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Ryan Cartwright [opinions]

Why can't free software lead to hardware innovation? [free-software] [hardware] [innovation]

In the past few years we've seen a lot of hardware-based innovation (or at the very least expansion). New products and markets have arisen built around hardware and its use. Smartphones, tablets, netbooks and gaming systems are all examples of markets that have expanded and some if not most of the products make use of free software. This is great but why does it seem to be that the free-software products are second-generation, playing catch up. Where is the device innovation driven by free software?

Most of these markets have a similar pattern of growth: a hardware company introduces a device into a reasonably settled market, said device is hailed as "revolutionary" by tech "journalists" and "celebrities" alike and thus demand is high. Shortly after this competitors in (or entering) the same market want to emulate the "first" product and often turn to free software to reduce their costs and undercut their rivals on the shelf. Now you may argue that the initial product is not always the most innovative but the implementation of the technology often revitalises the market. For example touch screen phones were about long before the iPhone, but whatever you say, Apple's device changed the way people interacted with their phones and the software on it. Next thing we know, along come a host of similar devices, many of them based upon Android which is free software, even if it is often locked down by the hardware manufacturers. It's a similar tale with tablets, how many rumours of "Linux based" iPad wannabes do we have to endure before we actually see one?

What interests me here is why is free software often not in the first product or if it is why is that not the successful one?

There has been -- as far as I can see -- an increase in free software within software or web-based "innovations" but for hardware devices it does seem to be lacking. What interests me here is why is free software often not in the first product or if it is why is that not the successful one? Is this left over from the old days when hardware R&D departments had huge software teams? Are the manufacturers of these devices so concerned about their profit margin that they feel they must cling desperately onto every last shred of what they consider their "intellectual property"? Or is it simply that this is the way it has always been done?

Are we to blame?

I have heard some blame the "culture" of free (and open source) software for the lack of its inclusion in devices and to some extent there may be a case to answer here. When a product is announced which uses free software it is trumpeted across a myriad of tech websites. It will often come under the increased scrutiny of our famous "many eyeballs" and sometimes it feels like the manufacturer comes under greater pressure for choosing free software. Instead of support in their -- often -- first tentative steps into the free software world, they are subjected to cynicism and criticism of the perceived reason they took that decision. Have they used the right licence? Are they dual licencing? Are they just "jumping the bandwagon"? In short: do "we" trust them? Under this kind of scrutiny and given the number of proprietary software firms who would be calling, you can see why a CEO might make the decision to change their mind. So perhaps fear is the real reason behind all this.

Must try harder

There is a case for "the community" to answer in the way we sometimes handle newcomers, be they companies or people

But should the behaviour (perceived or otherwise) of a vocal part of the free software community (and that in itself is a fluid definition) be an excuse for companies to make their software proprietary? As you'd expect, I am going to say no here. That's not to say there isn't a case for "the community" to answer in the way we sometimes handle newcomers, be they companies or people. Sometimes getting alongside them a bit more might help smooth things along. We should also remember that proprietary has been the way of doing software for some time now; no matter how wrong it may be, there is still an overwhelming perception among tech businesses that to make any sort of money you have to hang onto everything as tightly as possible.

Accept that the core OS will never be your money maker and allow people to change it if they want

But it is wrong. Businesses have proven time and again how deploying free software can aid rather than hinder their profit margin. Some of that will undoubtedly be because the community traditionally flocks to products with free software in them. But here's a tip for manufacturers: if you're going to use free software, do it properly. No half measures, no rhetoric coupled with a dual licence where the free one is very much the one with fewer features. And with a nod to a recent piece here putting free software on your device and then locking down the hardware is useless. People will find a way to free their devices regardless. Accept that the core OS will not be your money maker, and free it up thus allowing people to change it if they want. If they do and this means they can't use your upgrades or the apps from the market, then that is quite frankly their problem. If they do and they improve it and they are encouraged to feed that back to you? Your R&D department just grew and it didn't cost you a penny.


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