Open source and innovation

Innovation. And of course I can’t let this slip by. Microsoft is trying to say that open source stifles innovation. Steve DeLassus and I have been talking about this (he was the one who originally pointed it out to me), and I think he and I are in agreement that open source by nature isn’t inherently innovative. It may improve on another idea or add features, but most open source projects (and certainly the most successful ones) are clones of proprietary software. Then again, so was a lot of Microsoft software, starting out. Pot, meet Kettle. Kettle, meet Pot.

But although the programs themselves aren’t always innovative, I think the open source atmosphere can stimulate innovation. Huh? Bear with me. Open source gets you in closer contact with computer internals than a Microsoft or Apple OS generally will. That gets you thinking more about what’s possible and what’s not–the idea of what’s possible starts to have more to do with the hardware than it does with what people have tried before. That stimulates creativity, which in turn stimulates innovation.

Need an example? A calculator company called Busicom accidentally invented the personal computer. I’ve heard several versions of the story, but the gist of it was, Busicom wanted to create a programmable calculator. In the process of creating this device, they commissioned the Intel 4004 CPU, the first chip of its kind. There are conflicting accounts as to whether the resulting product even used the Intel 4004, but that’s immaterial–this calculator’s other innovation was its inclusion of a tape drive.

Intel bought back the rights and marketed the 4004 on its own and became a success story, of course. Meanwhile, people started using their Busicom calculators as inexpensive computers–the built-in tape drive worked as well for data storage as it did for program storage. This was in 1970-1971, several years before the Altair and other kit computers.

Four years later, Busicom was out of business but the revolution was under way, all because some people–both engineers at Intel and end-users who bought the calculators–looked beyond the device’s intended use and saw something more.

Open source software frequently forces you to do the same thing, or it at least encourages it. This fuels innovation, and thus should be encouraged, if anything.

Last week’s flood. No, I haven’t answered all the mail about it. I’m going to give it another day before I deal with it, because dealing with a ton of mail is frankly harder than just writing content from scratch. I don’t mind occasionally, but I’d rather wait until a discussion reaches critical mass, you know?

One reader wrote in asking why foreigners care about U.S. gun laws. I don’t really have an answer to that question. I find it very interesting that no American has yet voiced any strong objections to anything I said–I even had a lifelong liberal Democrat write in, and while she stayed to my left, she advocated enforcement of the laws we already have on the books, rather than an outright ban. She’d force more safety classes, but I don’t have any real objections to that notion.

An interesting upgrade approach. The Register reported about a new upgrade board, about to be released by Hypertec, that plugs into any PC with an available ISA slot and upgrades the CPU, video, and sound subsystems. I’m assuming it also replaces the memory subsystem, since pulling system memory through the ISA bus would be pitifully slow.

The solution will be more expensive than a motherboard swap, but for a corporation that has a wide variety of obsolescent PCs, it might be a good solution. First, it’s cheaper than outright replacement. Second, it creates common ground where there was none: two upgraded systems would presumably be able to use the same Ghost/DriveImage/Linux DD image, lowering administrative costs and, consequently, TCO. Third, corporations are frequently more willing to upgrade, rather than replace, existing systems even when it doesn’t make economic sense to do so (that’s corporate management for you).

Depending on the chipset it uses and the expected timeframe, I may be inclined to recommend these for the company I work for. We’ve got anywhere from 30-100 systems that aren’t capable of running Office 2000 for whatever reason. Some of them are just old Micron Client Pros, others are Micron Millenias who were configured by idiots (a local clone shop that we used to contract with way back when–I’ve never seen anyone configure NT in a more nonsensical manner), others are clones built by idiots, and others are well-built clones that just happen to be far too old to upgrade economically.

Many of these machines can be upgraded–the Microns are all ATX, so an Intel motherboard and a low-end CPU would be acceptable. Most of the others are ATs and Socket 7-based. An upgrade CPU would likely work, but will be pricey and compatibility is always a dicey issue, and most businesses are still stuck in the Intel-only mindset. (Better not tell them Macintoshes don’t use Intel CPUs–wait… Someone PLEASE tell them Macs don’t use Intel CPUs! Yeah, I’ll be an Intel lackey in exchange for never having to troubleshoot an extension conflict on a Mac again. But that’s another story.) They all need memory upgrades, and buying SIMMs in this day and age is a sucker bet. Average price of the upgrades would be $550, but we’d have a hodgepodge of systems. If we can get common ground and two years of useful life for $700 from Hypertec, upper management would probably approve it.

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