The wide release of Windows Vista this week, and the billions that will be spent to buy it over the next few years, prompts one to ask: how exactly did we get into this mess?
Once upon a time, not so long ago, computers were big things owned by businesses, governments, and universities. That changed in the 1970s, largely due to economics. The bits and pieces that go into a computer came down in price to the point where enthusiasts could afford to buy those bits and pieces. Perhaps the origin of the personal computer as we know it today was the Altair computer kit which provided a bunch of the bits and pieces in one package you could put together yourself. But even the kit approach required that one have a willingness to learn. There were few gurus who had all the answers, so enthusiasts communicated with one another, sharing code and ideas, and progressing this new phenomenon at a hobbyist level.
The idea of paying for code would have seemed very strange, unless you were a young man by the name of William Henry Gates III. The letter that marks the beginning of the split in personal computer culture, between those valuing free exchange of information and code and those promoting the commercialization of such, was written by Bill Gates and dated February 3rd, 1976 (copy here). In it he argues that the hobby would suffer unless people were paid to write code for it, and that taking that code without paying for it was hurting the hobby.
Perhaps the primary beneficiaries of Gates’ aggressive stance were himself and the other billionaires Microsoft produced. In fairness, on the UNIX side of the equation there was a lot of greed as well. Not until 1991 would there be a complete, free *NIX operating system. (Fudging the name is necessary because UNIX is still a trademark that can be used only by those who buy a license.) That’s when Linus Torvalds created a kernel (the heart of any operating system) which worked well in conjunction with the already existing GNU utilities. There was a *NIX for the PC, 386BSD, but it was not made available to the public until 1992.
Torvalds has said that Linux wouldn’t have happened had 386BSD been available earlier, since it would have fulfilled his desire for a *NIX on the PC. By the time Torvalds released the first version of his fledgling kernel, Microsoft’s DOS had been around for a decade, Windows 3.0 existed, and 3.1 was just around the corner. It was Bill Gates’ vision of a commercialized personal computer that had triumphed, almost by default.
Apple existed as well, of course, but it was almost worse on the “freedom” front than Microsoft. While IBM surrendered control of both microprocessor and operating system , thus facilitating the emergence of much more affordable “clones,” Apple controlled everything, hardware and software. Apple could be considered “alternative” in a positive way primarily because they were, and remain, a sideshow relative to the booming PC market that came to be, in large part due to the “missteps” of IBM. In 1984, Steve Wozniak wrote an early history of Apple titled Homebrew and How the Apple Came to Be which is interesting not only for the hi,story of Apple, but also for capturing something of the sense of those early days of the hobbyist enthusiasts. Wozniak would leave Apple in 1985. An inveterate hacker at heart, I don’t think he was ever completely comfortable with the corporate side of things which was more the forte of his partner, Steve Jobs.
So how is this “ancient” history relevant? If you’re a Windows user, does it seem “normal” to you to pay for software, perhaps even purchasing it untried in a shrink-wrapped cardboard box? I can tell you that a Linux user would find that strange. Thanks largely to Linux and the free software (or open source, FOSS, FLOSS, whatever term you prefer) movement, the ethic of the old enthusiasts is alive and well and thriving as never before.
This is good, because media interests are trying to “pull a Gates” and tell us that “Digital Rights Management” (DRM) is a good thing which will protect their profitability and thus ensure their ability to continue to provide us with whatever shit it is that they provide. The Free Software Foundation‘s Richard Stallman comes much closer to the truth when he refers to DRM as “Digital Restriction Management,” since that’s exactly what it is. (Stallman has been concerned about this sort of thing since before the term was coined — see his The Right to Read.) It can be used to restrict content to running only on a particular machine, to allow only a limited number of views before expiring, to allow only a certain number of backup copies if any, to restrict playback to a particular geographical location, and so on. It is all about restriction. Will it come to be regarded as “normal” in the same way that Windows users see nothing strange in paying through the nose for all the code running on their computer?
The free software community is opposed in the extreme to DRM, since it runs directly contrary to their core ideals. On the other hand, Microsoft’s latest incarnation of Windows, Microsoft Vista, embraces DRM, which is cause for concern. Polishlinux.org has published a comprehensive summary of these concerns, with many links to more information for those who want to dig further.
I have a science-fiction vision of the IT underground, where the only hardware not tainted with DRM is made in China and using it is illegal in most of the “civilized” countries. And the only software that allows users to do anything they want with it is (also illegal) the GNU software, developed in basements by so-called “IT terrorists” — Linux kernel hackers, former Novell and Red Hat employees and sponsored by the Bin Laden of the IT — Mark Shuttleworth. Sounds ridiculous? Well, hopefully so. But I don’t think Microsoft and Apple would be protesting when this ridiculous and insane vision comes true . . .
The article isn’t all doom and gloom, and includes tips on how to protect yourself from DRM. The primary, simplest course of action, of course, is not to purchase anything which promotes it. The entities behind it are commercial, and if their support of DRM hurts them financially they will eventually back off. Even Bill Gates is beginning to get it, if only on the technical front, though any insights he may be gaining will have no influence on Vista.
Will DRM come to be regarded as normal? That may depend on what you regard as normal now. And what you think should be normal in the future.