A famous businessman has died some time ago and the whole world has praised him as a hero who changed the computing. Well, there were some more realistic views (e.g. rms), but those exceptions were hardly noticeable. We like celebrities and we prefer listening to heroic myths rather than to unpleasant truths about less or more successful attempts to enslave users or to make an artificial monopoly. And the true heroes remain unnoticed. How many of the upstream media have mentioned recent deaths of the highly respectable men, Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy, who have (really) contributed much to the computing and moved it forward?
We should pray for our enemies but we shouldn’t accept their apples. Thanks to visionaries like Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds we can enjoy software freedom on desktop computers. Not everything is perfect and there are still many white areas but we can use, share and modify a complete operating system including numerous applications on our PCs and we can use computers for real work, education and entertainment without artificial restrictions. We have been fighting for it for many years and we have won the battle. But there are areas where we are in danger to be thrown back to the beginning and becoming relevant only as blunt business units.
Tablet computers and smartphones are very popular nowadays. In theory they are capable of being general purpose personal computing devices but they miss something. I can’t call something that can’t run my everyday tool, Emacs, nor most of the other applications I use, a personal computing device. It may serve relatively well as a toy or a single purpose platform, but not much more.
What’s the problem? Most contemporary tablets are devices of two sorts: Either the popular apparatus on which you can’t install without vendor’s permission even software you write yourself, or the Google Android devices. I can’t take the first category seriously at all (I don’t use shareware). And Google Android is a semi to fully proprietary system incompatible with GNU/Linux and X Window System, i.e. excluding most PC applications (unless one is willing to experiment and at best to go through the limitations of chrooted VNC environments). Sure, it’s Google’s business and they can produce any operating system they like. The strange thing is that hardware vendors prevent us from installing other operating systems on their devices. Either they try to prevent installing them at all or they demonstrate a strange split behavior, e.g. when a certain vendor suggests installing GNU/Linux on their devices with a clear warning that this action will void your warranty. What does the installed software have to do with hardware warranty? Well, at least HTC has promised to officially permit booting other operating systems, we’ll see what happens.
Other strange area are e-ink readers. I’ve been watching them a bit for a few years and I wonder why they remain basically single purpose closed devices. Sure, e-ink displays aren’t well suitable for running applications in traditional ways. But what the e-ink devices offer in their “firmware” (an euphemism for a proprietary operating system) is far below my expectations and imagination (and prevents me from buying any of those devices). At best you receive some semi-supported SDK to create your own applications while not being able even to fix what you already receive. I can understand delivering a few pieces of primitive and buggy software is initially simpler and cheaper than cooperating with community of users and third party developers. But it’s sad the crowd effect or whatever else discourages everyone from becoming a niche leader by producing a reasonably open device.
There are other categories of devices such as routers, phones, media players, etc. which suffer from the same problem. You can look around and to see how proprietary software extends, regardless of the fact that many of the systems are based on the free Linux kernel. We should do something (more) about it otherwise we return back to where we were some twenty years ago.