07 Jan 2004

Freedom Inside

At the beginning of 2004, with the consumer electronics exposition going on in Las Vegas and LinuxWorld coming to my home base in New York, the trade shows are telling us that this is the year of Free Software Inside. Indeed, a collection of forces is propelling free software into all sorts of devices and appliances near you. That process, now picking up momentum, begins with the simple calculus of cost, but will have surprisingly far-reaching effects on the global economy, and the gap in access to the Net between rich and poor that is known as the Digital Divide.

Free software is going inside because manufacturers increasingly cannot afford to use anything else. Embedding a free software platform means drastic reductions in software cost. Once device manufacturers gain confidence in the robustness and adaptability of free software as a platform, each entire product segment tends to shift to free software. This is the path followed by home network appliances: routers, access points, firewalls, etc. Once a few vendors change their cost structure by use of free software inside, the entire product category has to follow suit.

Free software is going inside because it’s easier to develop that way. Expertise with using and programming free software computers is now widely distributed among technically-oriented people around the world. Development of embedded software on free software platforms means that development can happen everywhere GNU/Linux programmers are, mostly without need for specialized hardware knowledge and development systems.

Free software is going inside because it works already. Even for Microsoft, developing a new OS for a set-top box, for example, takes substantial time. Free software’s superior portability affords manufacturers additional agility by reducing development time.

Once free software becomes the embedded platform for consumer digital devices, the legal principles of copyleft begin to operate on the devices themselves, with more unexpected results. By taking proper design decisions, manufacturers will certainly maintain trade secret status for the “look and feel” application layer with which consumers interact. But some consumers will also immediately explore development of free replacement software for the proprietary components. In doing so, those consumer-developers improve the product, in the familiar free software way.

So devices will often be used by consumers in a form that replaces all the proprietary operating software inside the device by free software. My personal MP3 player is an example; Archos manufactured it and provided it with an operating environment. But I use a free software replacement for the manufacturer’s firmware, which gives me enhanced functionality, better battery life, faster startup and better graphic design for the display.

If such free replacement software is copylefted, under the GNU GPL or equivalent, the device manufacturer cannot simply appropriate any improvements into its own proprietary code. It can, however, study the free software and independently reimplement any feature enhancement or design improvement found there. In this way, through directed consumer innovation, manufacturers can lower the cost of developing product enhancements and future products. With experience, manufacturers will recognize the advantage in many instances of freeing all the software in their products, including their own previously proprietary components. The costs of further development and maintenance can then be “communitized.” Trademarked graphical elements can provide the “look and feel” distinction in the device’s user interface instead of trade secret proprietary code.

This process results in devices that are cheaper, more flexible, and capable of significant after-market enhancement. Replacement of proprietary by free software inside consumer devices will also limit the employment of proprietary data formats: devices based on free software will naturally eschew proprietary formats, as GNU/Linux word processing programs do already. Once most devices deploying particular application types (PDA’s and other devices that perform calendaring and word processing, for example) are “free inside,” the de facto standardization of unfree formats for those application types will be much more difficult.

What begins in a purely economic struggle to reduce costs ends in the pervasive adoption of freedom, as it turns out that the customer’s right to tinker has long-term value to the manufacturer. But it’s the GPL, through the principle of the copyleft, that works to unify the code created into a general commons, from which new designs and capabilities flow, giving free software permanent physical expression in inexpensive, versatile devices that can spread the benefits of digital freedom ever more widely in global society. When it comes to enabling inexpensive devices to bridge the Digital Divide around the world, Free Software Matters.

This column was first published in the UK in Linux User. It is also available in PostScript and PDF formats.

permalink | columns/lu | 2004.01.07-00:00.00

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