linux betrayed me


In my teens, I ran Microsoft Windows, enthusiastically participated in beta programs for Microsoft software, subscribed to magazines like PCWorld, and loved tech gadgetry unreservedly. Then, in 1998, I installed a Linux distribution. Momentsi don’t recall how long it took, but it seems like moments

later, I grew a consciousness about how technology creators intentionally design products to control their users.

This realization made me more selective about my technology choices.

Being told “you paid for this technology but you’re still not allowed to use it that way” began to chafe too much.

Linux was my introduction to a wild new way of thinking about the rights that users should have when interacting with technology, and it quickly became my champion and measuring-stick for hardware. Soon, the first thing I would ask upon announcement of any whizzy new computing device was: “yeah, but can it run Linux?” I had become the stereotypical Slashdot nerd.

Devices that could be made to run Linux were good.
Devices that could not were bad.

But this simplistic evaluation was not because I wanted to “imagine a Beowulf cluster” of all manner of unsuitable linux-powered devices, or to connect a mouse and keyboard to a linux-powered toaster to use for homework assignments. Indeed, whenever I found and purchased hardware that met my “runs Linux” requirement, I might not even bother to attempt to replace the manufacturer-provided software on it.

Instead, Linux compatibility represented, to me, a kind of hedge against planned obsolescence.

The ability to run Linux, I reasoned, implied a promise of sufficient openness that even if the manufacturer stopped supporting it, it would not become a doorstop. If it could run Linux then it must be documented somewhere well-enough for users to fully understand and modify. In a small way, it was a return to the days (which I was too young to have ever experienced) when manufacturers supplied user service manuals for their products with complete electronic schematics included.

I imagined that I could re-purpose a Linux-powered device and keep it updated against security issues, thereby extending its operational lifetime. Someday, if I learn enough, I might even write my own operating system or firmware for it if I wanted to. That the device did not go out of its way to obstruct me from doing so was what mattered.

Even back then I was somewhat aware that Linux, despite being a never-before seen example of distributed innovation by volunteers, wasn’t necessarily a pinnacle of technological superiority. A device that can run Linux, however, could be studied by people that wish to create other, better, free software operating system kernels.

A device that could not run Linux, in contrast, becomes a brick of e-waste for a landfill at the whim of its manufacturer.

“the year of linux on the desktop”

In those early decades I and plenty of other Linux nerds fruitlessly predicted and awaited the “year of Linux on the desktop:” the year when it’s no longer surprising that a normal, non-tech-nerd person uses Linux instead of Windows or MacOS on their main computer. We’ve been at it so long that the phrase is now used only to mock us.

During those decades, the smartphone happened.

Tablets and hand-held computers (which always seemed to have cellular phone components) were invented and became popular. Critically, they were different than other personal computing platform variants of the day: manufacturer control and form-factor difference made backwards-compatibility unnecessary. The Mac and PC desktop computing hardware duopoly could finally have competition.

Google built their operating system atop the Linux kernel and called it Android.

Pretty sure the Linux desktop happened already, thanks to Google apps and Android. It just wasn’t what we expected. –@dberkholz 31 Dec 2015

“open source has won”

“Open Source has won,” breathlessly proclaimed many articles when Microsoft released Windows Subsystem for Linux, or when they purchased a seat on the board of the Linux Foundation. But this is neither good, nor a “win.” This watching an apex predator spontaneously evolve tentacles.pokemon evolution, not scientific evolution. i am aware that evolution happens to populations not individuals and this is a tragic nonscientific misapplication of the term.

Some part of me knew, but I was determined to disbelieve until Android secured its place as the dominant OS: running a Linux kernel means nothing about the openness of the system running on top of it or the hardware below it.

I should not have been, but I was surprised to find that “Linux support” does not equate to “user serviceable.” Most Android phones can’t have their OS replaced. Those that can have parts of their hardware become non-functional due to “binary blobs” that work only with the manufacturer-supplied kernel. For several years, it was even against the law in the United States to attempt to modify or replace the software on a locked-down device.

Those dastardly manufacturers, evading the spirit of freedom that Linux represented! Surely Linus Torvalds, the inventor of Linux, would have something to say about this!

And then I would learn that Linus doesn’t care that corporations lock down their hardware to evade granting users freedoms that the GPL was intended to protect.

Q: “Do you think that tivoization benefits me as a user, somehow?”

A: No. No I don’t. But that was not why I selected GPLv2. In my worldview, if you as the hardware maker make hardware that locks down the software, that has no impact on my decision as the software maker to give you the software. That was never the social contract I intended with Linux. –Linus Torvalds, 2014 [alternate clip]

I would learn the bitter lesson that the standard of measurement that I should have been using is what Linux represented for me (but which it does not ensure):

the freedom to tinker
and the right to repair.

So in truth, I betrayed myself for incorrectly ascribing high-minded Free Software ideals to Linux and its creator.

the year of (gpl3) on the (gadget)

So what I really want to achieve instead of the Year of Linux on the Desktop is the year of the GPL-version-3-or-later-licensed operating system on general-purpose computing devices.

Since I want a better OS kernel than Linux and a better community than the one Linus has fostered, I’m very excited by projects that are getting people into operating systems development, like Rust and IntermezzOS.

But a survey [that I did in 2016] of existing projects shows most are permissively-licensed.

This is terrible.

If they “succeed” they’ll end up being even more locked-down than Linux has been by hardware manufacturers.

Why? Why do hobbyists bend over backwards to gift control over users to rich and powerful corporations?

This is motivating me to dive into operating systems development and get a GPL3+-licensed project started… but I’m not a grad student studying operating systems. I have zero time to do this.

So if you start or work on an operating system project intended for individuals to use, improve collaboratively, and benefit from, please license your code “GPL version 3 or later.”

aside: the tinker-friendly kit computer for the people

A colleague once described to me something that I found alien and bizarre: his life-long fondness for Apple computers. How could anybody enjoy such a locked-down, managed, controlled, suffocating, (not to mention expensive) computing experience?

He floored me by saying the motivations he had mirrored my own for Linux and PC computers: tinkerability.

Was this Apple we’re talking about?

It was then that I learned that Steve Wozniak designed the first Apple computer to be sold as a kit, with full schematics included, made with tinkerers in mind. A computer For The People. How could Woz possibly be okay with what became of his design?

And I guess I should ask my colleague to expand on why he’s still an Apple fan today.