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The Road Ahead

February 20, 2009

Greetings from Miami airport.  Normal blogging will resume tomorrow; in Vegas for biz Monday and Tuesday but from Reno that’s like a bus ride and the travel strain/time is nil.  Funny story – just after my last post, in which I mentioned that I was reading After the Software Wars, I got an email from the author, Keith Curtis.  Now that’s rapid response.  We’ve emailed back and forth since then about the book, and I’m hoping to post a review by Sunday before I leave town again.  I’m about 1/3 of the way through the book now, and Keith has yet to convince me by email or book that an entirely open source software world is inevitable.  Keith’s first comment is attached to the post before this one, and I’m looking forward to having a back and forth with him here about his book. 

I think the word “evangelist” really is appropriate when I talk about OS’s most enthusiastic proponents, because like any religion, it needs converts to thrive – i.e., Keith and Lessig and Stallman and Eben Moglen have to convince the young programmer not to go to work for Microsoft or Google or Apple, but rather to see the light on the Road to Damascus (or Redmond or Mountain View) and take up the Open Source cross for the good of humanity and beat down the legions of Rome. 

I’m in enthusiastic agreement with Keith on a few things – especially when he says that real AI is possible today, it’s just that all the resources are divided between numerous walled castles.  Which is Christopher’s sentiment in the novel, as well, which is why he goes about tunneling under these walls and taking what he needs to make Alex.  He’s shown me how copyleft works in terms I can understand, i.e., economic motivation:  each person contributes to the product, and is paid for value received by receipt of the finished end product and its summary updates and improvements.  However, he has not convinced me that, for instance, we’re going to see cheaper MRI machines when the software to run them is created by collaborating volunteers – to code for an MRI machine, you have to have that very expensive piece of equipment available; it’s not like writing an OS or word processor where all you need is the PC on which it’ll run.  I don’t see hospitals letting armies of amateurs swarm over their expensive equipment to tinker with the software, or manufacturers throwing open their patented specs on the web in the hope that someone will make the software better.  As with any religion, there are always going to be apostates, and while OS will grow, I don’t see it riding in on a white horse (or the beast of Revelation) to slay all unbelievers and usher in a new, perfect world for the believers.

Yes, products like MS Office are probably “doomed” in their current incarnation as expensive and expensive to upgrade boxed items, with copy protection or software activation or registration – not quite yet, as the still relatively crappy PowerPoint clones out there prove.  But as “software as service” in the cloud, not so doomed, if MS will hurry up and replace Office-the-DVD with Office-the-SAS before OpenOffice and friends eat their lunch – people will be willing to pay $5 or $10 a month for access to software that is familiar, easily compatible with the terabytes of existing documents, invisibly upgraded and maintained, and, most importantly, user friendly.  One thing the OS crowd hasn’t got the hang of yet is that front ends are critical.  Keith says in his book that only “inertia” prevents people from switching to Linux, and with its new GUIs, that may be true, but there is a wide streak of arrogance in the high-tech users and creators of OS that disdains weak souls who cannot see that the way to true communion with the Source is through the command line (literally iconoclasts in their desire to smash the GUI icons the rest of us depend on), who think you should cast aside Visual Studio and MS Word for emacs, yet refuse to provide the most basic install.exe package for it (instead giving vague instructions about “compiling it” after you’ve waded through the user-hostile text-based directories to find the correct file).  Many of the true believers don’t really want the masses to join the religion – they’ll just mess it up with their damn double-clicking mentality.  And that desire for ideological purity will hold the movement back as much as the actions of those on the other side.

Though it’s hard to root for the other side when you see boneheaded moves like the one I read about today, in which Hulu.com has cut off users of the Boxee video player because, heaven forbid,

many early Boxee testers were using the software to send video to their television sets, sometimes by installing it on their Apple TV set-top boxes. That meant the shows that appeared on Hulu were competing directly with the same programs that the networks were distributing through traditional channels like cable and satellite.

How dare they not watch content on their computer screens! You cannot use your TV to watch the Internet!  As a number of commenters noted immediately, all you need to get around this is to plug a monitor cable from your PC into any HDTV anyway.  This kind of colossal idiocy from the content providers/controllers only makes it all the easier to rationalize just going to Bittorrent instead, by making it needlessly and pointlessly harder and harder for “fair use” to occur.

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