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"Because we don't know how to make a wheel that is still generally useful for legitimate wheel applications but useless to bad guys."
January 4, 2012 4:47 AM   Subscribe

Cory Doctorow's 28C3 talk The Coming War on General Purpose Computation (abstract, transcript) warns that "the coming century will be dominated by war against the general purpose computer, and the stakes are the freedom, fortune and privacy of the entire human race."

Doctorow treats legislators relatively sympathetically asserting that "information technology confounds [their] heuristics" about whether regulation has unconscionable side effects, comparing regulating computation or networking with regulating the nature of wheels.

A few choice quotes : [18m08] "an appliance is not a stripped-down computer, it is a fully functional computer with spyware on it out of the box"   [19m30] "attempts to make a network that can't be used for copyright infringement always converges with the surveillance measures that we know from repressive governments." .. "In fact, the proponents of SOPA, the Motion Picture Association of America, circulated a memo, citing research that SOPA would probably work, because it uses the same measures as are used in Syria, China, and Uzbekistan, and they argued that these measures are effective in those countries, and so they would work in America, too!"   [20m05] "copyright is just not important to pretty much everyone"   [22m50] "The grievances that arose from unauthorized copying are trivial, when compared to the calls for action that our new computer-embroidered reality will create."   [24m55] "there will be judges in the American South and Mullahs in Iran who will lose their minds over people in their jurisdiction printing out sex toys."   [25m29] "Imagine what will happen the day that Monsanto determines that it's really really important to make sure that computers can't execute programs that cause specialized peripherals to output organisms that eat their lunch."   [26m28] "as we saw in the copyright wars, all attempts at controlling PCs will converge on rootkits; all attempts at controlling the Internet will converge on surveillance and censorship"

I hear Doctorow's book Little Brother contains the unabridged version. Ironically, Belarus criminalized using foreign websites and Spain passed SOPA-like legislation a couple days after his talk.

In the same vein, The Un-Internet by Dave Weiner at Scripting News discusses about tech companies trying to take control away from users, taking Apple to task for leading a new "push to control users" through their App Store.   "Once [Apple] took the power to decide what software could be distributed on their platform, it was inevitable that speech would be restricted too."   Doctorow similarly criticizes the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) which restricts newer PCs to only running signed operating systems, noting that "repressive governments will likely withhold signatures from OSes unless they have covert surveillance operations." 1  And Thom Holwerda concludes that Richard Stallman Was Right All Along.

1 LinuxBIOS/Coreboot coauthor Ronald Minnich says "[the UEFI authors] make no secret of the fact that a 'core value' of EFI is the preservation of intellectual property related to chipset programming and internal architecture." (see also lwn.net and linuxfoundation.org)
posted by jeffburdges (138 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
Spain passed SOPA-like legislation a couple days after his talk.

Firstly, Spain's "Sinde law" is not very "SOPA-like" (it isn't , but a rather downwatered version of France's existing "Hadopi" .

Secondly, it wasn't passed "a couple days" after Doctorow's talk. It was passed one year ago. What was "passed" recently is the regulation implementing the law.
posted by Skeptic at 5:11 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think what's actually happening is that the cost of a 'general purpose' computer is is continuing to drop. Not just netbooks and tablets (some of which are locked down, obviously) but also stuff like the Raspberry Pi, which is a Unix/Linux machine with HDMI outputs and 3D acceleration for $25. (It's not generally available yet, but they have beta hardware out)
Doctorow similarly criticizes the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) which restricts newer PCs to only running signed operating systems, noting that "repressive governments will likely withhold signatures from OSes unless they have covert surveillance operations." 1 And Thom Holwerda concludes that Richard Stallman Was Right All Along.
I don't think you're ever going to have a situation where you won't be able to buy hardware optimized to be sold to nerds. I built some systems while back and the motherboard I used was this one, which was pretty popular since it had three 16x PCI-express slots. When I was reading through the manual I found it had a feature called "M-Flash" that let you back up/restore the system BIOS to USB, and could actually boot off of USB. Not boot the OS, but load the actual BIOS from USB and boot from there.

So I think what's actually happening isn't so much that systems are getting locked down, but rather that the cost of the 'computer' is going down to the extent that what you're really buying is an 'application', a capacitive touch screen to interact with it and a 'computer' is just thrown in for free.

So in the future I think you'll likely see more stuff like the Rapsberry pi. Companies like Ubuntu or Slackware will be able to sell you their distros, and toss in a free, completely open computer along with it for you to run it on.

And of course there's also the open-source distribution of Android, which means you can take a standard tablet, either open sourced or jailbroken and run a modern tablet OS that's completely open source. You can already run gingerbread on the HP TouchPad or Icecream Sandwich on Kindle Fire.

So I think what you're going to see is a niche market of people selling nerdy hardware to nerds, plus a general market of people selling 'applications' (with included hardware) to normal users.

---

But anyway, the real problem is political, not economic. Back in 2002s there was actually a law proposed called the "Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act" which thought the best way to promote broadband was to ban computers. Or at least, ban the kind of computers that people were using at the time, and ban any device that didn't have built in DRM. It went nowhere. But had it passed the world would be a very different place.

The risk is, if general purpose computers become less common, then there may be more political opportunity for the government to come and try to clamp down on non-locked systems.
posted by delmoi at 5:33 AM on January 4, 2012 [10 favorites]


So I think what's actually happening isn't so much that systems are getting locked down, but rather that the cost of the 'computer' is going down to the extent that what you're really buying is an 'application', a capacitive touch screen to interact with it and a 'computer' is just thrown in for free.

And what are you going to connect this computer to? That's the real issue here. Worse case scenario, obviously a sufficiently motivated person could just build a computer from scratch. But once enough people are connecting together in some out-of-internet-band way (ham radio or whatever), captured regulatory agencies will once again step in.

Not to mention the fact that any "there are ways around that for knowledgeable people" automatically limits free computation to knowledgeable people. Program or be programmed.
posted by DU at 5:45 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


So I think what you're going to see is a niche market of people selling nerdy hardware to nerds, plus a general market of people selling 'applications' (with included hardware) to normal users.

Which is a problem by itself of course. I personally was not born a nerd, the reason I got into programming and ended up pursuing it as a career was mainly due to the fact that my parents bought a computer that had a programming language built into it. If I wanted the computer to do neat things that it didn't already do, I had to learn how to code. The middle school I went to at the time had computers but they didn't teach programming, and as far as I know the vast majority of schools still don't. The vast majority of programmers I have met learned the same way, by being exposed to programming on accident by owning a general purpose computer.

Computer geeks exist in large numbers today mainly because most households have a geeky computer, the same way that video game geeks exist in large numbers because most households have a video game system, and contrary to non-mainstream types of geekery like being into unicycles or something. If we go back to the hobbyist computer days where only nerds buy tinkerable machines, and the average household has a few completely locked down devices for consuming media, then that's going to significantly limit the number of people who end up being able to grow up and make their own innovative applications to keep digital technology moving forward.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:50 AM on January 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


Oh, Cory.

The "War" on general purpose computing is a lot like the "War" on Christmas -- in other words, there is no war. Instead, there's a larger pool of people who are using appliance-like computing devices, enjoying them, and in the process threatening/angering the old-school computerists. A colleague of mine is in this camp: he applauded Doctorow's speech and reiterated that "appliances" require "spyware and malware" by definition. When asked to clarify, he explained that appliances were limited, and since they use general purpose computing hardware they require software limits. And software that adds limits is "malware." It was a ridiculous way of putting moral weight behind the sentiment, "I like writing my own software."

There is much to be said about the danger of popular computing devices lacking any way to "bootstrap" people into a tinkerer's mindset. I wouldn't have become a software developer if I hadn't stumbled into a copy HyperCard and done some lightweight programming when I was ten. However, Doctorow's demonization of appliance computing has always gone waaaaay beyond that concern.


And what are you going to connect this computer to? That's the real issue here. Worse case scenario, obviously a sufficiently motivated person could just build a computer from scratch. But once enough people are connecting together in some out-of-internet-band way (ham radio or whatever), captured regulatory agencies will once again step in.

This is not the fault of "appliances," however. And that's where Doctorow shows his true colors, unfortunately. He is equating a real problem (legal constraints on the nature of computing devices) with a product attribute (limited, focused functionality) that he finds personally distasteful. His past statements about people who aren't like him have been rather condescending:
With the iPad, it seems like Apple’s model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother….

The model of interaction with the iPad is to be a “consumer,” what William Gibson memorably described as “something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth… no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote.”
Translation: if you're not a 'Maker,' you're a sexless, will-less consumer potato who deserves pity and contempt. Cory has found a way to blend the issue of intellectual property and copyright law with his personal animus towards people who use computing appliances. The real shame is that the first topic is important, and he'll distract a generation of geeks by convincing them that their favored usage patterns should be a moral crusade.
posted by verb at 6:01 AM on January 4, 2012 [50 favorites]


the coming century will be dominated by war against the general purpose computer, and the stakes are the freedom, fortune and privacy of the entire human race."

lol doctorow
posted by nathancaswell at 6:03 AM on January 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's supply and demand. There's going to be a demand for platforms that let you write your own stuff for the foreseeable future. Otherwise we wouldn't have websites. We wouldn't have an industry making 'apps' for tablets and smart phones. We wouldn't have much of a games industry. Not to mention the whole ecosystem of business application development. For many platforms, there's no great incentive to lock people out of the hardware or to lock them into a specific operating system. Linux allows more than Microsoft which in turn is more permissive than Apple, but for many tasks the three are interchangeable, and there are good reasons for choosing any of the three. But there's a difference between 'a computer' and 'an entertainment/communications/dishwashing device that happens to behave somewhat like a computer'. The latter exists because consumers want a product that does X and Y and they don't really care about being locked into certain limitations or vendors. I don't want to hack my car's computer. I'd quite like my local garage to be able to decipher the fault codes, but I'm not really losing sleep over it.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:03 AM on January 4, 2012


software that adds limits is "malware."

You disagree with this? If you buy a product from a company that comes with a policy dictating otherwise-reasonable ways you may not use it, you find that OK? (I.e. "you may not use this fork to eat fish" or "you may not use this screwdriver to pry open paint cans")
posted by DU at 6:06 AM on January 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


Or worse, you buy a screwdriver from GM that comes with a policy that says you can't use it to build any product that competes with GM.
posted by DU at 6:08 AM on January 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


Doctorow's customary hyperbole (and I think verb is on to something) may be a distraction, but hardware freedom, or rather the lack thereof, is still scary. One thing I don't understand is why there isn't a bigger outcry from the likes of Google, etc. against UEFI -- wouldn't they be opposed to something which encumbers their ability to install Linux, BSD, etc. on thousands upon thousands of machines at once?
posted by a small part of the world at 6:15 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


You disagree with this?

Yes. You know what you're getting when you buy an iPhone. Malware would be if Apple installed a trojan that locked down your Android phone.
posted by empath at 6:18 AM on January 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


verb: "Instead, there's a larger pool of people who are using appliance-like computing devices"
And why, exactly, do the manufacturers of said appliances feel the need to restrict what you can do with it? It would be easier not to restrict what runs on it.
posted by brokkr at 6:18 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's, btw, also not malware when a car manufacturer puts a chip in your car that limits your cars performance and voids your warranty if you change it.
posted by empath at 6:19 AM on January 4, 2012


And why, exactly, do the manufacturers of said appliances feel the need to restrict what you can do with it? It would be easier not to restrict what runs on it.

Because when you buy a toaster that happens to have a computer chip in it, you just want it to make toast, you don't care if it runs linux. And the toaster manufacturer doesn't want to have to support your toaster if you installed linux on it.
posted by empath at 6:20 AM on January 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


You disagree with this? If you buy a product from a company that comes with a policy dictating otherwise-reasonable ways you may not use it, you find that OK? (I.e. "you may not use this fork to eat fish" or "you may not use this screwdriver to pry open paint cans")

No, that's not malware. That's an annoying and counterproductive policy put in place by a particular manufacturer. Even Apple, famous for its tight controls, can only void your warranty if you do those things with it. Game consoles -- easily the most locked-down computing devices in general circulation -- are still yours to do with what you like.

Efforts to impose legally mandated kill switches on all general purpose hardware to protect IP, prevent the installation of other operating systems, etc. have little or nothing to do with the popularity of "appliances." Those are legal plays by content creators and IP-driven software companies to make life harder for their competitors and protect their existing markets. Conflating the two doesn't accomplish anything -- unless you just want everyone to be a Maker-Hacker, and look down on people who aren't.


Or worse, you buy a screwdriver from GM that comes with a policy that says you can't use it to build any product that competes with GM.

Equating appliances with malware is like complaining that the screwdriver can't hammer things.
posted by verb at 6:22 AM on January 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


so when is it appropriate to worry about this

also is there a guy with a good personal brand that is complaining about this
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:28 AM on January 4, 2012


Cory earns cheap kudos by preaching to the converted. Film at 11.
posted by daveje at 6:28 AM on January 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


empath: "Because when you buy a toaster that happens to have a computer chip in it, you just want it to make toast, you don't care if it runs linux. And the toaster manufacturer doesn't want to have to support your toaster if you installed linux on it."
Do you know of any "toaster" manufacturers that do customer support? Apart from Dell, I can't think of any instance where the customer would go to the manufacturer for support instead of the vendor.

(Who will usually just take in your faulty toaster and send it to the manufacturer, who replaces it for a new one and sells the old one refurbished. At least in the EU where we have a mandatory two year warranty.)

If I'm actually hacking the microprocessor in my toaster, it's quite likely I don't just want it to make toast. Why should anybody care about that? It would be fairly trivial for the manufacturer to check for tampered firmware if they get a complaint and refuse having anything to do with it.
posted by brokkr at 6:29 AM on January 4, 2012


I think the connection between appliances and legal restrictions on general computing is somewhat indirect and nebulous. That's not to say that there isn't a connection (I feel like there is one myself), but I think that the argument would be advanced by walking people through the steps to show the relationship rather than simply asserting the relationship.
posted by Jpfed at 6:30 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know that feeling you get when you put in a DVD that you bought and your player won't let you skip the commercials at the beginning?

Hahah, get used to it!

Looks like some people already have. Submissive people gonna submit.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 6:31 AM on January 4, 2012 [14 favorites]


Stupid toaster analogies aside, can anybody who dismisses Doctorow's argument please tell me:

What are the consumer benefits of SOPA legislation, Trusted Computing and restricted firmware?
posted by brokkr at 6:36 AM on January 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Do you know of any "toaster" manufacturers that do customer support? Apart from Dell, I can't think of any instance where the customer would go to the manufacturer for support instead of the vendor.

Yes. Three popular toaster manufacturers off the top of my head include Sunbeam, Oster, and General Electric. All three have customer service email addresses, phone numbers, and extensive sections on their web site dedicated to customer support, troubleshooting, and so on.

http://www.geappliances.com/service_and_support/
https://secure.oster.com/ContactUs.aspx
https://secure.sunbeam.com/ContactUs.aspx

This is the norm, not the exception. Appliance manufacturers need to do customer service, too. They just don't do as much of it because they work hard to build devices that do a particular thing well. If you mod your toaster and turn it into a toaster oven, because really it's just a device for heating things up and they have no business telling you how to use it, you're welcome to. However, they will no longer support your toaster.
posted by verb at 6:37 AM on January 4, 2012


@brokkr

i would guess the benefits are like not siding with cory doctorow
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:44 AM on January 4, 2012


What are the consumer benefits of SOPA legislation, Trusted Computing and restricted firmware?

SOPA is a pile of shit, but as far as trusted computing and restricted firmware, there are security and reliability benefits, at the very least.
posted by empath at 6:44 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Let's take this out of the realm of high-tech and make it the simple matter of going out and buying a board held 30 inches off the ground.

Have you looked at the quality of furniture aimed at the average consumer over the past 50 - 70 years? A dining room set that goes for about what I spent on my Volvo would take me a month or two to make in my basement workshop. We've gone from furniture that will develop a ring if you set a cold glass on it to furniture that might dissolve if you set a cold glass on it. Nobody was saying there was a war on furniture, but in retrospect, it feels like we lost one. (And yeah, I do feel pity for people who pay money for this crap.)

Now the same forces that have done this to the humble dining room table are coming to bear on the tools we use to communicate, get news and to create? Where's my gun!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:46 AM on January 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think the connection between appliances and legal restrictions on general computing is somewhat indirect and nebulous. That's not to say that there isn't a connection (I feel like there is one myself), but I think that the argument would be advanced by walking people through the steps to show the relationship rather than simply asserting the relationship.

The connection is that an appliance that does X is not "broken" if it doesn't also do "Y." Doctorow and others like him realize that only a tiny percentage of consumers see the value of "Y," and fear that the move towards devices that do "X" will please so many people that "Y" will die out. Doctorow's solution is to call people who want "X" mindless potatos.


You know that feeling you get when you put in a DVD that you bought and your player won't let you skip the commercials at the beginning? Hahah, get used to it! Looks like some people already have. Submissive people gonna submit.

Not likely. I write and distribute open source software. I speak to businesses and companies about the value of Creative Commons, Free Software, and Open Source models. I contact my legislators about crap legislation. I boycott GoDaddy like a good little redditor. The fact that I do those things, however, doesn't mean that I'll put up with specious arguments by Cory Doctorow.
posted by verb at 6:47 AM on January 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


If you mod your toaster and turn it into a toaster oven, because really it's just a device for heating things up and they have no business telling you how to use it, you're welcome to.

Guess again.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:48 AM on January 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Cory's been flogging this horse at least since the iPad debuted, and just keeps whipping and whipping and whipping. It all comes-off as being one part "geeks enraged that their position of nerd-as-high-priest-and gatekeeper is being dismantled" and one part "nerd trying real hard to install himself as the voice of a movement".

People don't want to write code. People don't give a shit about "general purpose computing". They never did. It's a term without any relation to their lives. People are flocking to these new "limited" devices because they offer the simplicity they want. The vast majority of people don't want (or care about) being able to endlessly tinker with the deep-down guts of operating systems, or to write pithy little programs to do whatever with an Arduino. This is the truth that geeks never seemed to understand, or simply ignored or actively denigrated. And, protestations about how you can't do arcane geeky things that the devices weren't designed to perform and that it's teh evil, is simply going to fall on deaf ears. Because none of that is of any interest or consequence to most people and, frankly, sounds like a lot of self-entitled children stamping their feet in fury that they can't can't have everything, immediately, all the time, forever.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:48 AM on January 4, 2012 [19 favorites]


Didn't think that Mefi would have so many apologists for corporate power.
posted by octothorpe at 6:50 AM on January 4, 2012 [10 favorites]


Guess again.

They sent a C&D to stop someone from distributing their copyrighted code, and then they released a developers kit. I don't see what the problem is here.
posted by empath at 6:51 AM on January 4, 2012


"Sony sent a cease-and-desist notice to the webmaster of Aibopet, demanding that he stop distributing code that was retrieved by bypassing the copy protection mechanisms of the robot."

Sony did not stop people from using the device in new ways, they stopped people from downloading, modifying, and re-uploading Sony's proprietary software to the Aibo. That's silly, but it is entirely in the realm of closed-source vs. open-source ideals, not the "Appliances require spyware" stuff Doctorow is talking about.

You can hand-wave through the differences all you like, but when people handwave past technical issues because they have an ideological axe to grind, you get SOPA.
posted by verb at 6:51 AM on January 4, 2012


@octothorpe

corporate power is cool though
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:53 AM on January 4, 2012


Didn't think that Mefi would have so many apologists for corporate power.

I'm not apologizing for corporate power, I'm pointing out that Doctorow is framing his axe-grindy hatred for appliance computing as a principled stand against DRM. The two are not the same. If he'd been less over the top in drawing the connection, it would be palatable. "Some companies create appliances by installing crapware on general purpose devices" is not the same as "Appliances == Spyware."
posted by verb at 6:54 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


In a world of varied tools and a truly free market, it doesn't matter that iPhones are fascist. In a world where almost all manufacturers have converged on the same fascist toolset, it does.
posted by DU at 6:55 AM on January 4, 2012


@ver i agree, he is pretty strident and shrill
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:56 AM on January 4, 2012


In a world of varied tools and a truly free market, it doesn't matter that iPhones are fascist. In a world where almost all manufacturers have converged on the same fascist toolset, it does.

Again, that is not the same as "Appliances == Spyware." If you would like to make an argument in favor of a diverse hardware and software ecosystem, I'd agree with you vigorously.
posted by verb at 6:57 AM on January 4, 2012


I'm against laws regulating locked down computers and DRM. I pirate a lot of shit and share a lot of media legally.

But I want the right to buy a locked down iPhone or an appletv if I want to, because I like the convenience and security and also buy a ton of shit from itunes.

I don't see any reason to force everyone into the same computing paradigm or to somehow make what kind of computer you buy a moral or political choice.
posted by empath at 7:00 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Even Apple, famous for its tight controls, can only void your warranty if you do those things with it. Game consoles -- easily the most locked-down computing devices in general circulation -- are still yours to do with what you like.

I'm sorry, verb, but this is wrong to the point of disingenuous. You've heard of the DMCA, which makes it illegal to break copy protection controls, which deliberately get in the way of doing lots of legit stuff with your own hardware. They can do a lot more than just void your warranty, and they do.

It is the law; a law set in place to protect the interests of industry and not consumers, and it affects all of us in a way that a warranty cannot. So let's be straight about this - they can do a lot more than only void your fucking warranty. They can sue you off the face of the earth.
posted by fake at 7:02 AM on January 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


I don't see any reason to force everyone into the same computing paradigm

If that's the case, you can't entirely be in disagreement with Doctorow, his hyperbolic antics aside...right?
posted by a small part of the world at 7:03 AM on January 4, 2012


verb:
Yes. Three popular toaster manufacturers off the top of my head include Sunbeam, Oster, and General Electric. All three have customer service email addresses, phone numbers, and extensive sections on their web site dedicated to customer support, troubleshooting, and so on.
Fair enough. One more difference between US and Europe. While you can probably contact the manufacturer here, you'd just be told to go to the vendor with your issue. (And thank goodness for that, since most of our stuff is made elsewhere.)

What is the impact of toaster hacking on the troubleshooting section on GE's website? Right, they need to write a single sentence disclaimer saying that none of this applies if you've manipulated it.

empath:
What are the consumer benefits of SOPA legislation, Trusted Computing and restricted firmware?
SOPA is a pile of shit, but as far as trusted computing and restricted firmware, there are security and reliability benefits, at the very least.
How is the reliability for the average (i.e. non-hacking) user of a toaster compromised by allowing others to hack their own toasters? It's not like you're going to flash your toaster's microprocessor by accident.


Thorzdad:
People are flocking to these new "limited" devices because they offer the simplicity they want. The vast majority of people don't want (or care about) being able to endlessly tinker with the deep-down guts of operating systems, or to write pithy little programs to do whatever with an Arduino. This is the truth that geeks never seemed to understand, or simply ignored or actively denigrated.
Who is going to build these wondrous devices?
posted by brokkr at 7:05 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Again, that is not the same as "Appliances == Spyware."

I never said it was. I said it was the same as "appliances = malware". And it is. Deliberately crippled software is a subset of malware.
posted by DU at 7:05 AM on January 4, 2012


It's supply and demand. There's going to be a demand for platforms that let you write your own stuff for the foreseeable future. Otherwise we wouldn't have websites. We wouldn't have an industry making 'apps' for tablets and smart phones. We wouldn't have much of a games industry. Not to mention the whole ecosystem of business application development.

The demand for platforms that allow you to write your own stuff is much less than the demand for platforms that let you do that stuff though. Did mathowie buy a "write your own stuff" machine in order to create MetaFilter? No, he had a good idea for a website during a time that a regular person who didn't go to school to learn Computer Science could directly compete with all of the nerds at Microsoft when it came to creating the new popular website. Do you think there would be as many 'apps' for tablets and smart phones if the average person only owned a tablet or smart phone rather than a computer that could be used to write Objective C and Java? How many people writing code for games today didn't grow up with access to a computer for writing code at home? Why, after over 30 years of using specialized computers for business, was the hobbyist general purpose Apple II the first computer to produce a spreadsheet app, possibly the biggest and longest lasting business app type of all time?

The fact that tinkering with general purpose computers is dying out is in a lot of ways inevitable. Many people who have bought computers over the years have done so without any regard for the fact that they can be used to create new applications. If anything the fact that computers have the ability to write software is an artifact from the days when it was assumed that you would have to write your own programs to get anything useful done with them. But this backdoor into the world of software development has been a huge boon, it has brought about the closest thing to a golden age of computer programming that we are likely to see. And that era was already on its way out before tablets and smart phones became popular, less and less people have been doing things like learning HTML since the early 2000s, and Computer Science programs at universities have been sliding from their peak of popularity since their peak at the start of the millennium. What I don't understand is why so many people who care about technology and innovation not only don't mind that this is happening, but are actually cheering on the fact that modern computers don't allow tinkering. The fact that average people won't have the kind of opportunities I had growing up to experiment with programming that made the things that I and people like me have done in the last 20 years or so is very depressing to me, and I think the world will be worse off because of it.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:07 AM on January 4, 2012 [10 favorites]


I'm sorry, verb, but this is wrong to the point of disingenuous. You've heard of the DMCA, which makes it illegal to break copy protection controls, which deliberately get in the way of doing lots of legit stuff with your own hardware. They can do a lot more than just void your warranty, and they do.

Jailbreaking your iphone is legal, though Apple will not extend warranty coverage to jailbroken phones.

I have, in fact, heard of the DMCA. It's a terrible law. That doesn't mean that appliances require spyware and malware by definition. Are you even reading my posts?
posted by verb at 7:07 AM on January 4, 2012


Computing appliances are not necessarily spyware, but nearly all of them are spyware-ready, with that capability exercised at the pleasure of the manufacturer or vendor.

Doesn't that make you feel so warm and secure?
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:08 AM on January 4, 2012


> Are you even reading my posts

I'm not after that one. I don't think you understand that the facts of that link work against your argument.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:13 AM on January 4, 2012


Love him or hate him, Doctorow's crystal ball has been pretty accurate over the years.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:14 AM on January 4, 2012


Who is going to build these wondrous devices?

The same ones who are already building them.

Cory and his followers aren't the ones building anything now, except in the hobbyist sense. And that hobbyist world isn't going away. Cory's absolutely free to assemble his own "general computing" device, install some flavor of linux and go to town. He just seems upset that the other 99% of the world doesn't share his enthusiasm.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:15 AM on January 4, 2012


geeks enraged that their position of nerd-as-high-priest-and gatekeeper is being dismantled

Who is a gatekeeper depends on your point of view, though. To me, consumer electronics companies (and those that put walls up around their electronic gardens, in general) are gatekeepers in terms of content. To you, I am guessing, high priest nerds are gatekeepers in the sense that as long as computers are not appliances, they are inscrutable to most and therefore are only enabled to do actual work by nerds.
posted by Jpfed at 7:16 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


That doesn't mean that appliances require spyware and malware by definition. Are you even reading my posts?


Actually, I have been reading them, and watching your argument become narrower and narrower, and your problem with Doctorow become more and more apparent. Kinda resenting your tone here.

Legalizing jailbreaking wasn't a gift from Apple; it was due to the hard work of organizations like EFF and, from your link, the fact that there is “no basis for copyright law to assist Apple in protecting its restrictive business model.”.

You can go on and say this is missing your point, but the fact is that Apple was protecting its restrictive business model using software, and modifying that software was for a substantial period of time illegal, not just warranty-voiding. Similar software modifications are STILL illegal.
posted by fake at 7:17 AM on January 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


Cory's absolutely free to assemble his own "general computing" device, install some flavor of linux and go to town.

At the moment, yes. Things like UEFI are aimed at preventing that behavior. Doctorow's concern is for the future of open platforms, not the current situation.

geeks enraged... their position of nerd-as-high-priest-and gatekeeper is being dismantled

Jeez, hate much? The MF 'lol Doctorow' contingent is pretty tiresome - try looking at the ideas instead.
posted by bitmage at 7:25 AM on January 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


geeks enraged that their position of nerd-as-high-priest-and gatekeeper is being dismantled

Wouldn't these geeks then be arguing for MORE restrictions on regular computers? All the geek-based arguments I've seen are for putting more power into the hands of regular people.
posted by DU at 7:26 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Coming War on General Purpose Writing by Cory Doctorow.

Abstract: Polemicist creates a new model for writing where all works including fiction serve a unified political goal. Big Brother has become Little Brother, who will pummel you to death with a million lightweight tomes.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:27 AM on January 4, 2012


All the geek-based arguments I've seen are for putting more power into the hands of regular people.

I don't know if you've seen a regular person try to use linux, but an iPad gives most of them more power.

I like linux, but it's not the OS if you want to get stuff done without getting a CS degree first.
posted by empath at 7:34 AM on January 4, 2012


Imagine if they just removed all web browsers from phones and tablets. Why do you need a general purpose web browser? Just get the app!
posted by fuq at 7:34 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actually, I have been reading them, and watching your argument become narrower and narrower, and your problem with Doctorow become more and more apparent. Kinda resenting your tone here.

I'm not being sarcastic when I ask, "what is my problem with Doctorow?" I think I know what it is: a glib willingness to disparage and condescend to people who don't want the same things he wants, and a willingness to confuse opposition to crap legislation with his distaste for non-hackers. If you think there's something else at play, I could have a blind spot.


Actually, I have been reading them, and watching your argument become narrower and narrower, and your problem with Doctorow become more and more apparent. Kinda resenting your tone here.

My problem with Doctorow is that he cheerleads for the most destructive faction of the Free Software/Open Source world that I work in. He tells them that their their interest in tinkering is not simply an interest but a moral virtue, and that those who don't share it are contemptible.



Legalizing jailbreaking wasn't a gift from Apple; it was due to the hard work of organizations like EFF and, from your link, the fact that there is “no basis for copyright law to assist Apple in protecting its restrictive business model.”.

You can go on and say this is missing your point, but the fact is that Apple was protecting its restrictive business model using software, and modifying that software was for a substantial period of time illegal, not just warranty-voiding. Similar software modifications are STILL illegal.


I don't think it was a gift from Apple, either, and I didn't say that it was. My point, as always, is that Doctorow has continually attacked a class of products and disparaged the people who use them, rather than focusing on the specific objectionable methods many manufacturers use to make those products.
posted by verb at 7:38 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't know if you've seen a regular person try to use linux, but an iPad gives most of them more power.

I've seen many regular people using linux, many of them children. They have no problems at all. Plus the ones that are so inclined can, and do, program it.
posted by DU at 7:38 AM on January 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Who is going to build these wondrous devices?

The same ones who are already building them.


I currently work for a company that makes computing appliances. There is absolutely no way I would have become a computer programmer if I had not stumbled upon programming by accident as a hobby. I did not ask my parents for a computer to write programs with, there was just a computer in my house that I could use and that I eventually wrote code with. There was nothing in my entire academic career, including making it through a relatively well-respected Computer Science program, that would have suggested that I would enjoy or would be particularly good at actually writing computer applications. I knew that I wanted to write applications for a living because I had already done it as a teenager for a hobby, which I never would have been able to do except for the fact that I randomly had the tools to do that available to me. The fact that people like me exist and that so many of the people in my field have exactly the same story about how they got into programming is why I take this issue so seriously.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:40 AM on January 4, 2012 [11 favorites]


Thorzdad: The same ones who are already building them.
Indeed. And there will be fewer and fewer people joining our ranks (as also pointed out by burnmp3s upthread). WIN for me, I guess, since I'll be able to demand a higher salary, but who's going to step in when I transition to management?
posted by brokkr at 7:42 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


And there will be fewer and fewer people joining our ranks

Piles of people are writing apps for the iPhone and making money from it. More games have been released for iPhone in its short existence than for every gaming platform in the history of computers combined (not including PC). Apple does as much as it can to make programming for their iPhone as easy possible and ensure that you can make a living from doing it. iPhone programming is one of the most in demand jobs in programming right now. Not only can you buy a hobbyist programmer for the iPhone, but they make it incredibly easy to go from being a hobbyist to a professional.
posted by empath at 7:49 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't know if you've seen a regular person try to use linux, but an iPad gives most of them more power.

I don't have a problem with iPads - I think they have done a great job of making computing more accessible. Especially in how they hide the filesystem abstraction, which gives many new users trouble.

My concern is with legislation that restricts the potential uses of the computer. DMCA/SOPA/etc are not being written to improve computers for non-technical users, or to break the hold of "nerd high priests". They are being written to protect the profit models of large companies and limit what you will be permitted to do with your computers.

You may have no interest in Linux, and think that Doctorow is a blowhard. Fine. If you care about being able to access content that annoys the powers that be, and about being able to use the systems you purchased as you see fit - you need to pay attention to the issues raised.
posted by bitmage at 7:52 AM on January 4, 2012 [4 favorites]




Well exactly. Thus the urgency in making sure computing remains free-as-in-speech. It's in a lot of danger from both corporate and government (usually under corporate control) attackers.

posted by DU at 7:52 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whoa, how did my quote disapparate?
posted by DU at 7:53 AM on January 4, 2012


man at this point im ready to just let everyone have their fucking iphones

things have to get disastrous before anyone will give a shit so fuck it you know?
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:54 AM on January 4, 2012


DMCA/SOPA/etc

They suck. I don't think anyone here is going to argue that they don't suck (although I actually have grown to appreciate the take-down process of the DMCA, it seems that in practice it's usually pretty fair and actually has done a lot to protect people sharing media from lawsuits while also protecting copyright holders). But I think they're a separate issue from appliances and locked down hardware and conflating them just confuses things.
posted by empath at 7:56 AM on January 4, 2012


What the fuck is a computing appliance? When did that become a thing?
posted by Aizkolari at 7:57 AM on January 4, 2012


And there will be fewer and fewer people joining our ranks

Piles of people are writing apps for the iPhone and making money from it.


Piles of people who grew up with easy access to free programming tools and general purpose computers that could run their "unauthorized" code.
posted by fake at 8:00 AM on January 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


To focus on the latest "anti-Pad" tinge on the argument misses the point, and Cory's tone is admittedly not always helpful. SOPA is a grave threat, but it is just the latest of a series of laws — going back to the CBDTPA/SSSCA of 2002, if not the CDA in 1996 — that try and do the same thing, i.e. squelch free expression online in the name of copyright enforcement or whatever.

I believe the 'as is' Internet lives in an inherently precarious state. Specifically, the current architecture embodies the principle of absolute freedom of information, and in this manner, it often opposes the interests of a large number of powers (corporations, governments), making the Internet's current form one that is unlikely to last for long if nobody fights for it.

As the Internet gets better and computers become faster they will threaten more established industries, especially ones that rely on centralisation or intermediation. Publishers and music companies were followed by film companies and phone companies, and I am sure that super-high-bandwidth features such as telepresence and telerobotics will threaten even more.

Combine this with 3D printing and garage biotech and it becomes very easy to scare people. Why the future doesn't need us is a clear example of an arguably justifiable and cogently argued freak-out over the possibilities of garage genetics, ten years before 'synthetic genomics' and only two years before mail-order poliovirus.

In this respect Cory is dead on. The current scare over what the Internet enables is chicken-feed compared to what's coming down the line. So we should treat the current struggle seriously, but remember that the training wheels haven't come off yet.
posted by ianso at 8:05 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


things have to get disastrous before anyone will give a shit so fuck it you know?
posted by This, of course, alludes to you


Things ARE disastrous. Look at SOPA! The iPhone has little consequence as long as there are alternatives, but the alternatives have been under attack for decades. These loud-mouth proud ignorants do not know about all the many times the governments have tried to get rid of stuff like Linux and other non-state-controlled OS: Trusted computing, messed up ACPI tables, Software Patents, galactic amounts of FUD, and dozens others that I forget.

The solution I see is to build our own. Hopefully hardware enthusiasts will be able to design and produce chips with decent performance. I could live happy the rest of my life with a first generation pentium, to be honest.

The fact that an iPhone can be rooted does not mean you are free. It just means you are at war, and someone you don't know is putting up a fight for your side.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 8:06 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Personally, as someone who grew up with a mix of general and specialized computing devices in the 1980s I just don't buy the argument that single-function machines stunt computer literacy. Much of my early understanding of how computers work came from figuring out how to beat the algorithms of 80s electronic games, almost all of which were hardwired ROM. From there, it was hacking the text buffer of typewriters. It forgets that many of the early hackers became notorious, not for writing brilliant software, but for discovering security holes in touchtone telephone systems.

Not that I buy the argument that general-purpose hardware platforms are going to vanish in the near future. Because of the relative costs in developing dedicated software vs. dedicated hardware, general-purpose machines are at the heart of most automated systems, and I don't see them vanishing from the office space in the near future. The gp hardware platform can even be priced at a rate similar to an appliance, or leased in the cloud.

In fact, I'm highly skeptical of the claim that the appliance is displacing the GP platforms, except in cases where the GP platform was used to replace single-purpose technology like microfilm, telephones, and video recorders.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:06 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


And that hobbyist world isn't going away. Cory's absolutely free to assemble his own "general computing" device, install some flavor of linux and go to town.

That "hobbyist world" -- and everything that has descended from it -- only exists because of the easy availability of general-purpose computers. Only a very few hobbyists could afford a modern computer if it wasn't subject to vast economies of scale throughout the entire production pipeline.

The reason that Joe Programmer can afford a computer to write code on at all is mostly because there are a ton of spreadsheet jockeys with what amounts to the same damn computer, and they're effectively subsidizing Joe's general purpose machine through their purchases. There isn't such a thing as a "programmer's computer," and that's a good thing because if there was, it would be astoundingly expensive.

I'm really pretty stunned at the uncritical defense of the unrestricted free market here. What Doctorow is predicting -- and this doesn't seem like a huge stretch -- is that there's a market failure looming. That, left to their own devices, the content providers and hardware manufacturers will more or less conspire to produce locked-down devices and sell them to consumers, most of whom don't really care about the lost functionality. That what the market will produce is increasingly stuff like the Kindle and iPhone.

And that would be a bad outcome, because that would basically gut the ability of anyone working outside of a large corporation, or who wasn't up for a very expensive hobby, to do anything more with computers than to sit around and consume. Which might be fine for the majority of consumers, but if you replay the last several decades and take away cheap, general-purpose computers, you would lose a whole lot of neat stuff (not to mention profitable stuff). You'd be killing a lot of innovation. And that's bad, even if you don't personally care about writing code. Because lots of stuff that you probably use started out in a garage or a basement, being written by somebody who wouldn't have had the resources to create it if they couldn't get a general-purpose computer for cheap.

We got an entire industry, and who knows how many jobs and products, out of the fact that it wasn't technologically feasible to lock down computers until recently. If IBM had the ability to restrict anyone from running non-IBM code on the original PC, the world would look pretty different than it does today, and I think most people would agree it'd be for the worse.

What we are allowing, via inaction, is for a few companies who have done very well in the past few years or decades, to shit all over the environment that allowed them to prosper. Obviously they don't care -- it's to Apple's and Microsoft's (et al) advantage to kill upstart competitors before they're a threat, and if they can do that by just preventing those competitors from ever existing in the first place, so much the better. But what Doctorow and others are trying to point out, I think, however shrilly, is that we as users of technology ought to care.

And it would be dead simple to prevent this failure from happening, if government weren't firmly in the pocket of the established tech and content companies: if you simply said that any computing device had to give its user bare-metal access (voiding the warranty, naturally), then there would be no risk. It would be a very, very small tax for those companies and uninterested users to pay, to ensure that there would always be general-purpose computing devices available, and thereby ensure continuity of the system which has produced so much nice stuff that we all enjoy.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:07 AM on January 4, 2012 [20 favorites]


What we are allowing, via inaction, is for a few companies who have done very well in the past few years or decades, to shit all over the environment that allowed them to prosper.

Yes.
posted by fake at 8:17 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Only a very few hobbyists could afford a modern computer if it wasn't subject to vast economies of scale throughout the entire production pipeline.

How do the economies of scales that produce game consoles, set-top boxes, and low-power tablets suddenly fail to apply when the same components are used to produce ubiquitous GP systems?

That what the market will produce is increasingly stuff like the Kindle and iPhone.

Neither the Kindle nor the iPhone compete with the PC. Pretty much the only reason the three are compared is that we're at a point of miniaturization where all three are constructed from similar hardware. And that just highlights the importance and flexibility of the GP platform for modern engineering.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:25 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


They sent a C&D to stop someone from distributing their copyrighted code, and then they released a developers kit. I don't see what the problem is here.

Well, that's certainly the Sony positive spin on it. A more nuanced view would be that they sent a C&D to stop someone from discussing modification of their copyrighted code which was only useful on their unique platform. Then, after huge outrage from the community most interested in the product, they released a developers kit. Then they canceled the product because it wasn't profitable.

And you don't think that this happening to the general purpose computer is a problem, despite several people in this thread saying that the ability to play around on an unfettered machine is what got them into technology to begin with?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:29 AM on January 4, 2012


Look man, I started with computers when I was 7 years old on a Commodore 64 typing in hexadecimal Machine Code line by line from a magazine and writing basic apps from scratch. The only reason I now have a job in IT was because I spent so much time trying to get Wing Commander II to run on my 386 that I became an minor expert in pc hardware.

I just think that the idea that just because you slap a chip in a device that's capable of running linux, that you are then morally required to allow people to put a webserver on it is a bit ridiculous. It might be wise from a marketing standpoint to open up your device, but it's not a moral or political issue. I have open devices, I have closed devices and I use them for different things and I like them both.

That's an entirely separate issue from legislation requiring closed devices. I'd be furious if something like that ever passed, but I'd be just as upset about legislation that didn't allow people to sell closed devices.
posted by empath at 8:39 AM on January 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


I just think that the idea that just because you slap a chip in a device that's capable of running linux, that you are then morally required to allow people to put a webserver on it is a bit ridiculous. It might be wise from a marketing standpoint to open up your device, but it's not a moral or political issue. I have open devices, I have closed devices and I use them for different things and I like them both.

Right, it's an economic issue, as Kadin2048 notes. Why would legislation that requires people to sell open devices be a problem? I don't see that making a dent in Apple's revenues, or the usability of their devices.
posted by invitapriore at 8:43 AM on January 4, 2012


I'm really pretty stunned at the uncritical defense of the unrestricted free market here. What Doctorow is predicting -- and this doesn't seem like a huge stretch -- is that there's a market failure looming.

Look, you're conflating a lot of inter-related issues here -- not as deliberately as Doctorow seems to be, but it's still muddying the waters. SOPA, DMCA, and similar legislation are not consequences of the "unrestricted free market." They're government regulation enacted to protect entrenched industries and commercial interests, precisely the opposite of unrestricted free markets.

The problem of "market failure" is a related but separate issue. Basically, the concern is focused, appliance-style devices (call them "crippled" if you feel that puts too positive a spin on things) will be more appealing to the majority of consumers than "general purpose computers." The result will be an explosion in purpose-built appliances and the eventual vanishing of flexible, general purpose machines.

Those two issues sometimes overlap, but they are not the same issue by any means. Muddling them does no one any good -- in fact it makes things worse. For better or worse, the vast majority of people want to do things that closed and encumbered devices do better than open devices. Fighting bad legislation is only half of the problem. The "market failure" side of things will only be prevented by making better open devices and open software.
posted by verb at 8:44 AM on January 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Right. Android can fix the 'closed phone' problem by simply making a better phone than the iphone. If open phones are better, then eventually the iPhone will become an non threatening niche product, won't it? It's not like Apple is dragging people kicking and screaming into stores to buy the phones. They aren't requiring carriers to not support Android, are they?

Kadin's suggestion of government getting into the business of restricting consumer choice seems like a dangerous game to play.
posted by empath at 8:49 AM on January 4, 2012


How do the economies of scales that produce game consoles, set-top boxes, and low-power tablets suddenly fail to apply

Those devices currently use many of the same components as general-purpose PCs, because they're riding on the economies of scale of the GP computer as well. E.g., if you're building a cable box, it's probably easier today just to build what's effectively a PC running a locked-down OS than build it up from components.

However, that's all subject to change if demand for the general purpose PC collapses. It's just one of those happy coincidences that there are PC parts all over right now; it's not something that will necessarily always be true.

Just as a hypothetical example, if Dell weren't churning out a ton of general-purpose devices, it might not make sense for Motorola to use PC-like components inside a cable box. They might use specialized ASICs instead, or maybe they'd buy parts designed for some other application, which could be proprietary or not suitable for general-purpose computing. (E.g., you could end up with a box containing a CPU with a proprietary instruction set that you can't target with anyone else's compiler. The cable box manufacturer might not care, since they'd probably get the compiler as a condition of buying a few million CPUs, but it wouldn't be useful to a hobbyist. Proprietary instruction sets / architectures used to exist and could exist again, without the unification that was caused by the PC.) What I suspect you'd end up with is a fragmented market full of semi-specialized components, or stuff that's only available as SMD-on-tape in lots of 10,000, because there's no need for things like modular plug-card DIMMs when everyone is building sealed devices.

The demand for PCs is the keystone that holds the hardware market together at the moment; if you pull that out, I'm not sure anyone can predict exactly how things will shake out. And as a result, there's a significant risk that the hobbyist / developer market might get left out -- and with it goes most of our innovative capacity outside of corporate labs.

Insofar as "corporate labs" even exist anymore; lots of companies have come to increasingly rely on "innovation by acquisition" rather than internal R&D. They'd be screwed in the long run, too, but either don't realize it or are too focused on the short term to care.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:50 AM on January 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


How do the economies of scales that produce game consoles, set-top boxes, and low-power tablets suddenly fail to apply when the same components are used to produce ubiquitous GP systems?

Three words: Surface Mount Technology. You could hardly go out an buy components and solder them together to make a GP system these days because the ability to assemble a complex modern board is well beyond the reach of the average human being. Adding the cost of a pick and place machine capable of that level of precision would put the cost of building a PC from components on par with buying a couple Ferarris.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:51 AM on January 4, 2012


Look, you're conflating a lot of inter-related issues here -- not as deliberately as Doctorow seems to be, but it's still muddying the waters. SOPA, DMCA, and similar legislation are not consequences of the "unrestricted free market." They're government regulation enacted to protect entrenched industries and commercial interests, precisely the opposite of unrestricted free markets.

Where were SOPA, DMCA and the like mentioned in that post? It's entirely about your second issue, which misses the point: the devices being sold as as "purpose-built appliances" are largely capable of functioning as general-purpose devices but for barriers installed by the manufacturer. Making those barriers illegal doesn't stop anyone who enjoys the benefits of a regulated software ecosystem from doing so, and it allows alternatives to the people that want them. I'm not sure what's so difficult about this. Doctorow's tone aside, I don't think anyone here who agrees with him wants the government to take away your iPhone, that's ridiculous.
posted by invitapriore at 8:51 AM on January 4, 2012


And you don't think that this happening to the general purpose computer is a problem...

No, not in the near future because:
1) Physical GP hardware is an ubiquitous commodity item essential for multiple industries.
2) Virtualized GP hardware is an ubiquitous commodity item essential for multiple industries.
3) The economies of scale for appliances also gives us cheap bare-bones motherboards that can be used for whatever we need.

Not only is there a lively market for GP hardware, it's now an order of magnitude cheaper than it has ever been.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:52 AM on January 4, 2012


Kadin's suggestion of government getting into the business of restricting consumer choice seems like a dangerous game to play.

Well, it would certainly be preferable if the market players realized they're about to slaughter the proverbial golden goose and voluntarily avoided it, but in the absence of that sort of self-control I don't see some sort of minimal government action in order to prevent a clear market failure as an overstep.

And government restricts "consumer choice" all the time. I don't see the justification being any different than anti-dumping regulations, which arguably also reduce consumer choice (in that you're paying more than you would if the dumping were allowed), but provide for a more robust and healthy market.

If you're against all government interference in the market then disliking it is understandable, but short of that pretty orthodox level of Libertarianism (which I don't necessarily agree with, but certainly respect as an internally consistent position) it seems disingenuous to be against "restricting consumer choice" when it comes to cellphones (particularly since it really wouldn't be that significant a restriction) if we're okay with current restrictions put forward by e.g. CPSC or the EPA.

It is a dangerous game to play, I suppose, but that's sort of a government's job.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:02 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


The demand for PCs is the keystone that holds the hardware market together at the moment

How many PC's are running the ARM chips that power Apple devices?
posted by empath at 9:04 AM on January 4, 2012


Where were SOPA, DMCA and the like mentioned in that post?

They're built into the discussion: without the issues of DRM and legal restrictions on hardware use, Cory Doctorow's entire point collapses into solipsistic whining. If it weren't for the legislative issues,


It's entirely about your second issue, which misses the point: the devices being sold as as "purpose-built appliances" are largely capable of functioning as general-purpose devices but for barriers installed by the manufacturer.

There are two kinds of restrictions that can be put on a device. The first category -- the kind I find annoying, too -- is restriction for the purpose of protecting one's own business plan. Sometimes that's necessary from an economic perspective, but often it's just a knee-jerk approach taken by large companies. The second category of restriction, though, is generally a good thing: focused choices about device capabilities made for the purpose of creating a better product.

The ubiquity of general purpose hardware and software has meant that lots of new devices use general purpose hardware instead of custom-built hardware and firmware. The fact that those new devices are designed to do something other than run DOOM does not make them broken, and it doesn't make the design choices that went into them malware, any more than the creation of a single-bladed pocketknife is an assault on Swiss Army Knives.

Back in the 1800s, people could purchase electric motors for their homes. They came with attachments like vacuums, sewing machines, and so on, but the motors themselves were marketed as general-purpose products worth purchasing on their own merits. The emergence of products with their own smaller built-in motors was not a "war on general purpose motors," and the emergence of appliance-like computing devices is not a "war on general purpose computing."

If you're not talking about IP-oriented legislative turds, the biggest risk to open computing and open software is that people will find the additional value from the specialized "appliance" devices compelling enough that they won't care about the business-driven restrictions. The solution to that is not government legislation, but the creation of better open alternatives. One of the primary failures of the open source and free software movements has been the demonization of "limitations that result in a better product." Doctorow's sabre-rattling exacerbates that problem.
posted by verb at 9:17 AM on January 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Kid Charlemagne: Three words: Surface Mount Technology. You could hardly go out an buy components and solder them together to make a GP system these days because the ability to assemble a complex modern board is well beyond the reach of the average human being.

Um, what? The question wasn't about economies of scale as applied to bespoke GP computers, but economies of scale as applied to the dozens of electronic manufacturers who use the same technology and the same supply chains to produce thousands of cheap GP computers, for use in hundreds of applications in dozens of industries (of which, consumer PCs are only a fraction of the market.) Bespoke electronics simply is not relevant here.

Kadin: However, that's all subject to change if demand for the general purpose PC collapses. It's just one of those happy coincidences that there are PC parts all over right now; it's not something that will necessarily always be true.

I don't see much sign of that happening though. Both Intel and AMD reported increased sales last year alongside explosive growth of Kindle and iPhones.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:19 AM on January 4, 2012


verb: If you're not talking about IP-oriented legislative turds, (...)

So your point is, if this thing we fear doesn't happen, then it doesn't happen, so we don't have to worry about it.

verb: One of the primary failures of the open source and free software movements has been the demonization of "limitations that result in a better product." Doctorow's sabre-rattling exacerbates that problem.

You should not speak of open source if you don't even know Gnome. Gnome followed the notion of "limitations that result in a better product" all the way to the grave.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 9:22 AM on January 4, 2012


Part of the problem is that I don't see consumers as the backbone of GP computing. If anything, hobbyists benefited from the coattails of corporate adoption of IT in the 80s and 90s. Even so, GP computing devices were expensive luxuries compared to today.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:24 AM on January 4, 2012


CB's exactly on the mark.
Concept A) Having an appliance does not mean that appliance can only be used for the specified function
Why do I believe this? Because people that have that engineering/hacker bent will tear down any wall an appliance puts up. The internet is full of people that have re-purposed appliance that only does X to now do Y, Z and more. Some guy took the stone wheel and re-purposed it to be a mill, it's human nature. Rooting android phones is just one example of the current manifestation of this drive.

Related but does not contradict Concept A)
Legislation may impose regulations that punish people for re-purposing appliances. This is bad, very, very bad for society. This doesn't even benefit the makers of the appliance since they make money regardless of the appliance purpose. The only entity that benefits from blocking re-purposing is an entity that makes money off the *service* that appliance performs. However, it's not the re-purposing that is at issue since re-purposing the appliance simply denies them a revenue stream they wouldn't have had anyway. The main issue for the service provider is that they are worried that the appliance would be re-purposed to provide the same service, but deny the provider the revenue stream. But this has nothing to do with the "appliance" it has to do with the service the appliance performs. Which leads us to Concept B.

Concept B) Service providers are fighting for control over appliances built on top of general platforms.
One approach (i.e. SOPA) is to create restrictions on general platforms since service providers have not been able to prevent appliances from being re-purposed. As stated earlier, this is bad and should be fought at all cost.

Related but does not contradict Concept B)
Just because restrictions on general computing platforms is a bad idea, does not mean that restrictions on appliance platforms are a bad idea. For example:
BAD - Public ISP shut down over content.
NOT BAD: Electrical company's internal network restricts traffic to specific sanitized content

Summary: Appliances are not a threat to computing freedom. Greedy service providers on the other hand ...
posted by forforf at 9:26 AM on January 4, 2012


If you're not talking about IP-oriented legislative turds, the biggest risk to open computing and open software is that people will find the additional value from the specialized "appliance" devices compelling enough that they won't care about the business-driven restrictions. The solution to that is not government legislation, but the creation of better open alternatives. One of the primary failures of the open source and free software movements has been the demonization of "limitations that result in a better product." Doctorow's sabre-rattling exacerbates that problem.

You quoted me saying that these devices, characterized by what you call good restrictions (which I'm not disputing, I've benefitted from them myself), are capable of supporting the class of usages that people like me are afraid of losing, but you keep ignoring that point to lecture at the wall behind me about good product design or whatever. In any case, as was said above, I doubt that you're a hardline libertarian, so why isn't legislation the answer beyond the fact that you keep asserting as much? General-purpose computing is a sufficiently important component in a free society as to merit legal protection, especially given that this new class of devices is easily capable of supporting it if the manufacturer restrictions are removed. I'm not upset about the presence of "IP-oriented legislative turds" so much as the paucity of legislation that ensures us the right to use our hardware to myriad ends.
posted by invitapriore at 9:29 AM on January 4, 2012


So your point is, if this thing we fear doesn't happen, then it doesn't happen, so we don't have to worry about it.

The person I was responding to specifically said they weren't talking about SOPA, DMCA, or other legislative issues, just the forseen market failure.


You should not speak of open source if you don't even know Gnome. Gnome followed the notion of "limitations that result in a better product" all the way to the grave.

Look, I make my living working with open source and I was one of the core developers of a large, successful open source project for almost half a decade. I've watched large, infinitely flexible projects and products be cannibalized by smaller, more focused competitors time and time again. There are certainly counter-examples, but what I'm saying isn't rocket science. Please don't condescend.
posted by verb at 9:32 AM on January 4, 2012


Part of the problem is that I don't see consumers as the backbone of GP computing.

I'd agree to an extent, but this isn't just cause and effect, it's a feedback loop - more people would find GP computing useful if more and better hardware and examples were available. We have a vibrant iPhone programmer contingent because of the GP boxes of the 90's, and some of us envision a future where we might want to be able to take advantage of the power of GP to enhance our lives. That many of us have little vision of what that might look like or work like is as much an indictment of the ongoing gradual restriction of computing as it is a pure expression of consumer desire.

However, that's all subject to change if demand for the general purpose PC collapses. It's just one of those happy coincidences that there are PC parts all over right now; it's not something that will necessarily always be true.


Organizations who buy a LOT of hard disks are seeing this already, with the shift to laptop and tablet computing making desktop HDDs more expensive. If your business model is "cheap disk, getting cheaper forever", tough times are ahead.
posted by fake at 9:36 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not upset about the presence of "IP-oriented legislative turds" so much as the paucity of legislation that ensures us the right to use our hardware to myriad ends.

My point is that those "IP oriented legislative turds" are the most credible threat to those rights. In the absence of those bad laws, the worst that any manufacturer can do is void your warrantee. Period. Legislation that codifies the right to do modify hardware you own is perfectly fine, but existing crap IP law is the only thing that puts legal roadblocks in front of that goal.


General-purpose computing is a sufficiently important component in a free society as to merit legal protection, especially given that this new class of devices is easily capable of supporting it if the manufacturer restrictions are removed.

So, what kind of legislation would you propose to ensure that every device with a microprocessor is "sufficiently free?" Legislation banning surface mount components? Legislation requiring that all ASICs be capable of running Linux? Legislation requiring that any device with a microprocessor provide flashable firmware and/or debugging tools? Legislation requiring that any device containing a microprocessor have a case that can be removed without damaging it? Laws outlawing nonstandard screws?

I'm not being sarcastic, here. I'm trying to figure out what kind of legislation would be sufficient to protect the threatened human rights in question.
posted by verb at 9:46 AM on January 4, 2012


I'd agree with delmoi that general purpose computing isn't going anywhere per se, but Doctorow hyperbole doesn't feel misplaced because :  First, attacks on general purpose internet usage have grown common place, ala ACTA, SOPA, Sinde law, Hadopi, etc.  Second, we're not concerned merely with open devices being available but that society might become more repressive through governments or corporations closing devices and/or exploiting closed devices.1

If your advocating trusted computing protecting against malware, fine. I suggest though that you consider how projects like Debian are organized because they had fully open trusted computing decades before Apple's App Store. Apple could have created an open community around controlling App Store access, which I guarantee you would've resolved iOS's cryptography issues, but Apple doesn't do communities. And you should also skim the two UEFI vs. Linux articles I linked in the post's footnote.

1 A protest organized on facebook exposes its leadership's identities to facebook. iOS has no ZRTP enabled VoIP client, no open source Tor client that runs without jailbreaking, and only one IM client that supports off-the-record messaging. All these critical tools exist for Android.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:47 AM on January 4, 2012


The ubiquity of general purpose hardware and software has meant that lots of new devices use general purpose hardware instead of custom-built hardware and firmware. The fact that those new devices are designed to do something other than run DOOM does not make them broken, and it doesn't make the design choices that went into them malware, any more than the creation of a single-bladed pocketknife is an assault on Swiss Army Knives.

In fact, for over a decade, the Linux community has praised its utility for creating single-purpose embedded systems. With a $50 motherboard, flash memory, and the right peripherals, you could build a solar-powered remote sensing device, a router, pinball machine, or a robotic toy. The ability to lock down these devices to prevent unauthorized processes from running was a key selling point for the Linux community.

Part of what I see as driving the success of Android, iOS, and Kindle is the fact that during the 90s, the paradigm was to throw a GP Computer at practically every problem that involved information. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. These devices are taking over jobs that the GP Computer didn't do well. The Kindle, iPhone, and iPad satisfy needs that were handled poorly by netbooks and possibly laptops for some people.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:57 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Can we spread around some of the Cory hate to another well deserving target, That Asshole Dave Winer?

Winer and Doctorow both have personal grudges against Apple, and in Winer's case, specifically with Steve Jobs. Winer is still pissed that Jobs didn't buy Frontier and make it part of the Mac OS, and make Winer rich and powerful. I thought that grudge would end when Jobs died, but Winer can never let go of any perceived insult.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:27 AM on January 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Legislation requiring that any device with a microprocessor provide flashable firmware and/or debugging tools?

Without asserting specifically what kind of legislation would be "sufficient to protect the threatened human rights in question," this is in the spirit of what I'm thinking -- nothing that puts a huge onus on companies to alter designs that work for them, but laws that allow for the existence and promotion of an open- and closed-source third-party software scene.
posted by invitapriore at 10:30 AM on January 4, 2012


Apparently it's okay to crosspost from slashdot if it was two days ago.
posted by clarknova at 10:36 AM on January 4, 2012


The model of interaction with the iPad is to be a “consumer,” what William Gibson memorably described as “something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth… no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote.” -- verb quoting Doctorow
William Gibson didn't describe 'consumers' that way, it was an 'evil' character in one of his books, a television producer. And actually it was the main character's view of what he thought she thought of them.

And the thing is, William Gibson didn't understand anything about computers. He wrote necromancer on a typewriter, he eventually started using them as a regular user just for the convenience. He uses the web (and twitter) now, but as far as his own adoption of tech it's been very much inline with a 'regular' user.
No, that's not malware. That's an annoying and counterproductive policy put in place by a particular manufacturer. Even Apple, famous for its tight controls, can only void your warranty if you do those things with it. Game consoles -- easily the most locked-down computing devices in general circulation -- are still yours to do with what you like. -- verb
The thing is, that's not true. You can't hack your game system the same way you can jailbreak your phone. If you do, and share your results, you can go to jail for violating a 'circumvention device'

And interestingly, Apple actually wanted the DMCA to apply to people who jailbroke cellphoens as well. The Library of Congress, which manages exemptions to it actually added an exemption for jail breaking cell phones. That's why mods for game consoles actually are illegal.

So the argument that 'the government shouldn't regulate actually ignores the fact that the only reason you can jailbreak/root your phone legally is because the government already regulates your ability to do it. Otherwise, prior regulation (the DMCA) would take precedents and you'd risk going to jail if you distributed your work.

But still, cellphones are a huge problem because of the carriers. You can buy any kind of computer, connected to the internet however you want, and so on. But if you want something that functions as a cellphone, you have a very limited range of options -- determined by your provider. Thank god AT&T wasn't able to buy T-Mobile, T-Mobile is by far the cellphone company that sucks the least in terms of letting you run what you want.
Jailbreaking your iphone is legal, though Apple will not extend warranty coverage to jailbroken phones.
Again, only because of an explicit carve-out provided by a unusually non-corrupt part of the government (the library of congress). A carve-out that Apple fought to prevent.
You know that feeling you get when you put in a DVD that you bought and your player won't let you skip the commercials at the beginning? -- 0xdeadc0de
Nope...

(I mean I can imagine, but it's not something I've experienced)
The demand for platforms that allow you to write your own stuff is much less than the demand for platforms that let you do that stuff though. Did mathowie buy a "write your own stuff" machine in order to create MetaFilter? No, he had a good idea for a website during a time that a regular person who didn't go to school to learn Computer Science could directly compete with all of the nerds at Microsoft when it came to creating the new popular website. -- burnmp3s
Yes, but you don't actually need a 'write your own stuff' physical device in order to do that these days. As long as your machine can run a web browser and an SSH or windows terminal services client you can rent a 'general purpose' computer from Amazon for two cents an hour, with the price gradually going down (in fact you can get a 'spot' micro-instance right now for 0.6¢s;, six one thousandths of a dollar per hour) And they have a free teir right now for light use. But, of course you have to agree to Amazon's terms and conditions. They kicked wikileaks off when the government complained. So it's not exactly equivalent to running your own server. But it's enough for someone starting their own website. And there are online IDEs that let you code in Javascript, (and probably other languages) and build interesting sites.

But you're getting further from the 'metal', becoming more dependant on other people's systems and so on. So you give up freedom (an EC2 App, at least, is going to be very portable to other systems. They just run standard Linux installs, or actually any Intel operating system. The only thing non-standard is the management API)
Wouldn't these geeks then be arguing for MORE restrictions on regular computers? All the geek-based arguments I've seen are for putting more power into the hands of regular people. -- DU
I think it's more like, nerds lose status because their friends and family will no longer depend on them to manage their hardware. However, I hate doing that so it's not something I'm going to miss :P
I like linux, but it's not the OS if you want to get stuff done without getting a CS degree first. -- empath
How many android phones are there out there, again? Also, I've used Ubuntu 11 and if the install goes smoothly it's incredibly simple to open up firefox and browse the web. In fact it's actually somewhat annoyingly dumbed down.

The only problems came in when I tried installing four graphics cards, at which point I had to manually edit the x.org file myself (even the software that AMD provided to automatically configure the cards only seemed to support two cards properly. However, it was not actually very difficult I remember trying to get Linux video to work back in the 1990s or early 2000s was a heroic struggle, but those days are over if you're running on well-supported hardware)

I really doubt the average user would have much trouble with it if it came pre-installed. But now that Android exists (which is Linux with a bytecode VM on top) most free/cheap hardware will probably be running android, rather then ubuntu. But still, Ubuntu is simply not hard to use (as well as being very beautiful) if you're just going to do the same things you would on an iPad.
That "hobbyist world" -- and everything that has descended from it -- only exists because of the easy availability of general-purpose computers. Only a very few hobbyists could afford a modern computer if it wasn't subject to vast economies of scale throughout the entire production pipeline.

The reason that Joe Programmer can afford a computer to write code on at all is mostly because there are a ton of spreadsheet jockeys with what amounts to the same damn computer, and they're effectively subsidizing Joe's general purpose machine through their purchases. There isn't such a thing as a "programmer's computer," and that's a good thing because if there was, it would be astoundingly expensive.
-- Kadin2048
Yes, but these days computers are so cheap it's less of a problem. There's the $25 raspberry pi, for example. There's the 0.6 cent per hour EC2 instance. Those are 'general purpose' computers.

The next step is going to be cheap FPGA devices. You can already get them, but it wouldn't surprise me if you get the point where you can buy a cheap FPGA board with the capacity to emulate a pretty decent computer. You'll not just be able to hack the software, but the hardware as well.

I actually think the future of GP and 'hackable' computers looks pretty exciting. Smaller and cheaper means that more and more niche products can get made.
We got an entire industry, and who knows how many jobs and products, out of the fact that it wasn't technologically feasible to lock down computers until recently. If IBM had the ability to restrict anyone from running non-IBM code on the original PC, the world would look pretty different than it does today, and I think most people would agree it'd be for the worse. -- Kadin2048
Nintendo was able to do it. IBM could have locked down their hardware, but even back then people wanted to be able to run the popular applications on their machines.
Three words: Surface Mount Technology. You could hardly go out an buy components and solder them together to make a GP system these days because the ability to assemble a complex modern board is well beyond the reach of the average human being. Adding the cost of a pick and place machine capable of that level of precision would put the cost of building a PC from components on par with buying a couple Ferarris. -- Kid Charlemagne
Check out this card skimmer someone made. The circuit boards are all surface mount, and the device itself was 3d printed. It's obviously possible. Just difficult.

And people can make them (like the Rapsberry PI) in bulk and sell them to hackers. The hardware is getting cheaper and cheaper. And I would bet that the minimum order numbers from Chinese manufacturers are going down as well.
Apparently it's okay to crosspost from slashdot if it was two days ago.
People still read slashdot? (I know, I know everyone stopped going and then the quality went way up. But still. I probably visit the site like once a year)
posted by delmoi at 10:56 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe I misread you, but it seemed like you were arguing that should GP systems no longer be marketed to consumers, one could just dash of their own in the basement, using the cheap components used in the heavily constrained purpose built systems that the consumer market seems to be all upon. That will get you to the very best technology of 1978.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:57 AM on January 4, 2012


Maybe I misread you, but it seemed like you were arguing that should GP systems no longer be marketed to consumers, one could just dash of their own in the basement, using the cheap components used in the heavily constrained purpose built systems that the consumer market seems to be all upon.
First of all two things:

1) If you can't program, or don't know how to use powerful tools like the command line, then a Lemote Yeelong is just as 'locked' to you as an iPad. All you can do is run the apps that people give you. (Leaving aside things that they would be able to do if they were allowed, like switch cellphone providers -- the cellphone market in the U.S is very distorted, which I could go on and on about)

2) There is a difference between the ability to program a computer and hack a computer. By hack, I mean being able to replace the entire OS or modify it, or whatever. By 'program' I simply mean write software to make it do stuff. The reason there's no hyper card on the iPad isn't because it's not possible, but because apple doesn't want anyone distributing software outside of it's store. There's no reason why someone couldn't make a programming environment that tons on it. People have and their apps have been rejected.

On the other hand, a few minutes of search turns up this retro BASIC interpreter for android, that gives people basically the same kind of coding environment they had in the 80s on their c64.

Even if all you can do is browse the web, there are ton of sites out there that let you program stuff, even if you're not doing low-level hacking. So if users do want to program, they can still do so on a locked device, so long as it's not from Apple.


---
Anyway, as far as what I'm actually saying the answer is no, that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that the future of hardware is niche-ization and cost-reduction, with much more diversity in terms of what you can buy. There will always be people who want high-end PC hardware, the same way people still want high-end stereo equipment.

But most people don't even buy analog music devices anymore, they buy computing devices that happen to have headphone jacks.

Look at the desktop PC industry. The 'standard' AT/ATX consumer desktop doesn't really exist anymore, not to the same extent. People aren't buying Packard Bells at Circuit City anymore.

But people who want their own hardware can still buy cases, motherboards, and other components in the same formfactor. I think the biggest market for this is gamers. As long as gamers want high end graphics cards that suck down hundreds of watts, that market is going to continue to exist.

But now the market for a 'general purpose' PC scales all the way down to things like the Rapsberry Pi or an Arduino, or whatever.

Then there's the whole issue of cloud computing, where you can rent GP computing time. I'm not talking about 'the cloud' where you trust all your data to someone else, but virtual computing where you control VMs that can be moved around.

So basically what I'm saying is that the 'doom and gloom' stuff people are talking about isn't really realistic. As long as there are nerds, hackers, and free-culture enthusiasts there is going to be a market for open hardware. And people are worrying too much. The risk is legislative, not market-based.
That will get you to the very best technology of 1978.
That is completely ridiculous. The $35 Rapsberry Pi has a 700Mhz CPU, 256 MB of ram, HDMI output with 3D acceleration, and an SD Card slot that will let you stick a couple gigabytes of storage into it for a couple dollars. (the $25 version has 128mb of ram). It's equivalent to a high end system from maybe 1998, for $35.

Focusing on what corporations in the market place are doing is ignoring the real threat, which is corrupt government putting laws into place that restrict what you can and can't buy (which is why the situation with cellphones is do dire)

posted by delmoi at 11:53 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


(Okay, that looked fine in live preview...)
posted by delmoi at 11:53 AM on January 4, 2012


delmoi, I'd say that you're generally correct about the whole "appliance vs business practices of appliance manufacturers" thing. There are a number of executable code environments for the iPad, though -- you can write and run Lua apps on an iPad, for example. There are a couple dozen BASIC interpreters, as well. The big restriction is on apps that download and execute code that doesn't go through Apple's review process. While that's somewhat draconian, the particular restriction fits pretty clearly under the "preventing malware" goals, imperfect though it is. Other stuff, like requiring publishers to use their in-app purchasing APIs and pay the 30% Apple Cut, are clearly business oriented.

I think your distinction between "writing software that runs on X" and "installing a different operating system/repurposing the hardware" is a good one. A lot of this stuff is multifaceted, and "openess/freedom" comes in wildly varying shades of grey.


So basically what I'm saying is that the 'doom and gloom' stuff people are talking about isn't really realistic. As long as there are nerds, hackers, and free-culture enthusiasts there is going to be a market for open hardware. And people are worrying too much. The risk is legislative, not market-based.

Agreed, wholeheartedly.
posted by verb at 12:13 PM on January 4, 2012


Heh, now you're misreading me. I'm not saying we're on the threshold of some scary all the electronics more complex than a flashlight will be locked come the day after tomorrow dystopia. Things like the Arduino and Rapsbeery Pi are great and in a lot of ways, things seem to be getting better.

But big corporations have long since realized they can modify the competitive environment as well as compete there. Some, in fact, seem more about the modification than the competition. Viewing the market and legislative environments as independent entities, or even assuming the market bends to the desire of the consumer any more than governments respect the will of the people is, well, buying a product.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:39 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]



"Remember Citizen, only Enemies of the State use unapproved computing equipment"


posted by mmrtnt at 12:53 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


KC: Maybe I misread you...

Obviously you did, in a way I still don't understand and reads like complete lunacy. My point was that the economies of scale that produce consumer devices have also have turned the GP computer into a commodity item produced by dozens of companies, and used by the millions in just about every segment of our economy.

With the dubious exception of Apple, consumers didn't drive the GP computer market; corporations did. Intel sells their innovations on high-end server-rated chips months before they trickle down to desktop systems. Microsoft develops for the corporate market and sells "home" versions at a discount. A good chunk of the grey-box makers in the industry didn't bother marketing to consumers at all.

I'm just not impressed that the sky is falling. Highly secure embedded systems are something that Linux and BSDs have crowed about for 20 years. Now they're suddenly becoming popular and we're in the "post-PC" era. But those devices aren't replacing my workstation. They're replacing my VCR, my walkman/diskman, my cellphone and pager, the 20-lb stack of periodicals I had stashed in my briefcase, and the wadded maps in my glove box.

Granted, there's cloud computing on the horizon but I don't see that transition happening soon for most institutions either.

Delmoi: As long as there are nerds, hackers, and free-culture enthusiasts there is going to be a market for open hardware.

Sure, just as there's still a market for ham radio devices and typewriters. But in the foreseeable future, business and industry is still buying open hardware by the gross.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:07 PM on January 4, 2012


verb : he'll distract a generation of geeks by convincing them that their favored usage patterns should be a moral crusade

I'd agree this blind spot looks problematic, but imho the most serious problem aren't exactly falling under the geek usage patterns banner either, which imho include :

Our user-interface paradigms fall under Do Almost Only The Obvious Thing (Apple), Buy Certification To Find The Button (Microsoft), and RTFM (UNIX). We need a concerted push towards smoothing the learning curve between ordinary user, power user, and developer, even when that exposes the ordinary user to scary looking jargon, pushes the power user into proper scripting, and forces the developers to build domain languages, albeit perhaps graphical ones.

Spreadsheets and SQL are an examples of exactly such advancements, both revolutionizing the computing world. Mathematica, Maple, R, etc. provide another such example. We haven't made nearly such progress with respect to ordinary computing however, although maybe attempts to improve Java script count.

There hasn't been an "Apple computer of cryptography" that makes proper cryptography usage user-friendly and ubiquitous, although TrueCrypt, Tor and off-the-record messaging try, and ZRTP's design permits it. I doubt even geeks will do this stuff right until more happens.

It ain't about protecting geek usage patterns, but advancing the ones that create freedom. I'd agree these aren't the geek patterns, but they're often diametrically opposite the patters pushed by corporations.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:21 PM on January 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


While that's somewhat draconian, the particular restriction fits pretty clearly under the "preventing malware" goals, imperfect though it is. Other stuff, like requiring publishers to use their in-app purchasing APIs and pay the 30% Apple Cut, are clearly business oriented.
All Apple would need to do would be to verify that scripts are being launched in a secure way. It should be easy to launch them in a separate processes with reduced privileges.
posted by delmoi at 1:53 PM on January 4, 2012


"Remember Citizen, only Enemies of the State use unapproved computing equipment"

It only sounds far fetched until you see a public service announcement suggesting that people possessing "chemicals" are either drug dealers or terrorists (or both) and that they should call the police ASAP if they see anything like the metal storage cabinet I keep all the chemicals I use for various wood and metal finish applications in. Couple that with all the OMG Cyberwarfare crap that's been written in the last few years and it almost seems overdue.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:03 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]




This is all fine, I've got a pile of shit sitting at home that I've been meaning to read for like ten years now. Plus a blow-up pool.
posted by tumid dahlia at 2:44 PM on January 4, 2012


verb: "Please don't condescend."

That is fucking rich coming from the guy whose first words in this discussion were "Oh, Cory."
posted by brokkr at 3:22 PM on January 4, 2012


It's always funny how Cory morphs into the Emmanuel Goldstein of Metaphilter.
posted by ovvl at 3:44 PM on January 4, 2012


That is fucking rich coming from the guy whose first words in this discussion were "Oh, Cory."

Announcing that DRM is the greatest threat to civilization since influenza is pretty much Cory Doctorow's schtick. Feel free to call me a hypocrite, but noting that seems a bit less condescending than telling another MetaFilter member that they "shouldn't speak" about their own area of professional expertise -- open source product development.
posted by verb at 4:22 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like Cory. He is indeed part of the Free Software side of things, and a strong believer that computers shouldn't be locked down. I agree.
posted by jaduncan at 4:35 PM on January 4, 2012


It's actually a little scary to think how much of the web Amazon and Google could black out between them by shutting down services... which is probably why they would never draw attention to that by doing it.
posted by Artw at 4:37 PM on January 4, 2012


I like Cory. He is indeed part of the Free Software side of things, and a strong believer that computers shouldn't be locked down. I agree.

It would be nice, though, if he stopped saying patently ridiculous things -- dare I say lying? -- to make his case sound more compelling. His breathless prediction of a century-long "war on general purpose computers" is no different than the MPAA saying that SOPA needs to pass to protect us all from drug dealers, or Apple saying that jailbreaking needs to be illegal to protect us from cell-tower sabotage.
posted by verb at 5:00 PM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't think it would be overstaing it to say there's been a recent trend towards walled gardens and lockdowns in paralel with continued efforts from media lobbiests to shut down anything else. I mean, i'm not 100% the media folk and their pet pols know that they're pushing thing that direction, but that would certainly be the effect if they got what they wanted.
posted by Artw at 5:04 PM on January 4, 2012


I don't think it would be overstaing it to say there's been a recent trend towards walled gardens and lockdowns in paralel with continued efforts from media lobbiests to shut down anything else. I mean, i'm not 100% the media folk and their pet pols know that they're pushing thing that direction, but that would certainly be the effect if they got what they wanted.
They've been doing that forever though. It's not a new thing. What's new is their alliance with other physical object makers (drug companies, designers, etc) to try to tie their desire for copyright controls with import controls on things like drugs, handbags, etc. I guess this makes the issue marginally more relevant?
posted by delmoi at 5:46 PM on January 4, 2012


Definitely. But that still puts it back into the realm of bad legislation that should be opposed, rather than bad types of devices that should be condemned.
posted by verb at 5:54 PM on January 4, 2012


As an aside, I've always found Rick Falkvinge's argument that copyright originally evolved from censorship interesting (roughly 12m into his Google TechTalk), makes one worry slightly more about our current situation.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:05 PM on January 4, 2012




Thinking about it a bit more, one of the victories that the Open Source movement has won is that the bare-bones i86 system has become the two-by-four of Information Technology. It's standardized (with minor variations), modular, and ubiquitous in larger systems. The ability to slap any operating system and additional software onto it is what makes a bare-bones i86 module a critical component almost all IT systems today.

The walled garden/lockdown model has largely failed when applied to GP computers or servers. Most of the attempts at that business model failed or are in the process of failing: IBM, HP, and Cray adopted Linux on i86. SG and DEC merged. SPARC is likely on its deathbed.

The computer industry tried circuit-to-software-to-support control for over 30 years, and it didn't work for most of the market.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:29 AM on January 5, 2012


The walled garden/lockdown model has largely failed when applied to GP computers or servers. Most of the attempts at that business model failed or are in the process of failing: IBM, HP, and Cray adopted Linux on i86. SG and DEC merged. SPARC is likely on its deathbed.

Sun sold Linux on x86 as well, before they got bought.
posted by delmoi at 8:47 AM on January 5, 2012


Isn't that more the competition between Intel, AMD, etc. plus Microsoft's incompetence outside x86, CBrachyrhynchos? There are hoards of ARM chips running Linux or BSD too. And I'd expect massively parallel ARM system to invade the x86 server and desktop market.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:57 AM on January 5, 2012




Whoops SGI and DEC merged independently with other companies, not with each other. SGI now uses Linux on Intel for their supercomputer products. DEC pretty much ceased to exist.

jeffbudges: Actually, I think that Microsoft's inability to do significant hardware probably helped to make the x86 into a commodity item, and Microsoft products ubiquitous. I don't think the x86 will be around forever, but its replacement is likely to be another mass-produced commodity product.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:29 AM on January 5, 2012


DEC got bought by compaq, which got bought by HP, IIRC.
posted by delmoi at 9:18 PM on January 5, 2012






Case example that just crossed my feed, the Raspberry Pi project to deliver a computer with RCA and HDMI outputs for under $35.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:42 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


So it is impossible to reach Chuck Schumer's office. I guess he isn't meeting with his constituency, because the voting public isn't his constituency. Chuck Schumer sucks.
posted by fuq at 12:51 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]












Sci-Fi Author Demands Refrigeration Appliance Cook Him Breakfast
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:54 PM on January 14, 2012




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