Just for Fun

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As I have finished Harry Potter, I started to read a biography on Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, called Just for Fun. So far it has been quite interesteing. He has just talked a little about his youth and how he used the old computers.

One quote that caught my attention and that I thought quite funny:

And he didn't have much desire to circulate among the rich and powerful. I asked him what he would like to say to Bill Gates, but he wasn't the least bit interested in even meeting the guy. "There wouldn't be much of a connection point," he [Linus] reasoned. "I'm completely uninterested in the thing that he's the best in the world at. And he's not interested in the thing that maybe I'm the best in the world at. I couldn't give him advice in business and he couldn’t give me advice in technology."

Linus has a great perspective on why copyrights and patents do not work to the benifit of society. Here is one example he writes about the music industry:

Flash forward to the music industry in the waning years of the twentieth century. The resource it controls is entertainment. A company owns the rights to an artist’s work. That artist produces a number of successful singles, but the company puts maybe one or two of those singles on each CD it produces. That way it can sell multiple CDs instead of the one that everyone wants. Then somebody invents the technology for MP3. Suddenly, music can be downloaded fro the Internet. MP3 is about doing the right thing for consumers by giving them a choice.

So if a typical CD costs $10 and contains two singles a consumer wants, it may make more sense for him to purchase those singles separately – along with others he wants – off MP3 for $1.50 apiece. No longer is the buyer trapped in a despotic situation, living by the greed-inspired rules of the music industry, which wants to give up just the bite-sized pieces that it chooses to give up. There’s a reason why the music industry is scared to death of MP3 and its sister technologies, Napster and Gnutella. The price of water got so high that it became profitable for somebody to devise a new method of bringing it in from somewhere else.

But this is an industry with a history of trying to control consumers - if not by what music it chooses to release, then by copyright and technology. This is the industry that tripped all over itself in the 1960’s, trying to keep consumers from copying music onto tapes when that technology entered the market. Because the industry felt tapes were the perfect medium for people to disobey copyright laws, it argued for ways to protect its copyrights. This was a bad excuse. The industry was taking the moral high ground and pleading copyright when it was simply trying to maintain control of its niche franchise. The fact is, tapes never hurt the music industry. Sure, people copied music for their own use, but that only meant that people actually bought more LPs from which to copy. Duh. A few decades later, when CDs came out, the players were built so that you couldn’t copy your tape perfectly. Paranoia strikes again. Next came digital tapes. They involved a different sampling rate from CDs – 48kh versus 44.1 – to prevent users from copying their CDs onto digital tape. Again the industry tried to screw over the customer to get control. But in the case of digital tapes, the market never quite hit. It was a bit like fooling with Mother Nature.

By trying to control each successive technology, the music industry only helps inspire people to devise new ways around it. Are they ever going to get it?
That brings us, inevitably, to DVDs. This time the entertainment industry delivered much better sound and video than VHS tapes, plus a smaller format and greater ease-of-use. But they added encryption to prevent copying. And to add insult to injury, they added geographic area codes. The DVD you bought in the San Francisco airport wouldn’t play in Europe. It made a perverse sense to the industry: Hey guys, we can sell movies at a higher price in Europe! So let’s make sure Europeans can’t buy movies from the United States.

Could the entertainment industry not have predicted the obvious? That the price of water would get so high that somebody would devise a new method of piping it in from somewhere else?

Yes, while the industry was greedily trying to control people through technology, the DVD encryption was cracked – not even by people who wanted to copy DVDs but by people who simply wanted to view them under Linux. These are folks who actually wanted to buy DVDs, but they couldn’t; the discs would have been useless on their equipment. The industry’s moves to protect its fiefdom backfired: It simply prevented the market from expanding and created the incentive for the cracking of the DVD encryption.

Linus contrasts this with a section on the Palm software, which is open sorce.

Contrast that with the if-you-love-it-set-it-free strategy taken by Palm Computing. The folks at Palm made their development environment open, and also opened up their platform, not only to vendors but also to individuals who would want to write programs for the platform. They opened up their APIs and made it easy to get their development tools for free. What this did was create a cottage industry around the Palm Pilot. It made the Palm phenomenon more than just one company struggling in a new market. So now you have companies selling games that work on Palm Pilots, and more advanced calendar programs than what Palm itself offers. Now the consumer can choose what he or she wants and everybody benefits, particularly Palm, which enjoys a larger market as a result of opening itself up.

Handspring is doing the same thing with its device, the Visor. It’s a Palm competitor that uses the Palm operating system, and the company takes openness a step further by allowing hardware plug-ins like GPS receivers and mobile phone attachments. Like Palm, Handspring is creating a community of companies to support a new platform.

Just for Fun at Amazon.com

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