10 Apr 2003

Our Embedded Correspondents

We’ve been hearing a good deal about “embedding” lately. Journalists traveling with an invading army are not exactly like complex software contained inside end-user hardware devices, but the word does get around. In the part of the world you and I live in, where “embedding” refers to putting free software inside, there have also been some interesting developments.

Free software PDAs are becoming common this season. A recent “handhelds” convention in Cambridge, Massachusetts showcased hundreds of real-life applications built around PDAs using free software to achieve levels of functionality difficult or impossible with the more traditional palmtop operating systems.

As free software starts its inevitable climb to ascendancy in the palmtop world, it is also making its debut in the other most important segment of the embedded market: cellular telephones. At least half of the world’s largest manufacturers of cellphones are committed to bringing free software-equipped products to market in the near future.

One of the consequences of the move to free software inside is that the non-free software inside gains immediate competition. The OpenZaurus project has already almost completely achieved the goal of replacing all the proprietary software inside Sharp’s Zaurus PDA with free software, allowing full user modification and improvement of the entire codebase. Cellphones equipped by the manufacturers with partially free software will turn out to be equally important platforms for all-free development, which will hasten the commoditization of the hardware, driving down prices for consumers and increasing available functionality and ease of use. Manufacturers are turning to free software in an attempt to limit their development costs; in doing so they continue to spread the revolutionary basic idea that software in the 21st century is a public utility, not a domain of private property rights.

All of which leaves Microsoft in a particularly tight spot. Manufacturers are switching to an embedded OS that they can customize and redistribute without paying license fees. Sophisticated users are becoming accustomed to the possibility of modifying the entire operating platform in their devices. If Microsoft tries to exist in the embedded market on its traditional business terms, it will fail there. And because the most influential computer at any given moment, as my colleague Gerry Sussman of MIT has repeatedly pointed out, is the smallest computer that can do real work, to be locked out of the palmtop and cellphone markets would spell doom to Microsoft overall.

The response? Microsoft begins adopting copyleft. Just this week Microsoft announced new terms for its “shared source license” for the Windows CE embedded operating system. Wince is now available under a source code license that permits modification and distribution of derivative works provided (hold on to your hats here) that “you do so only under this License.” After years of disgracefully bad-mouthing the GPL for being “viral,” “infectious,” and even “a cancer on the intellectual property system,” Microsoft has now released its first “viral” license. Hoorah for progress.

Of course, the monopoly has not actually abandoned the cause of unfreedom. The new Wince “shared source” license is an example of a previously unobserved species: the unfree copyleft license. Recipients of the Wince source code can modify and redistribute only for “non-commercial” purposes, and “running your business” is defined as commercial use. So if you modify Wince in order to run specialized applications that you yourself have written and that have commercial value, you cannot distribute your OS modifications. Microsoft, in short, achieves with its “shared source license” the very bad outcome that it has inaccurately claimed is caused by the GPL. Though Microsoft has repeatedly launched major rhetorical strikes on the GPL, we always knew that their hostility was a concealed form of admiration. Now that they are imitating us, we know for sure.

Nonetheless, the non-commercial use restriction will prevent the new copyleft philosophy at Microsoft from reversing the inevitable decline of the product: not until Wince becomes truly free software can it compete effectively against code available for embedding in consumer devices at zero marginal cost. Microsoft’s partial adoption of the copyleft ethic won’t work, but even this little abject surrender to reality speaks volumes: the proprietary model of software creation is dying, while the free software model is gaining strength everywhere. Everywhere any kind of software is, inside or outside, Free Software Matters.

This column was first published in the UK in Linux User. It is also available in PostScript and PDF formats.

permalink | columns/lu | 2003.04.10-00:00.00

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