Monday, May 3, 2010

Pot Calling the Kettle Black

This is perhaps the funniest thing I've read so far about this Apple vs Adobe saga. So, someone from the FSF weighs in saying that Apple does not embrace open systems and they have a walled garden blah blah blah. It's supremely funny to see a FSF guy say this for one very good reason. Richard Stallman (president of FSF).

If you were to go, say, listen to Richard Stallman speak at a university. You would, minimum in the Q&A session, hear over and over how there is a big difference between open source and GNU license software. This is because as people ask questions they often convolute the terms of "open-source" and "GNU GPL" which are completely different to RMS and by extension FSF. This is not purely semantics, having the source code to something doesn't mean you're completely free to use it. Having the source code does not have the effect of the GPL which makes all the surrounding code "free".

RMS and the GPL is free to be how it is. It's a restrictive license in the other direction of all the other licenses. There are a lot of similar licenses to the GPL, some are better some are worse.

FSF in fact defends GPL code with lawyers, so you know they're serious. If you were to, say, take GPL code and use them in something without providing source code, you WILL get sued. The specific license is that you must provide source code and they're very serious about it.

This means that they have to have a very clear distinction between something that is open-source is a more informal way (like "here take the code and do anything with it") and the GPL way ("here take the code and the restrictions are that you have to make your changes public and allow blah blah").

I don't think there's anything wrong with GPL. I think it makes a lot of sense and has kept a lot of companies that have used the work of these guys from just stealing it and locking it up. It's the intellectual property of the person who (or people) who wrote it and so they can place it under any license they wish. The important thing is to know when it's GPL, because it changes how you can use the code.

So the FSF is not going to sue you if you use, "Open-Source" software which is just a generic term for someone else's code. They will if it's code that is under GPL.

So if FSF is so aware of the terms, why are the trying to box Apple's ear when they said they use Open Standards? I've heard a few small-time comments by people saying "Apple is just as proprietary as Adobe, they have the iPhone OS etc etc". That's RIGHT. Corporations in general do have proprietary technologies. Apple is not going to start training HP how to do better hardware and software design and they're sure as hell not employing thousands of programmers so they can allow other companies to duplicate what they did easily.

The basic concept of a company putting money (labour materials, and actual capital) in order to turn a profit is not a new idea. This is entirely ubiquitous thing. Originally light fixtures were proprietary to the light-buld manufacturers. Lightbulbs were expensive. But there is a plethora of business models.

Having people locked into a system can make a company a lot of money, it forces you to buy from them for refills (think Pez, or gift-certificates). iTunes-iPods is similar but you can still load it with generic mp3s, but NOT from some other online stores. The mp3s have to be encumbered by Apple or unencumbered.

Often it costs extra to get out of these systems. Even moving from Facebook to Myspace or buying something you have accessories for is a form of lock it. To make it expensive to leave, and impossible to use another vendor is a good thing for the company. Don't just sell them air fresheners. Sell them cartridge re-loadable ones that you invested in the the dispenser. I might as well get my use out of it since I already have sunken costs in it.

This is what Jobs was describing. He describes their web initiatives as using Open standards. Open standards are another thing that big companies (even pre-computer) will do. Again, like the light bulb. After some time with a lot of battling companies and confusion and anger from consumers; big corporations will work together in order to make a common technology interoperate. So having something like wifi standards between computers, OSes, and all sorts of manufacturers makes it actually possible in the first place. Wifi would be nowhere near as popular or ubiquitous if any laptop anywhere could only connect to a wifi router of the same manufacturer. It would narrow its use so much that it would be useless.

I believe this is usually when a technology becomes commodity. At the beginning all the companies furiously create their own technologies in order to have a better system that people consider valuable. This is to give them an edge over other vendors. There is certainly a lock-in associated, but the fact is that these companies are creating solutions for existing problems. Coordinating with every other vendor is entirely too slow and complex, and takes away the uniqueness of their solution (like HD-DVD and Blu-ray).

In the end when something is established, the companies are able to collaborate together and develop standards. With these standards come interoperability. It's unlikely that a web browser would just pick up support for every possible standard (be it video codec of what have you) and have it all work together seamlessly. This is why h.264 is now the next-generation video codec. All the vendors are coming around to agree that it is the best implementation and they're getting behind it.

It is for control, it is for profits. But the fact is that the logical conclusion is an open standard. FSF should realize that Jobs never said Apple was GPL, or even that Apple was completely "Open" (the generic term). He merely said that they approached the web platform with open-standards like HTML5. That's why they don't support Flash, that's why they don't like Flash. His example of webkit (a open Apple creation), and how even Android uses it is something that Apple did. It shows how Apple is open about web standards and how it believes that's how it should be.

And it should.

I think Gruber put it best "That’s great. So what mobile phone should an FSF devotee buy? Good luck with that." It's exactly right. GPL has done very well for itself in many places. But the fact is that past the back-end, into the world of usability. Into the world of a GUI. Into a world of actual hardware, there's nothing legally GPL pure.

Even Chinese manufacturers who want to make their own smart phone or handheld computer will put Windows on it. It's the only turn-key platform that saves them from hiring programmers and maintaining a totally new platform. Even ones with modified windows (eeePC) are going to roll in a lot of proprietary stuff, solutions to problems they encounter which they see no need to share.


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