Penguicon: Engage!

Jon

Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

May 17, 2009 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Last night I went to see the latest Star Trek movie. I decided to see it on an IMAX movie screen, and the combination of Star Trek and the gigantic screen with speakers that let you feel when the Enterprise went into warp was really great.

Yes, I am a Gene Roddenberry fan. I never went around painting my skin green, or wearing pointed ears, but I did enjoy watching Star Trek about the same time as I started working with electronics over 40 years ago. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was my favorite series, and Captain Picard was my favorite character. O.K....who could not like Spock and Data? Nevertheless, I really liked Picard.

Recently I was an Honored Guest to the Penguicon conference in Romulus, Michigan. Yes, you read that right....Romulus. I could not believe it...a conference that is half Science Fiction/Fantasy and half Free Software being held in a place called "Romulus".

While at the conference I gave three talks and participated on a panel.

The first talk was about sustainable computing. I believe that closed source proprietary software as we know was effective for a short period of time, from the late 1970s to the year 2000. After the year 2000 proprietary, closed source software started to fail in its effectiveness, but has been carried forward by the momentum of people who started computing after its introduction and had not previously experienced the power of Free Software.

The reason that closed source software is collapsing is that closed source, proprietary software is being asked to address the needs of an ever increasing diversity in the marketplace, with needs can not be addressed by a "cathedral" method of development.

Even if the needs were addressable, profit motifs will probably prevent the specific needs of any one customer to be addressed. Therefore time and money will be lost by the end user customer, since they are no longer in control of their software, and therefore not in control of their business.

Through a simple calculation, I estimate that by using closed source software the computing industry loses approximately five billion dollars a day in non-productive software, which is software that does not fully meet the needs of the user. While I also do not believe that it is possible to reduce that loss to zero, I do believe that Free Software could reduce that loss to only about two to three billion dollars a day. The very least that Free Software could do is return the decision to lose that money or to fix the issues back to the end user customer, rather than leaving that decision with the software producer.

Other issues of sustainable computing have to do with power requirements of desktops, availability of local (both temporal and special locality) technical support, and job creation.

The second talk I gave was a "fun" talk of why free software is like a player piano. I have given this talk before, and there are a lot of similarities. For example, player pianos were sold at a very slow pace until the 88-note standard was created that allowed piano makers to use rolls of music from many different sources, and for roll creators to sell their rolls onto many different make pianos. Standards allowed proliferation. In the talk I also show how patents hurt the piano industry, often creating inferior solutions, while the first piano was not patented at all. In fact, if the first piano had been patented, the lack of music for it might have spelled the end of the piano industry before it even began.

The third session was a history Birds-Of-A-Feather. I gave a brief introduction to the computers I had used in the past 40 years, and then we asked the audience to tell us about their first computers and what they were like. I could see the looks of amazement in the eyes of the younger members of the audience as the "old guys" told about half megabyte hard disk drives and core memory systems that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (in 1969) for 64 kilobytes of memory.

Finally, I gave the "footnote" to the conference. While keynotes typically set the tone for a conference, my footnotes are never written until the end of the conference, and try to gather information at the conference to give a foreword looking theme. This footnote was no exception.

I told the audience that I had enjoyed a lot of Science Fiction in my youth. One of the things I liked about Science Fiction is that it tended to portray the future as we wanted to see it, or it warned us of the future we did not want. Many magazines of my youth showed us living in environmentally sound "smart" homes that took care of themselves, and we would surely all be flying around with rocket belts long before Orwell's 1984 came along.

Nevertheless, science fiction set some goals to aim for, and without a firm goal, it is hard to reach anything. So I challenged the audience to envision the near-term world as they would like to see it, to figure out how to use Free Software to reach that near-term goal, and to present the goal and the software plan for next Penguicon. Notice I did not say to produce the software, but only the "software plan". The challenge for this next year is to produce the vision and the path. At the next Penguicon we could vote on an agreed vision and path and move forward to create the software.

Would Roddenberry approve? As Captain Picard would say, "Let's see what is out there....Engage!"

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