Law in the Internet Society

Leashing Ourselves

-- By JoshFoster - 11 Dec 2009

I: The Closed System

It is a well-established fact that Apple computers are closed systems; if one has an Apple computer, one uses the hardware Apple chooses. If one were to switch out one of Apple’s motherboards for something from ASUS, or even an Intel motherboard not specifically made for Macs, the software would not detect the specific Apple chip and the computer would basically be a paperweight.

Closed hardware systems are very familiar. The vast majority of cell phone hardware is closed. MP3 players and other audio players use closed hardware. Anyone who plays video games on a console is using a closed hardware system. A closed system allows the manufacturer greater control over the end user, because only the software of the manufacturer’s choosing will run on the system. None of this is new. There is another, less noticed form of closed system, though. It lies in the software.

II: Keeping Users Leashed.

One of the best examples of closed software systems is the iPhone OS. Though the hardware is the same, it is possible to jailbreak the phone and install other user interfaces, unapproved applications, and even move to other service providers. Apple, of course, does not like this. The app store they provide allows them complete control over what the user can do with the hardware purchased. If the end user can install Google Voice, then AT&T would make less money providing their spotty coverage. If the end user can change service providers, money is lost as well.

The stock software does not allow the hardware to be used in this fashion, but there is nothing about the hardware itself that would not, or should not, allow this. The hardware is what the end user actually purchases. Software providers make it clear users are not purchasing the software. The producers are selling only licenses. Why should something that one does not even own restrict the use of something one does? Apple, and other manufacturers in similar positions, will bring out the usual claims of “bandwidth hogs” and other abusers. Apple even went so far as to claim terrorists might use an unlocked phone to perform attacks on cell towers. Of course there is no data on heavy users who regularly cause service interruptions for others, and no record of any type of attack ever being attempted, despite the ready availability of jailbroken phones. The public, though, is supposed to take Apple at its word.

III: Making the Leash Invisible

Of course PC users don’t have to deal with these issues. They can use any OS they want, except Apple’s, without breaking the license and risking some system stability. That is, PC users who do not want to play any of the latest games can use any OS they want. The PC platform remains one of the most open systems hardware-wise. A consumer can build one from the ground-up, choosing only the components he or she wants. If that computer is to be considered a “gaming PC,” though, it will be running Windows. This is not because Windows itself is particularly kind to gamers .Vista consumed so much RAM at its release that it made many computers unable to play games at all. It is Direct X.

Direct X is an application programming interface. It handles communication with the graphics cards or other multimedia processing elements. As such, it is particularly important to anyone who would play a graphically intensive game. Direct X is Windows-only. While OpenGL? , the free software analogue, can compete visually with Direct X and has many supported games, it does not have the sheer guaranteed loyalty seen by Direct X. To lack Direct X support is seen as a way to guarantee a failure in sales. Any major release will support it.

What’s more insidious is that almost all high-end graphics cards are designed with Direct X specifically in mind. The newest 5-series Radeon graphics cards from ATI are specifically advertised as the first Direct X v11 compatible cards on the market. They have tessellation processors designed specifically to work in Direct X. Thus, the function of the machine becomes the leash. Of course there is nothing keeping these users from moving to the newest Unbuntu release, but the choice they had in hardware became a tether to specific software. The best hardware available now is designed for Windows, not OpenGL? . Anyone who is willing to drop over $200 on a graphics card is likely going to end up using Direct X, and therefore will be tethered to Windows. The software system is closed.

IV: Breaking the Tether

This problem is more difficult than that of the iPhone. Users want to leave Apple’s control in that instance. Here, users trap themselves on an OS by choice. Of course they don’t need to play games, but that argument will be laughed off by any gamer. If free software is going to remove Microsoft’s monopoly in this area, users are going to need to support Open GL explicitly. Without vocal user support, neither ATI nor NVIDIA will want to stop competing over who gives the best Direct X support. Developers will still see lack of that support as sales suicide, and many will not see any reason to bother inserting code to support Open GL. To that end, awareness of Open GL needs to be raised. There are many who use Linux who, themselves, see gaming as a thing one does on a Windows platform. There is no reason why there shouldn’t be another API to compete with Direct X, but users need to know they have options.

  • I don't understand this essay. Such a Windows computer is essentially a gaming console: no one playing such a graphics intensive game is doing something else with the machine at the same time. So it could be a special-purpose machine, in which case it would be an X-box or a PSP, and be closed-hardware as well, or it could be a dual-boot PC, and be using sensible and also free software to do everything other than being a "game machine," for which a reboot is all that would be required. No closure here.


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r3 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:44:11 - IanSullivan
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