I had a G3 iBook (PowerPC 750FX, mid 2002), and buying it stretched my finances to say the least. During my university years I became an open source zealot, using FreeBSD and Linux on my computers and enjoying it immensely. I bought a Mac because I also liked writing music, and there was a much richer selection of commercial software available for Macs. Upon buying the second generation iPod, I considered buying shares in Apple because it seemed like they had a perfect storm on their hands: Unix, incredible design, and products that appealed to both the non-technical and hackers among us.
I really should have bought those shares!
That iBook came with me to several technical conferences around London, and Macs weren't yet particularly popular with my fellow programmers and designers. They were probably more popular in more affluent technical communities around the world, but programmer salaries have never been particularly great in London. Back then owning a Mac garnered something like a motorcyclist's wave: the Mac-owner's nod.
The iPod captured my imagination. Slashdot hated it, but I loved it because of the interface. I thought the future would be an iPod-like machine that replaced laptops and computers: just dock it with a portable keyboard and screen, or a larger screen and keyboard at a desk. That never really happened -- the Motorola ATRIX wasn't a bad stab at it but I always felt like booting a secondary OS for the laptop mode seemed weird.
It's pretty clear that Apple have dominated developer mindshare. By switching to Unix, they won the hearts of developers who were frustrated with Microsoft or with maintaining Linux. Apple's products promised to save time, and delivered unparalleled hardware design. Eventually, those same conferences were packed with Macs. I recently went to a Vim meetup in London, and Apple laptops even dominated that audience.
Prominent tech writers have publicly switched from Macs to an open source OS: Mark Pilgrim and Cory Doctorow seemed to be at the head of that movement, back in the days of Digg and the Battlestar Galactica reboot. People looked on with interest, yet continued buying Apple products.
Since the launch of the App Store for Macs, and Windows 8, it seems like the future of computing is a locked-down store front optimised for advertising and sales of software and services. All of the major players have services for cloud storage, music, movies, and TV shows.
Developers infinitely more intelligent than me see this as a move towards a draconian, closed future:
"They get to certify programs and control the experience. This is great for them (and possibly arguable makes for a smoother end user experience as well, but that's debatable if it's good), but it places faaaaar too much power in the hands of a single entity."
On one hand, Apple and Microsoft are making it easier for me to make money. On the other, their certification represents an insidious attempt at controlling what software you're allowed to run on your machine. Of course, the concept of ownership in the hardware, software, and media industries is more akin to licensing. DVDs are licensed and cannot legally be used in certain ways -- it seems like we have equally restricted rights when it comes to physical discs or digital purchases.
The disparity between licensing and the sale of a product is underlined by transfer of ownership. When using an app sold by Apple or Microsoft, you're entering into several licensing agreements where the manufacturer still technically retains ownership. We're living in a world of rented ideas.
Therefore, whether software is purchased shrink-wrapped on a disc from the high street, or through a service like Steam, the effect is legally the same. However, one important difference lies in termination. The Steam Subscriber Agreement states the following:
"Valve hereby grants, and you accept, a limited, terminable, non-exclusive license and right to use the Software for your personal use in accordance with this Agreement ..."
"Valve may terminate your Account or a particular Subscription for any conduct or activity that Valve believes is illegal, constitutes a Cheat, or which otherwise negatively affects the enjoyment of Steam by other Subscribers."
Valve has the rights and means to prevent you from playing your library of purchased games. If you unwittingly broke the terms, Valve could prevent you from accessing every game you've purchased through the service.
We've arrived at a curious point in time where we've allowed the following things to happen:
- Apple laptops are ubiquitous at developer events,
- Apple, Microsoft, and third party services have the ability to censor software and restrict it,
- The media and software we buy through these services can be taken away from us.
The Imperfect Storm
Much like Apple's perfect storm of hardware and software ten years ago, we're seeing a new movement that will rise against Apple and Microsoft's newfound success. This movement is incredibly cheap, hackable, and open hardware, that will generate a resurgent interest in Linux and other open source operating systems and software.
Processing was launched in 2001, which made software art projects more accessible to artists. Arduino was launched in 2005 as an open hardware and software project to make microcontrollers more accessible. Arduino makes programming microcontrollers easier than writing C, and more accessible than typical electronics projects. The creators shrewdly reused Processing as the Arduino IDE.
Perhaps inspired by the Arduino maker movement, early concepts of the Raspberry Pi were built on the Atmel ATmega644 microcontroller. One of my early programmer heroes was David Braben, who was one of the founders of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. This charity was founded in 2009 to promote the study of computer science in schools, but the Raspberry Pi has been hugely popular with makers, hackers, and tinkerers.
A more casual developer who loves Apple's hardware may scoff at this, but it would be a mistake to underestimate how popular the Pi and Arduino will be within the next few years. As programmers we're hungry for things to make: the need to create drives us to learn programming languages in the first place. I see more questions about Linux on the web than ever before, and this is partly down to the interest in the Pi.
This new grassroots movement is going to be one of the things that topples Apple. Back in the late 90s, many of us became interested in Linux due to frustration with Windows 9x. Over a decade later, renewed interest in Linux and cheap, hackable hardware will eventually branch out into more open hardware. Developers need laptops and desktop computers -- consumers may be happy with tablets, but we are not.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation has shown that developer-centric hardware is economically viable, GitHub has shown that developer-centric services can be successful, and Apple have shown that developers appreciate well-designed hardware. System76 sell computers for Ubuntu, but expect more of this in the future: the trickle of developer-friendly gadgets is going to turn into a tsunami within the next decade.