The Free Computer is not a dream but it is a reality waiting to happen. All the elements are there we just need to gather them together. There has never been a better time to talk about the idea of the Free Computer than now. Last week I wrote a blog entry about the idea of the Free Computer and where we stand today. I think it's time to clarify my position and set out exactly what I mean, and where we go from here.
I was really astonished to see how many people were energised by the idea of the free computer. It seems to me that perhaps it’s time to do something about it. Tony Mobily this week in his blog GNU/Linux and its closing window of opportunity with OEMs speaks about how GNU/Linux seems to be missing out on potential opportunities because OEM’s are reluctant to sell or support GNU/Linux on their products. I agree with Tony when he says it’s because the conditions seem to be stacked against GNU/Linux (and by extension other free software) and to be honest I don’t hold out any hope for an OEM change of heart anytime soon. Unfortunately these companies are very conservative and not very courageous by nature. Their businesses are built on cost reduction not innovation. This is probably one of the reasons that so much computer hardware is so poor.
In order for the GNU/Linux or *BSD community to be more visible to the public it needs an OEM or Computer company to manufacture a product that works flawlessly, one that does more, does it better and does it with less than any other computer on the market. Such an OEM or company does not yet exist.
Perhaps we need to create one.
The OpenOEM (if you will) would be responsible for defining the specification for a laptop and/or desktop system. They would source the parts and certify them for use on GNU/Linux distributions or *BSD systems. By virtue of being able to order more parts at a time this OEM would be able to encourage component manufacturers to release specifications for their devices enabling the free-software community to write drivers and in this instance the driver code would pass into the free software world. With Open Hardware; if a person wanted to add some new function or fix something that was broken in the driver it would be a trivial exercise and the whole community would benefit as a result.
However, the biggest need right now is, as Tony says, the $950 (or less) Laptop that just works. Until we build it ourselves I cannot see any other manufacturer supplying one. Right now there is no market for a product that does not exist, it's demand is unregistered and therefore it does not feature in the OEM's plans.
In my previous blog, I cited Apple as an example of how to ensure the quality of the user experience and they do this by controlling the ‘Whole Widget’ This allows them to optimise the OS and applications for the hardware in question. This means they can guarantee performance and behaviour by limiting it to the hardware they have certified to run correctly. This gives them a huge advantage when it comes to a solid and well engineered product. They really do 'just work'.
So how are we going to do this?
I would like to propose that a forum be set up with a wiki where discussions can take place as to the best way to achieve these objectives. I have already received feedback from some people who are interested in making something happen along these lines but we need more people to help and many questions will have to be asked and answered.
What type of architecture would be the best choice? What components are open already that that we can use. How will we design things like power control? Should we build on a distribution like Ubuntu as Tony suggests or build our own distro? Will we create groups within the forum to work on hardware integration, software integration, aesthetics and ergonomics? How will we agree on the final specifications and how will we organise manufacturing. If the OpenOEM is to be successful at all I believe that issues such as these would have to be addressed as early as possible.
How should such an entity be organised; as a trust, as a corporation (as in the traditional definition) as a company or as a Co-Op? How should it be administered and where should it be based?
As a community of software and hardware users, I am convinced that the expertise exists here in order to do this thing. Of course, it will not be easy, but then the important things never are. And I truly believe that this is something worth doing.
I think it can be done and I think it should.
Consider this as a call to arms and a statement of intent, but without the community's participation it will be as nothing so please let me hear your opinions and suggestions.
P.S. There are many noteworthy projects out there right now such as The Open Bios Project or The Open Graphics Project and even The OpenCores Project, which highlight how much can be done independently.We need to be able to provide a framework to bring these kinds of projects together and maybe the OpenOEM could help to do that. There is a great resource on the Free Software Foundation website which lists hardware already deemed to be open at Hardware Devices that Support GNU/Linux