A Few Words on Operating Systems, Evil, File Sharing, and Kool-Aid.

Oct 27 2009 Published by under Misc

Yesterday, Greg Laden posted a short response to my post about the recently discovered Apple patent application for an ad-supported operating system. Some of the comments that people left on Greg's post raise issues that I want to respond to. Since I'm lazy, and writing something up in the software I use for blog posts is easier and more convenient for me than leaving a lengthy comment on his blog, I'm responding here.

Azkyroth brought up a two-year-old post of mine, writing:

Given his singularly mindless knee-jerk defense of simplistic anti-file-sharing moralization back in the day, I can't say I'm surprised.

While I had almost forgotten about that post, I still agree with the basic point that I was making, and I think that there is a parallel between my views on file "sharing" and what should be done with operating systems.

Generally speaking, I think that the people who create any sort of work that could be considered intellectual property should have the right to decide if - and more importantly how - that work should be distributed to others. Give it away, sell it, rent it, trade it - they made it, so those decisions are theirs to make. I might not like what they decide, but I don't have the right to force them to do something differently. I had nothing to do with the effort that went into making whateverthehellitis, so I should have no say about whether they can sell it to me, or should be forced to give it to me.

Since that's the perspective I'm coming from, it really should be no surprise that I think that the choice of what should or should not be in any particular operating system belongs to whoever designs and writes the OS. If you don't like what's in someone's OS, use one that has features you do like. I certainly am having a hard time seeing where there's any sort of moral imperative that would either require or ban any feature from appearing in an OS.

That's probably one of the reasons I'm not in agreement with Greg's comment:

An OS is different from a web site or a web browser or software that runs on an OS in very important ways. An OS should be fairly neutral and in the background, it's functioning should be related only to its job as an OS ... it is there to run software. Users can then make choices about what software to run. They can chose the Eudora with Ad Support or without (remember the old days?). They can chose to put an ad blocker on their web browser. And so on. Building ads into an OS guarantees that the removal of those ads (with some kind of ad blocking software) is problematic. I mean, seriously, you don't build an OS in such a way that its functionality (as a thing without ads) requires fundamental tweeking at that level. And, you know damn well that the EULA will require that you don't mess with the ads.

As far as I can tell, Greg seems to be arguing that there's something special about operating systems that makes them different from all other kinds of software. He's apparently fine with ads on websites, and in web browsers, and as one possible way to pay for some or all of a software package's costs. It appears that he thinks that an OS is somehow different, and (more importantly), that it should be generally acknowledged to be different, and treated differently as a result. I can't see it, personally. I can't think of any good reason to think that an operating system should be treated differently from any other software package - or, for that matter, from any other product, period.

This is particularly true when users can - as they do now - chose which OS to run.

12 responses so far

  • JakeS says:

    The problem with your approach is that having an industry standard is valuable in and of itself. Because it means that you can mix and match different components - hardware, software, operating system, peripherals, etc. - from different manufacturers.
    Nor is this concept unique to consumer electronics. There are standards for shipping containers, steel, ball bearings, pumps, pipes, wires and cables, cars, bicycles and so on and so forth and etcetera. Some of those standards are enforced by more or less democratically elected governments. Others are enforced by the corporation(s) who happen(s) to have obtained hegemonic power over the industry in question. Still others are enforced by the fact that all the engineers in the industry go to the same schools and read the same textbooks.
    But the existence of such industry standards are by no means a matter of course. One needs look no farther than the cell phone adaptors to find a multitude of different (and incompatible) plug, battery and socket designs. And even in the fields where industry standards would exist without government interference, it is not self-evident that an industry standard enforced by the power of unelected corporations is superior to an industry standard enforced by (more or less) elected governments.
    Further, even if ads would create no security or compatibility issues it is by no means obvious that operating systems should be permitted to contain them. Producers of operating systems have far more power over end-users than producers of ordinary software, web sites, etc. Even in a perfect world where all software was sufficiently standards-compliant to ensure that users could switch between operating systems without losing access to any of their data, switching operating system would remain a major hassle.
    I suppose that answers your question of the difference between your operating system and your browser: It's the same as the difference between your house and your kitchen table.
    - Jake

  • The problem with your approach is that having an industry standard is valuable in and of itself. Because it means that you can mix and match different components - hardware, software, operating system, peripherals, etc. - from different manufacturers.

    Um...no, not really. You can only mix and match in situations where the vendor chooses to allow you, unless you are willing to do a lot of work. I'm not seeing support for Windows mobile running on Blackberries, or RIM's OS running on Nokia Phones.
    Most people would not tolerate the level of dysfunction you get out of your desktop or laptop computer in say, the control computers for their automobiles or the aircraft they fly in. The problem here is that people like to take one situation: personal computers, and apply that to everything. Everything is not the same.
    Even moreso, the minority of people who even know what an operating system is like to assume that everyone cares about such things. Most people don't. They see ads everywhere anyway. Unless the ads were to actually get in the way of using their computer, do you really think that somehow, seeing ads in the OS will be some onerous problem as compared to the ads they see everywhere else?
    No.
    To be honest, 99% of the things that tie geek-nads in a knot are absolutely inconsequential to the 95% of computer users who aren't geeks. Which also ties geek-nads in a knot. To most people, it's just a tool to do stuff with, not a moral issue.

  • Paul Murray says:

    I've always liked that phrase "Intellectual Property" for it's orwellianness. The acronym "IP" is even better for bypassing the debate as to whether IP is (or should be) property at all.
    After all - property is not an attribute of a thing. Nothing about a pencil changes when I sell it to you. Property is about how we shall behave with respect to that pencil. So there's seldom any definite "is property"/"is not property". My boots are my boots. Are they? What if they were stolen? What if I knew/did not know that when I bought them?
    It's far more tricky when it comes to so-called IP. If I use an idea, I have not taken it from you. Lost income? Meh - says who? How do you know? And so what?

  • Janne says:

    "Generally speaking, I think that the people who create any sort of work that could be considered intellectual property should have the right to decide if - and more importantly how - that work should be distributed to others. Give it away, sell it, rent it, trade it - they made it, so those decisions are theirs to make."
    So I assume you get prior approval for every time you quote somebody (like Greg Laden) on your blog?
    "Intellectual Property" is not an absolute, and not a good analogue to physical property - and you don't really believe that yourself or you would not find things like quoting people to be acceptable.

  • Roland says:

    The Brothers Grimm (and others) never gave Disney permission to lock up their work for 50 years. Remember Newton: "I stand tall because I stand on the shoulders of Giants." That's true for all types of creativity. And enforcement of IP regimes requires cooperation from the government. After all, it's a govt.-granted monopoly. That's why the US Const. says "...for a limited time." Bottom line, IP lockup may be a good idea in some circumstances, but the Govt/Corporate duopoly has stretched the idea beyond recognition. The DMCA & SonnyBono laws were bought by corporations.

  • JakeS says:

    Um...no, not really. You can only mix and match in situations where the vendor chooses to allow you, unless you are willing to do a lot of work. I'm not seeing support for Windows mobile running on Blackberries, or RIM's OS running on Nokia Phones.

    And that is precisely an illustration of the consequences of not having adequately enforced industry standards in the cell phone industry. Meanwhile, the computer industry actually does have industry standards, although they are not quite as good as the ones found elsewhere.
    The example of cars is illustrative: The reason that the control electronics in your car works smoothly is that the car manufacturer (and the government safety inspectors) make sure that all the suppliers, subcontractors, assembly plants, etc. are in compliance with the design specifications for the car. Vertical integration is one way of enforcing industry standards...
    - Jake

  • konrad_arflane says:

    After all - property is not an attribute of a thing. Nothing about a pencil changes when I sell it to you. Property is about how we shall behave with respect to that pencil. So there's seldom any definite "is property"/"is not property". My boots are my boots. Are they? What if they were stolen? What if I knew/did not know that when I bought them?

    I'm not sure where you're going with this. If property is not intrinsic to objects, but only describes how we act or should act, what makes intellectual property inherently different from physical property?

    It's far more tricky when it comes to so-called IP. If I use an idea, I have not taken it from you. Lost income? Meh - says who? How do you know? And so what?

    "So what?"?
    The answer to that question, on its own, should be self-evident, I think.

  • JakeS says:

    Intellectual property - like all property relationships - is a social convention that is enforced because it serves a social and political purpose. If the intellectual property regime of today serves its political and social purpose poorly, then there is no good reason not to revise or abolish it.
    And it is frankly hard to see how an intellectual property regime that benefits the middlemen at the expense of both the end-users and the people who actually make the software, art, etc. serves any sound political and social purpose. Unless, of course, one believes that the revenue streams of 20th Century Fox and Paramount are sacrosanct, along with their hegemony over large sections of mass culture.
    - Jake

  • konrad_arflane says:

    And it is frankly hard to see how an intellectual property regime that benefits the middlemen at the expense of both the end-users and the people who actually make the software, art, etc. serves any sound political and social purpose. Unless, of course, one believes that the revenue streams of 20th Century Fox and Paramount are sacrosanct, along with their hegemony over large sections of mass culture.

    I'm all for rewarding the actual content creators over the middlemen - not least because I belong to the former group myself 😉
    But I'm not sure I agree that the problem is the current IP legislation (though I will readily admit that I know relatively little about the US specifics). The problem seems to me to be one that will take care of itself in time, at least for a significant number of art forms. After all the reason the middlemen have so much power is that until quite recently, the only way to get your content published was to sell it to a middleman (book publisher, record company, etc. etc.). That's not the case anymore, but of course that doesn't mean that the middlemen suddenly don't own the rights they have already purchased. It does mean, however, that many artists and other IP creators are in a much better bargaining position going forward. Hopefully that will mean that they will be better able to retain control of their IPs.

  • JakeS says:

    I don't consider property rights - intellectual or otherwise - to be sacrosanct. If they - or the corporations that are granted them - have outlived their usefulness, then it is within the power of society to revoke them.
    We do need to have some sort of intellectual property protection, but I think we should be having a serious public debate on the hows and wherefores. As opposed to just extending the time a work is protected every time Disney's copyright on Mickey Mouse is nearing expiration.
    I don't have a ready-made solution. I have identified some points elsewhere that I think should be considered when reforming intellectual property laws, but at this stage I think the most important thing is to get beyond the canned IFPI and counter-IFPI talking points.
    - Jake

  • MpM says:

    The problem with the comparison between the OS and a Web Browser is simple... When viewing a web page, users are guests. We have no expectation of control over the content. Page content is controlled by the host.
    Current Operating Systems allow users to own the Desktop. UNIX, Linux, Windows, and OS X, permit the user to customize the Desktop to the extent that it becomes an extension of the user. I know exactly what icon to jump to in order to accomplish a task. You may use the same OS, but that icon is nowhere to be found on your desktop.
    In some cases, (factories, controllers for CNC equipment and more), custom formatting the Desktop is crucial to safety and operator efficiency (when the alarm goes off, click this icon). Pop-up ads, scrolling banners and audible advertisements will severely and adversely impact this marraige of man and machine.
    That said, Apple's application may be a good thing. If OS publishers decide to populate the Desktop with advertisements, Open Source Desktops such as Linux, OpenBSD and others will get their day in the sun as process engineers rush to port critical software to these systems. I won't be far behind.

  • Brian X says:

    I don't know that this has any bearing on the legalities, but there is something special about the operating system -- it's the primary interface to the hardware, as well as the arbitrator of system resources. Greg's quite right -- it should be neutral.