The Glass Roots Revolution

by Doc Searls

What happens when it's as easy to run fiber optic cabling in your house as it is to run Ethernet? Or to bridge one into the other as easily as you plug two Ethernet cables together? For example, with one of these...

...Especially if you can buy all those components -- cables, connectors, power supplies -- at Radio Shack?

Now think about how you can mix that with Wi-Fi and other DIY infrastructural elements, such as the upcoming 802.11y stuff.

Where it goes is the independent hacking together of everything: a convergence of cheap, mobile and hackable. Add to that the half-zillion open source code bases now populate the world of useful tools and building materials, and you have the ingredients — if not yet the recipe — for remaking infrastructure from the edges inward.

That edging inward is a movement that the phone company does not own, and can not own. And it won't just happen with wiring and wireless. It will happen with devices as well. The consumer electronics business will turn gradually in to the producer electronics business: a new category in which ordinary hackers far outnumber big manufacturers. In time, the few will follow the many, even as the many continue to follow the few.

Meaning that consumer electronics won't go away. It will just become the reciprocal of producer electronics. The two will work together. Because they'll have to. Those things that only large companies can do will continue to be done by those. And those things that can only be done by small companies and individuals will continue to be done by those. The difference is that the latter group will grow. A lot.

This first became apparent to me at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show back in January. At the time I produced a highly annotated set of photos I took at the show. That was a kind of article in itself. Since then so much has happened, and is continuing to happen, that my head is spinning with it.

As somebody steeped in the value systems of Linux, Free Software and Open Source, CES has always felt a bit retro to me. No matter how much slick new stuff got shown off there, I could never ignore how utterly proprietary so much of it was. Year after year, gear makers have bragged about their proprietary technologies, their closed architectures, their exclusive designs for customer capture.

That's why, even though I've always enjoyed going, I've also felt like I was slogging upstream against a flood of greed and hype. Year after year. It was like a chant.

CES2008 was different. At this show I could feel the tide turn. It wasn't just that Bill Gates gave his final opening keynote. And it wasn't any one piece of gear. Instead I saw some subtle but sure signs that Linux was the new CE standard, and that lock-in with proprietary tech was a business strategy of increasingly marginal use. Open was winning, or poised to win, and in some places both hardly expected yet long overdue. Such as mobile phones.

I've read a lot of CES coverage since the show in January. Nobody else seems to have caught the change, so maybe I'm alone. But everybody who went to CES, myself included, was daunted by its sheer size. CES is one of the largest trade shows in the world, and the largest in the U.S. The numbers tell the story:

  • 1.8+ million square feet including —
    • The Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), with its Central Hall, North Hall, South Halls 1 through 4, meeting rooms and Central Plaza. Any one of these by itself ranks among the world's largest expo spaces. The South Hall alone is one of the world's largest buildings.
    • The Las Vegas Hilton
    • The Sands Expo and Convention Center, including The Venetian hotel.
  • 140,000 attendees from 140 countries
  • More than 2700 exhibitors, not counting those at hospitality suites, rented restaurants and hotel ballrooms
  • 4500 "media", not counting bloggers, who this year also got schwag bags and were treated as a breed of press
  • 30 product categories
  • 6 tech zones
  • More keynotes, sessions and speakers than I can bother to count

Worse, many of these venues are highly inconvenient to each other, and cursed by a city that doesn't care how much trouble its guests go through just to travel from one hotel or convention site to another. There is no excuse for a city this fancy and fast-growing to provide such minimal public transportation. The roads around the Strip are often a gridlocked mess of taxis, rental cars, buses and construction vehicles. The Las Vegas Monorail is the Strip's only rail system. (No subways, no trolleys, no light rail.) It runs behind a few hotels on the Strip's east side, and is convenient to a minority of those. At least it stops at the LVCC. Long lines and high ticket prices (a single ride is $5) also make it barely competitive with taxis.

Even on CES's own shuttle busses, travel between locations is time-consuming and arduous. The hotels' own inadequate signage and vast casino areas (which sit in the middle of everything) also cause confusion and waste time.

And some CES locations are just bizarre. The High Performance Audio exhibits, which used to spread across the bucolic low-rise environs of the Alexis Park Hotel, have for the last two years occupied a stack of floors near the top of the Venetian Hotel. The only way to get there without walking was by elevator. Lines were long, and finding individual companies among hundreds of identical rooms was a needle-in-haystack ordeal. After one elevator ride up and down (with little time to tarry between the two), I bailed on the whole prospect. Which is too bad, because the high-end audio business has embraced the open source value system for years (while hardly knowing it).

I also missed some of the exhibit areas I usually visit, including Auto exhibits in the North hall, and the zillion companies showing off new stuff in little booths at the Hilton International Gateway. Instead I spent most of my time at the Sands, the Central Hall and parts of the South Hall, where the highest percentage of Linux and open source stuff was concentrated. There I found enough to leave me convinced that it's time to look past GandhiCon 4, toward What Comes Next -- not just for Linux, but for all of Consumer Electronics. What I've seen since then has me even more convinced that new frontiers are opening.

Here's what I found.

1) Linux is a selling point.

This hasn't been the case in the past. In my 2004 report I found only eleven mentions of Linux among all the exhibitors at the show. And that was the year after Kunitake Ando, president and CEO of Sony, gave a famous keynote speech, announcing the company's intention to make Linux its future embedded operating system. (The CELF -- Consumer Electronics Linux Forum -- grew out of the same effort.) Subsequent years weren't much better. But this year I found nearly eighty, many of which I listed in the wiki we put together for the show. And Sony is quietly but increasingly putting Linux to use. (See Bravia for Linux, in UpFront.)

Not everybody is bragging, of course. A lot of Linux I had to hunt down. One example was the Dish Network booth. I've been a Dish subscriber since the '90s, when they were still Echostar, and I was eager to confirm what I had long suspected: that Dish actually uses Linux in its DVR boxes. Ours, a VIP722, sits in a cabinet, where it is controlled by an RF remote, rather than a line-of-sight IR remote. Very handy. Sure enough, a Dish honcho said, most of Dish's computerized gear, including my PVR, runs Linux, as does most of Dish's stuff.

2) Wintel is dead. Long live Lintel.

One company not afraid to brag about Linux was Intel. At one end of the company's immense floor space was a booth in itself devoted to Mobility. Every device I saw there showed off Linux. And many of them were the very same devices being shown by their makers in other booths running Windows, complete with little Windows stickers on them. The ones I saw at the Intel booth were stickerless and tuxful. Most were MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices) or UMPCs (Ultra Mobile PCs), or somewhere between those two. They included --

  • The Aigo MID, which features the Intel Menlow chip and has a slide-out keyboard like the Nokia N810. The OS is China's Red Flag, and its UI is knocked straight off the iPhone. Its browser is a FireFox close called Cool Fox.
  • The Samsung Q1 Ultra, which features a large screen flanked by both sides of a split thumb-operated QWERTY keyboard. It ran Red Flag too. Even though the one shown to me was last used to look up Debian on the Web.
  • The DigiFriends UPMPC, which comes with a raft of different bases, including ones for speakers, gaming, keyboard and so on. I didn't get to see what it was running, but was told it runs Linux.
  • An unnamed Lenovo hand-held media player, also running Red Flag, and featuring a UI view nearly identical to Apple's "cover-flow" method of flipping through files or images.

(I should also disclose here that Intel Mobility folks took me on as a guest passenger on a ZeroG flight out over the Pacific and back, to fill in for some contest winners who couldn't make it or chickened out. I was chosen, they told me, for my overly documented interest in aviation (I have thousands of pictures on Flickr shot out of the windows of airplanes), rather than my job with Linux Journal. I appreciate the trip, and I would have dug what they're doing with hand-held Linux anyway.)

By the way, when I went to the Samsung booth to find out more about the Q1 Ultra, I was shown a Windows version (complete with sticker), told that they don't support Linux, and was made unwelcome at the booth by my desire to take pictures there. They forbid pictures because they were afraid competitors would steal their ideas. Really. They said that. Still, it's nice to know they make stuff you can run Linux on anyway.

3) Open Mobile is starting to happen.

There has always been an unhappy partnership between cell phone makers and carriers, especially in the U.S., where carriers often require makers to dumb down European or Asian phones so they won't do, say, GPS or Wi-Fi. Then when Apple came out with the iPhone last summer, it was discouraging to see an active new development community producing fun apps that only ran on unlocked phones. Even with stalwart mobile Linux companies like Trolltech and OpenMoko on the scene, hope that we'd see phones as open as white box PCs seemed as far away as ever.

Then, late last year, Google announced the Android Open Handset Alliance Project. Lots of people quickly assumed that Android -- and open phones in general -- would threaten established phone makers such as Motorola and Nokia. At CES it became clear that this was not the case. Quite the opposite, in fact. Folks from OpenMoko and Trolltech both told me that Android had cracked the market wide open, making life better for everybody in the open phone business. A guy from OpenMoko said that at least one of the big cell phone carriers had contacted OpenMoko to start talking about, well, possibilities. Since then Trolltech has been bought by Nokia and OpenMoko has open-sourced its Neo handset hardware design, posting CAD files for them.

It doesn't end there. The Motorola booth at CES had walls filled with messages that could have been lifted right out of the ProjectVRM handbook: "your content on your terms", "media that goes where you go", "You are the director. Your life is the script", "video on your terms" The company had a lot of handsets on display, but the ones it pushed most -- the RAZR2 V8 and the MOTOROKR E8 -- were based on Linux, and they were quick to brag about that. (The E8 was enviably cool and usable, with one of the best UIs I've ever seen on a phone.) They also showed off their Linux-based and open source KreaTV application platform for set-top boxes. This not only opens set-top boxes for applications of many kinds, but anticipates a move by the market (including carriers) to IPTV (Internet Protocol TV). At the show a placard called it a "Flexible User Environment. Hans Vind, who works for Motorola in Sweden, showed me around the booth, pointing out so much stuff that runs on Linux and is Open to Anything that I lost track of it all.

At the Sony booth, I got to see the new (still Linux-based) Mylo, which they call a "personal communicator". Big appeal: connects via wi-fi and works out of the box as a Skype phone. To me it needs to beat the N810, and it didn't do that. More importantly, a Sony guy at the booth showed off how easy it is to install Linux on the Playstation.

Back at the Dish Network booth, they were also showing off "pocketdish": the Archos 605 and 705 multimedia players, both Linux-based.

And back at the restaurant where I met with the Trolltech and OpenMoko guys, I also ran into our own Jon 'maddog' Hall, who also works with Koolu, which makes a cool little Linux appliance. While it isn't mobile in the customary sense, it's mighty portable and makes a nice segue to the my next point...

4) DIY hardware gets small.

The biggest pure-Linux hit I saw at CES2008 was Bug Labs, which makes hand-held hackable Linux-based modular hardware. Their small booth at the Sands was packed every time I went by, which was pretty often. They won a Best of CES award from CNET in the Emerging Technologies category, and deserved it. We've written about Bug Labs and love their story and their mission. What we need now are more companies jumping into the space Bug Labs pioneers. We like that Bug Labs has a head start, but the long run will get a lot shorter once the category gets some competition.

Of course, this is fraction of all the Linux-based stuff I saw at CES, and a much smaller percentage of the total. The question now is, What will happen now that the consumer electronics tide is starting to turn toward Linux and its value system? I see several trends.

First, "consumer electronics" will become an anachronism. Too many consumers are also producers now. They produce audio and video, in addition to code.

Second, the boundaries between categories will continue to blur and confuse. One big reason is that "TV" as we know it is declining as a defining medium. Same with radio. A smaller and smaller fraction of the video people watch, and the audio people hear, is originating from "stations". More of it is coming from file sources on the Web, or from other people by more direct connections.

Third, the role of all institutions will be challenged and changed. This goes for companies, schools, governments, and trade shows. What's causing this is a general trend toward independence. Lock-in isn't going away, but it has less leverage than ever. This is especially true for IT departments, which are seeing more and more computing functions shifting to outside services (such as Amazon's S3 and EC2), while more and more employees use their own gear and rely increasingly on "social networks" as well as their own means of communicating, storing files and the rest of it.

Fourth, DIY opportunities and skills will only increase as the number of open source code bases grows toward a million and more. Hardware will lag behind, and will probably be encumbered by patents and other intellectual property issues -- not to mention manufacturing hassles -- but it will still become just as open as software in the long run.

Many years ago I said in Linux Journal that the software industry would eventually come to resemble the construction industry from which it draws much of its vocabulary (platform, tools, builds, architecture, etc.). The construction industry has long operated on a lot of open source defaults. Most building materials are comprised of stuff that's found, or grows, in nature. They have no secrets about how they're made, and are open to being used any way that makes sense. Still, there is plenty of closed and proprietary stuff in the portfolio of construction materials. There are latches, mechanical parts, patented beams made from pressed wood chips and so on. But none of the companies that makes any of that stuff can lock an architect or a builder in to their "platform", much less will tell a crew how to build a whole house. That's because the parts are mostly modular and swappable. At its base is the assumption that anybody can make anything they like, any way they like. Most of the parts are commodities, and that's a good thing.

Sony still makes a fine TV, but there is nothing to stop you from doing the same. Here at the apartment we rent near Boston, our "TV" is a 19" $219 computer LCD screen that used to go with one of our laptops. Now it's hooked to a Motorola set-top box that gives us an HD picture of "channels" that come in over a fiber optic cable and emulate cable TV, except that they're just data streams rather than RF signals. We get nothing off the air, and don't miss it. Oh, and our carrier, Verizon FiOS, will soon upgrade our Internet service to 20Mb up as well as down: the first high-speed symmetrical service from any provider. Kudos to them for that.

The next step is for them (and other carriers) to make it as easy as possible to do anything we like -- including starting new business and making new products -- over the best-connected Net we can get. Think about how all those open source code bases got developed. What was their environment? It wasn't the consumer electronics business. It was the producer electronics environment -- a rising tide that will lift countless business boats. That tide will rise on a wide-open world that also grew in human nature: one we call The Net.

The Consumer Electronics business will continue to thrive, but in a bigger environment that we ever got by adding all the big company silos together. The old silos won't be native in that environment. To thrive here, open works best. That's just nature's way.

Learning from Loma Linda

Last week I attended Gordon Cook's first "Cook-In", a gathering of exceptionally smart and original people who have an interest in unpacking what one of them called "Level Zero" of Internet Infrastructure. This is the pure NEA level: the one Nobody owns, Everybody can use, and Anybody can improve. It lies below the bottom layers of ISO' stack.

Expanding this layer -- the Net itself -- is not a job just for giant companies that own lots of what Bob Frankston calls CFR: copper, fiber and radios. It's a job for electricians, plumbers, carpenters and anybody who is handy with building stuff. Including the kinds of hackers who read Linux Journal.

The city of Loma Linda, California, has been a great proving ground for what I'll call glass roots. In Loma Linda we're seeing a new generation of fiber optic cabling being deployed, this time including ordinary citizens in the build-out.

Here's a photo set I shot last week in Loma Linda. (Including the one above.) Starring is James Hettrick, whose resourceful DIY sensibilities were formed as a kid growing up on a Montana ranch community so rural that their phone system was one they built themselves and connected to no telco.

What James Hettrick is showing in these few pictures is the beginning of a glass roots revolution in infrastructure development. It's what I wanted North Americans to see when I wrote this feature for Linux Journal on Denmark's a couple years ago. On those streets of Copenhagen I saw foreshadowed what is bound to happen everywhere.

We'll have no choice. Because there are too many brains, too many tools, too ingrained a value system based on freedom, autonomy and getting good work done.

It's exciting stuff, and I'm looking forward to covering a lot more of it.