capable of good.
However, as I’ve written before, Android, Meego and the iPad are quickly showing people that “Hey, you don’t need Windows to run a computer!” Knowledgeable people have always known that, but those aren’t the people who buy most computers. The people buying the most computers could best be called “electronics customers.” Notice that people still buy hardware, but they buy software bundled with it. This is how Microsoft built its monopoly. That and bullying hardware companies.
Not anymore. Microsoft’s chief software strategist has quit, Microsoft has completely failed in the mobile phone realm, and has missed the boat in tablets. Here are my predictions for the comming year:
- Meego and Android devices will increase the visibility of Free Software in the public
- Schools will start distributing netbooks and tablets pre-loaded with GNU/Linux (this is already happening)
- Hardware companies (Dell, HP, etc) will start shifting their products to support whatever free operating system they decide to use for a particular model
- People will stop relying on specific proprietary programs to get work done, most of all Microsoft Office
- Microsoft’s mental monopoly will break down: people will know that when they buy a piece of hardware, it will run with whatever the manufacturer put on it
- Microsoft will be reduced to the world’s largest patent troll
As to my point about hardware, this will be very much like when hardware companies created their own Unix variants, except that you would also be able to download it off the internet and use it on someone else’s hardware (for free). People will stop saying “there are no device drivers for Linux[sic].” Almost all hardware problems as of now are caused by subtle hardware problems that are not an issue for machines built with GNU/Linux in mind. As for office programs, what I mean is that once people realize that they don’t need Windows, they are going to see that they also don’t need Microsoft Word. I’m not saying every old person is going to start using Emacs, but quite a few of them might see the light and at least use gEdit. You will stop hearing arguments like “Software package X isn’t supported on Linx[sic].” People won’t care because when they buy a computer, it will have preloaded some program that allows them to get their job done.
The main thing Microsoft realized, and how they created their monopoly, is what Neal Stephenson called the “blinking 12:00 problem”: people take what they get. If what they are getting is GNU/Linux, then they’ll take it. It won’t matter that it doesn’t have M$ Office.
Microsoft will be reduced to a much smaller company that mainly tries to make money by suing people — most likely the companies that used to bundle their software and will soon be bundling GNU/Linux. Microsoft will basically be SCO with a name that people recognize.
The new hardware era is coming: tablets and laptops preloaded with Android and Meego are about to become very popular. This doesn’t mean that desktops are going away. They will again become high-end tools used by scientists and engineers, and they will come preloaded with software that is actually usable. Let’s see how my predictions fare.