Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Brief Trip Back into RL...

I know what the subtitle says, but this is too important to let pass without comment. So, all you young computing whippersnappers, gather 'round and let Auntie Melissa tell you a story about the Bad Old Days of mainframes, and how they may return in a new form...

Long ago, in a galaxy... er, when computers were huge things only owned by large businesses, universities, and government institutions, you bought, or at least in the case of IBM rented, a computer from a manufacturer, and all the parts were made by that manufacturer (until the "plug-compatible manufacturers" came along, but that's another story...). You looked at their product list, talked to their representative about your requirements, and bought (or rented) a computer accordingly.

As time went on, your needs would grow; you'd need more memory, or a faster processor. Then you would pay for an upgrade. In some notorious cases, this upgrade came in the form of a maintenance person who would shut down the computer, open it up, and go to a particular board and clip one wire or change a single jumper.

Then he or she, though in the Bad Old Days it was pretty much always he, would close the computer back up, and when you turned it on again it ran faster, or had twice as much memory. In other words, you had bought or rented something already capable of the increased performance... but the manufacturer intentionally crippled it so they could lower manufacturing costs by only making one version of whatever board it was, and charge you more money for what you already bought.

Nowadays, you can buy computer components from a wide variety of manufacturers who compete on the basis of price and performance. They are motivated to give you what they think are the best combinations of each; after all, you can always go elsewhere. That tends to work against the kind of sleazy arrangements described above from the old days.

Now, though, news has arrived of a patent Microsoft has applied for. From the title, it sounds good: "
System and method for delivery of a modular operating system." Modularity is a good thing. It lets programmers confine their problems to a limited area, avoiding obscure bugs caused by interactions between things that have no logical relationship. It's good that Microsoft has discovered it; before, they made a point of avoiding it, though for political rather than technical reasons--they inextricably wove the code for Internet Explorer into that of Windows, so they could claim with a straight face before the Department of Justice that there was no way to provide a version of Windows without IE.

But the proverbial devil is in the details, and the details are ominous. The method for delivery is DRM, that code that takes control of your computer away from you. You will pay for each of those modules, and the examples MS gives correspond exactly to the mainframe scenario:
  • paying extra to be able to use the full bandwidth of your Internet connection
  • paying extra to be able to run more than one program at a time
  • paying extra to be able to hook up more peripherals
  • paying extra to be able to use the full throughput of your hard drive
Surely in a free market third parties will provide alternatives, you say? Well... that's what the DRM is for. MS will retain control of what modules it will permit to run. In theory, that could give MS the ability to control what programs you install. So much for that pesky competition.

You'll also recall that DRM allows for situations such as rental, in which you can only view a movie so many times, or until some expiration date. Combining a modular operating system with DRM allows MS to move you to a regime in which you rent the capabilities those modules correspond to. That model, in which you never stop paying for the privilege of using your computer or accessing your own data, is something they've wanted for a long time.

For more information, check out Groklaw, LXer, and Slashdot. If you wish to retain control of your computer and your data, I hope you will consider moving to Linux.

1 comment:

Cheyenne Palisades said...

Bill Gates is the Devil.