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FSF ‘free hardware’ free-for-all or standards stalemate?

Thursday, 22 March 2007 — by

It’s not often that I’m torn between two opposing views on a subject. I often edge in one direction eventually. Having read through the Free Software Foundation’s manifesto on freeing up hardware of proprietary tie-ins, there’s issues that emerge which aren’t easily dealt with, and as far as I can see, aren’t addressed by the FSF.

It’s worth reading through the document, and the associated document that proposes ways & means by which the hardware vendors can untether their products from the ISV’s such as Microsoft, for example.

I don’t want to be quoting entire passages from either of these documents, so I’ll summarize where appropriate, and you’ll just have to trust me on the details, unless you want to trawl through the aforementioned documents and argue the toss over the minutia.

The argument put forward by the Free Software Foundation is for the hardware manufacturers to not add in ‘locks’ which effectively hand over their products to the likes of Microsoft, who can then level their end of the playing field by restricting what the little guy(s) can and can’t do with the hardware from someone else.

Specifically, support free BIOS, more open drivers and to get those few vendors that don’t actually pre-install some iteration of Microsoft Windows to drop the price of their hardware commensurate with the fee levied by Microsoft for the pre-installation of of of their many-flavoured operating systems.

When the hardware roadmap leads us nowhere at all

Now, much of this, I’m with. However, where I must veer slightly is with respect to the direction all of this might lead.

When I look at open source software, I see choice and variety. When I look at the various distributions of Linux, I see much the same.

What I also see are competing ideas, concepts, standards and ideologies. On the one hand, this is good, to a greater & lesser extent. But on the other hand, all of these choices can be confusing and disruptive.

Just look at how the two competing windowing systems Gnome and KDE for Linux don’t only not get along, but also foment a lot of unrest, and have Balkanized certain quarters of the Linux community at a time when they should be united under one flag.

By way of an example, just Google up the phrase: “Gnome KDE discussions” and see what you’re served up.

Now, that’s as much detail as I want to go into on that one issue, or there’s a real danger of me being sucked into that argument, too. So end of!

But the point is, irrespective of what either camps of Gnome and KDE respectively think about their goals, the broader, global goal of offering a standard, consistent approach to user interface design for Linux is hampered somewhat, and it’s the end user who suffers.

I hear people asking when will Linux become mainstream. Some argue that’s it’s just a matter of time. I say it’s a matter of finding some common ground. See above.

I also hear people ask why Adobe haven’t rolled out Photoshop for Linux yet. Well it’s the self same issue. You either get Adobe choosing between Gnome or KDE, which would just kick off a massive firestorm of protest either way, or they support both, which means more development dollars for a platform that is an unknown quantity as a creative workstation.

Does open hardware mean open season on standards?

So taking that argument from the software side of things to the hardware arena, then you have the potential for even more problems.

While few people in the open source community have Microsoft on their birthday card list, most people in the open source community – and most computer communities in general – have the likes of Microsoft to thank for taking the lead on certain hardware standards and bringing them to the fore.

Granted, there’s that small issue of the perfusion of boards & slots in most PC’s, but then there’s also USB, PCI, IDE and VGA to add into the plus column.

So if we go with the Free Software Foundation’s argument, kick Microsoft (Apple?) et al into touch, who then do we look to when we want a new hardware standard to be pushed forward for broader adoption?

I sense some people reading all of this still aren’t convinced that things could potentially go hideously wrong. Well, fortunately for all of us, history – and certainly recent history – is an excellent teacher.

Just look at what happens when the big boys don’t get along, specifically regarding the future of the DVD format. We’ve got two competing standards in the form of Sony’s Blue-ray DVD format pitted against the HD DVD format, proposed by Toshiba.

And who loses? We do. Everyone to a man.

In many ways, the likes of Microsoft are like a semi-benevolent dictator. They don’t give you much in the way of choice, but you usually end up with something that’s for the best in the long run. Well, best strike Microsoft out and replace them with Apple. That’s more their kind of thing.

And in this vacuum, we have the very real possibility of another hardware-style Gnome versus KDE conflict, which would be utterly ruinous for not only the driver and software developers, who wouldn’t know which hardware to support, but we’d have then end user having to fill their heads with concepts and terminology that they just don’t need to know.

Could freedom give a free reign to hardware anarchy? Now it’s your turn…

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