Linux for Suits - The No-Party System

by Doc Searls

I always have been fascinated by the expression “third party” as it is used in business. What do we mean by that? And, why don't we talk about first party and second party, except in legal documents? Third party clearly labels its members as subordinates to first and second parties. In technology, third parties inhabit a business ecosystem defined by a large vendor (the first party) and its relationship with customers and users (second parties). Wikipedia says, “In computer programming, and particularly in Microsoft Windows programming, 'third-party software component' refers to a reusable software component developed to be either freely distributed or sold by an entity other than the original vendor of the development platform.”

By that definition, third-party software plays a value-adding role in a market ecosystem defined by the vendor. In architectural terms, the vendor's role is to provide a platform that supports both second and third parties. Platforms in turn serve as foundations for silos: locked-in market spaces controlled by the vendor.

Linux doesn't work that way, nor does the software we call free or open source. Yet Linux seems to have third parties. Look up “third-party software” on Google and the top result—at this moment, at least—is Third-party Quickcam, a table of Linux resources that's maintained by Patrick Reynolds of the Computer Science Department at Duke University. Here's a fun digression: a search for “Linux” on the Department Web site returns 1,140 results, and a search for “Windows” returns 2,360 results, the first of which is “Emacs/G++ on Windows Machines”. It begins, “You'll need three things to make your Windows machine work like a Linux/Unix machine.”

The third-party Quickcam software on Patrick Reynolds' list may work with Linux, but it isn't controlled by Linux in the way third-party applications for Windows and OS X are controlled by Microsoft and Apple. That's because Linux isn't a company. As one Linux programmer once told me, “Linux can't sue anybody.” In fact, Linux isn't even a platform of the sort defined by Windows and Mac OS. Instead, Linux is a form of building material that grows in the wild and naturally is suited for making foundations and frameworks. The wild in this case is fertile human mentation, which is why it evolves and improves in the course of being put to use.

The limits to Linux's usefulness also are natural ones. No company restricts anybody's right to use it. Because Linux embodies and expresses the GNU General Public License (GPL), Linux is not only free as in beer and free as in freedom, but free as in marketplace. Both Linux and the software that runs on it are unconstrained by formalized business relationships defined primarily by one party. The primary practical purpose of free software is to be useful, not to serve as a platform for a silo—even if platform vendors build silos on it anyway, as, for example, Apple's OS X does on FreeBSD. Hey, it's a free market.

For years I've been carrying around a discomfort with the platform label for Linux and the third-party label for software that runs on it. That discomfort verged on pain when I wandered around CES (Computer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, January 2005. Shows such as CES and MacWorld, which followed it, provide an interesting contrast to Linux events, because they gather exhibitors that seem to operate on a set of principles exactly opposite of those Linux holds.

At CES, for example, proprietary is a good word, and digital rights management (DRM) is a good feature. At CES, I lost count of the times somebody reciting a scripted pitch on a vendor's stage bragged about “our proprietary technology”. Red Hat, Novell, IBM and Sun—none of whom were at CES, for whatever that's worth—all have proprietary technologies, some more than others, but you never hear them brag about it at LinuxWorld Expo.

I was fascinated to hear about one vendor or another “owning” a market or “dominating” a category. What does this mean for third parties in owned or dominated categories? It seemed to me that their role, in spite of whatever success they might achieve, still is a captive one, like a prisoner or a slave.

In the central halls of CES, it seemed as though every product category—audio/video, satellite systems, mobile electronics, home theater, HDTV, digital cameras and camcorders, to name only a few—were collections of silos that I couldn't help but think of as prisons. For audio recording, Sony had ATRAC. For digital IBOC (in-band, on-channel) AM/FM radio, Ibiquity had HD Radio. For “digital lifestyle” home PC/TV integration, Microsoft had Windows Media, the Digital Media Edition of Windows XP and a raft of other closed and proprietary products. Microsoft partners all over the floor carried the Microsoft PlayForSure logo, which serves two purposes: 1) labeling third parties as members of Microsoft's branded ecosystem and 2) sugar-coating the DRM in Windows Media Player. The satellite radio (XM, Sirius) and television (DishTV, Voom, DirecTV) vendors were silos in themselves. Third-party antennas, receivers and other devices all are built precisely to specifications provided by the vendors.

Linux was all over the show, however, although few vendors were willing to talk about it, much less brag about using it. When I went looking for Linux stories at one name-brand network equipment company, the head media relations guy was summoned to tell me, with practiced precision, “We can't talk about that.” When I pressed him, his answers made it clear that the company's publicity ports for Linux and open-source information were blocked by the legal department. When I pressed harder, the guy finally said, “Okay, I'll tell you this much. You can't throw a stick at anything in this booth and not hit something that runs on Linux.”

The biggest booth at the show was a collection of large rooms off the Central Hall in which Sony showed off its latest and greatest. If there was any Linux in those rooms, you wouldn't know it from Sony's literature or hear about it from Sony staffers. The official Sony policy on Linux and open source appeared to be stony silence—in spite of a pro-Linux keynote given by Sony COO and President Kunitake Ando at CES two years ago. “There's no Linux here”, one Sony guy told me, as if I had showed up at Tiffany's asking for whiskey.

When I asked another Sony guy if the company ever would make a portable digital audio device that could record and play back Ogg, MP3 or formats other than the company's own highly proprietary ATRAC, he said “Oh no. There are copyright issues with those.” When I asked him to explain those issues, he mumbled something about people “stealing music”. I told him Apple's iPod was not only kicking Sony's butt in the portable audio market but was capable of recording in MP3. He said there was nothing he could do about that. He did assure me that Sony had no plans to make an MP3 player.

The reason behind this stance, of course, is Sony isn't merely a consumer electronics company: it's a music company as paranoid about “piracy” as the rest of the tired old recording industry. But, it doesn't need to be. Sony is crippling its legacy business—electronics—to keep one of its acquired businesses—music—from getting hurt. This allows innovative and unconstrained competitors, such as Apple, to clean up in a category Sony probably would dominate if it wasn't simply a collection of battling business units whose conflicts are settled by lawyers.

The largest presence at CES was the absent exhibitor whose own show followed the next week in San Francisco—Apple. In October 2004, the NPD group said Apple's iPod accounted for 92.1% of the market for hard drive-based music players. In on-line music retailing, Apple's iTunes Music Store is equally dominant. Thanks to iTunes and iPod, the hardware extension of iTunes software, Apple is becoming the Microsoft of Music. And without music, there wouldn't be a consumer electronics business. iPods were everywhere at CES. And although Apple is far less supportive of third parties than is Microsoft, it does have a few. One is Motorola, which plans to come out with an iTunes phone. Others are Belkin, BMW, Mercedes and countless makers of cases, attachments and various iPod accessories. More than one exhibitor told me that many of the new Microsoft PlayForSure partners were motivated by fear of Apple's success with iPod and iTunes and the relative exclusivity of Apple's partnership requirements.

All of which is interesting, but beside the point. The point is how Linux and the pioneering values of its companions quietly are changing the world.

While everybody else watches battles among market fortresses, pioneering developers quietly open and settle the wide open spaces where freedom reigns. We see it happening in embedded operating systems; TiVos, Replay TVs and countless network appliances at CES all run on Linux. We see it happening with radio, in podcasting and with music recording, thanks to Creative Commons-licensed artists and music. What's next?

The day after CES, I ran into Alan Graham, a programmer and author. His latest book is Never Threaten To Eat Your Co-Workers: Best of the Blogs, for which I wrote the foreword. He told me we can expect the same progress to happen with television:

Television is just information and information wants to be free. All it's going to take to free it is one guy with one new invention, one new cool implementation.

Go back 75 years to the early days of radio. People complained, “You can't do music on radio!” But guess what? Radio sold music.

Technology builds markets. Point to any technical breakthrough in media, and you can point next to a market that got created by that breakthrough. Look at videotape. Netflix. Blockbuster. Little independent video rental places. Did the VCR kill the movie market? No. It created a new market for movies. The same thing will happen to television.

To seek relief on the last day of the show, I went over to the newly renovated Alexis Park Hotel, which for the last several years has been the home of the High Performance Audio corner of CES. In the old days, exhibitors suffered exhibiting in the cavernous and noisy main halls. In the Alexis Park, each exhibitor has its own small hotel suite. Sound isolation is remarkably good, considering.

I went there looking for Linux stories and also because, many years ago, I was an audiophile. This was back when vacuum tubes were going out of fashion; they're back with a vengeance now. I built Dynaco pre-amps and power amps from kits and knew the virtues and failings of countless brands of turntables, amplifiers and tuners. I could never afford to be a high-end customer and still can't, so I did the next-best thing—retailing. I worked as a salesman and a manager at several audio “salons”, as they called them back then.

Although I expected to see and hear some far-out and high-priced audio gear at the Alexis Park, I didn't expect to it to be a delightfully silo-free zone. As with the freelance Linux hacker ecosystem, high-end audio is inhabited mostly by smart and resourceful do-it-yourself builders, all making whatever they feel like making, any way they want to make it, without restrictions by any “platform” vendors. Instead, they all regarded the big-name vendors, Sony, Technics, Bose—everything sold in Circuit City and Best Buy—with disdain.

What's more, these gear hackers all were pursuing perfection—they call it that—with products built mostly from standards-based components and in a mostly open way. They bragged and argued about approaches, implementations and results, in large measure because their materials and building methods are open to inspection and discussion. Not surprisingly, this included their use of Linux. Rodomir “Boz” Bozovic, PhD, of Tact Audio Labs told me his shop uses Linux in its pursuit of “acoustical room correction, measurement and monitoring”. Mark Doehman, Chief Designer at Continuum Audio Laboratories in Victoria, Australia, told me the company's radical-looking turntable benefited from software that did “wave shaping” and other stuff that sounded cool but I don't remember. With luck they'll make it into a future story in Linux Journal.

My favorite component was the RCA 833A vacuum tube, which is the size of a pickle jar and was a workhorse for decades in radio transmission and industrial heating applications. A number of speaker makers drove boxes the size of coffins that cost more than luxury cars with WAVAC HE-833A single-ended monoblock amplifiers, which sell for $38,000 US. One speaker maker told me, with pride and admiration for the WAVAC, that the 833A tube costs less than $50. Like every other amplifier I saw at the Alexis Park, it was differentiated by the quality and uniqueness of design, construction and, especially, by the unique personalities behind the products. Sound familiar?

So, what does this say about Linux and third parties? I asked Jeff Wiegand, a veteran independent Web developer now working for the St. Louis City Government, if the term third party makes any sense to him. “It's only manufacturers and clients now”, he replied. Then he went on to define manufacturer as “anybody who makes anything that's useful.”

I did find some other examples back in the main halls at CES. For example, I had long conversations with several executives at Frey Technologies, which makes SageTV media centers. Among other things, they were launching a new Linux version of the company's media center that “offers the reliability and affordability of Linux without Windows licensing fees or the more expensive hardware required to deploy Windows-based systems”. CEO Dan Kardatzke told me the company started out working with Microsoft but decided there was far more room to grow and compete outside the Windows silo. “It was an economic decision to begin with. The OEM cost of MC—the Media Center edition of Windows XP—is $89 US. But there are also these really high hardware costs, for processors and graphics chip sets and so on. We can run on a 600MHz Pentium III. There's also stability, reliability, networkability....”

Alan Graham also told me home entertainment battles will be won, eventually, by the most open systems. He finds hope, for example, in the relatively open ecosystem surrounding the Linux-based Replay TV:

Replays are just wonderful—far more flexible and capable than TiVos. They have lots of inputs on the back and lots of ways they let you control them, rather than vice versa. You can have several Replays in your house, plug them all into a 100baseT network or a wireless one, but you want wired for speed. You can swap out or add bigger drives. And you can hack the whole thing into one big system with DVArchive, which is a free Java program you can run on Linux or anything else. You can set all your Replay recording schedules for whatever you want to record. You can set DVArchive to move videos off the Replays and onto your central server to archive there.

You can also use the VLC media player to play them. VLC is free open-source software. It runs on every platform you can name, including all the Linux distros and even little handheld Linux devices. It recognizes the Replay format, pulls off two reference files and the video file. The beauty is you can take these Replay files and play them in the VLC player, on the go. If you can plug in an Ethernet cable and do minimal command-line work, you can do home entertainment automation. You can build a video server system. Today. So much stuff is already here. Not just Replay, DVArchive and VLC, but proximity through Bluetooth and presence through XMPP. Consider the possibilities.

It's a lot easier to consider those possibilities if you're a pioneering member of the No-Party system.

Resources for this article: /article/8067.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.

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