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Hardware manufacturers and the proprietary problem

by Simon Brew

Simon thinks that having consumer-friendly standards is a good and useful thing. Hardware manufacturers, for different reasons, tend to agree…

This article is due to appear in issue 91 of Linux User & Developer magazine.Hardware manufacturers and the proprietary problem Subscribe and save more than 30% and receive our exclusive money back guarantee – click here to find out more.

Accepting that a world where the Linux operating system has overtaken Windows to become the planet’s most popular is the kind of idyllic dream that’s years off at best (if at all), there’s always a bit of me that wishes people would just get behind the principle of it all a little bit more. Not necessarily the principle of Linux specifically, rather the ideas and thought processes behind open source.

Let me give you an example. I own a Sony camcorder. Now Sony is a firm notorious in the past for doing things in a proprietary manner, right down to the point where it came up with its own alternative to MP3 technology. But in the case of this camcorder, I’d been quite content with it for some time.

However, the moment came when the charger was starting to give me problems. Hmmm. Time to take a look at a new one, I figured. How much can a simple power adapter cost, after all?

The best part of £60, as it happens. £60 for a lead that, at its most basic (and arguably at its most complicated too), has the job of taking power from the mains through to the back of the camcorder. The same kind of adapter in principle that costs far less than £10 in other cases. But because of the very precise ‘consumer-friendly’ connector Sony has employed, it means that it can charge the earth for its power unit, safe in the knowledge that nobody can offer an alternative.

It’s done this, of course, by taking a readily known standard way of taking power from A to B, and subverting it in a manner whose only intention is to get more money off customers. For what other reason can there be? It’s not as if it’s delivering power in some very precise way that only Sony products require, as if sprinkled with pixie dust of special vintage.

This is what I hate. Because it goes against the idea of having a single standard. That standard is for the convenience of the customer, and isn’t designed to be bastardised by a firm out for a few more quick bucks.

The mobile phone market too is terrible for this. It’s been over a year now since many major mobile phone companies all agreed to unite behind one universal charger for their products, having spent the last few years trying to contort the mini-USB cable into shapes it wasn’t originally designed to be contorted into. And thus, no doubt with the leaning of a government body somewhere in the world, they all made encouraging noises and, from where I’m sitting, have done absolutely nothing about it since. Now we hear that laptop manufacturers are investigating a universal laptop charger too. Bluntly, I’ll believe it when I see it.

This is why I get so frustrated when people quickly dismiss Linux. I don’t have a problem with them preferring Windows, or even passing up the idea of giving Linux a try. But I do find it quite depressing that there’s no appreciation of what’s going on under the surface. I’m not talking about a sudo command, or lines of code. I’m talking about an ethos that standards are there to help consumers, to provide a level playing field for us all.

Instead, it seems the legwork is being done, and then greedy manufacturers are rubbing their hands with glee as they mess around with said standard in a bid to line their own pockets. It can and should be stopped. But sadly, I fear that not enough people – aside from a quick grumble in a pub – really care that much. For what it’s worth? I do.

What are your views on the proprietary problem? Share your thoughts in the comments thread below.

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    • Hillel

      ‘Couldn’t agree more!! Thank-you!

    • This is a big problem but as I see it this big corporations will keep to their proprietary ways because they want to keep making as much money as they can from the consumer.
      So ultimately it falls on the consumer to keep pressuring them to change otherwise, there will be very little movement towards standards.

    • Kenny Strawn

      I also couldn’t agree more with this article. Proprietary software is all about greed and $$. It has nothing to do with quality. And IMHO, M$ is committing a deadly sin: The sin of greed. That being because M$ (and for that matter crApp£e) are so restrictive and unfair to the end user that they deserve to burn in hell.

    • CommonOddity

      Excellent article. I agree wholeheartedly.

      People somehow got it into their heads that piracy is what was killing the entertainment industry for example- but this is not the case. It’s the constant wars and bloat of it that is dragging it down. The proprietary fence that says products are greener on company A’s side rather than B’s (ie: HD DVD vs Blu ray). The amount of money an artist makes per CD sold is another such fine example (I can’t find the link at the moment to the fellow from the Music industry that breaks down a large sum of money from CD sales and it comes down to the artist only making pennies in comparison- I’ll dig around some more so I can share it with you folks).

      Technology and standards also suffer from this, in turn. External power supplies are a prime example as is software vs OS. Hell, let’s not even get into document formats and other ‘miraculous’ MS ‘standards’ that are either inefficient/ineffective and should be buried.

      Yes. Proprietary ‘incompatibility’ plays well into the hands of large corporations. CDMA? GSM? HSPA+? Egads. CEIGRP vs OSPF. MPLS vs ATM?

      Yeah… Proprietary is certainly better. That is why ATM is dying and being replaced by MPLS/variants.


      I fully agree with what you say Simon. Great article. Sorry for the rant.

    • Thomas

      It’s called liberty and its up to the consumer to shoose where the market goes. You dont have to buy something if you dont want. Using governmnet to stifle someone else’s liberty leads to out of control government as you see happening today. At least study some basic economics before you go to invoking government, because as long as it adds to their power they dont care. They have no morals or principles, and it hurts us all far beyond a little frustration with a power connector.

    • @Kenny Strawn,

      What up with all the hatred of Microsoft? This article isn’t even talking about software here.

      We get this way too much in the Free Software world. Microsoft is not evil. Greedy, perhaps. But then again, by the very nature of capitalism, greed is rewarded. And before you start calling some one else greedy, stop and look at yourself. Everyone is greedy. Everyone wants more money. “Big corporations” are the same as all of us.

      Why can’t we just focus on representing ourselves the best we can instead of calling our enemies names? If we show the world the benefits of Free Software (or Open Source Software, be that your thing), we’ll get a lot more ears than if we continuously call the opposing group evil. Do you think that many religions grew up by calling the people they were trying to convert evil? It’s the same idea here.

      Besides, Microsoft isn’t the same as it used to be. It’s starting to embrace open source (even if CodePlex may be serving its own needs). But can you not say that companies like Sun (before Oracle), IBM, and Google are not doing the same thing?

      Come on, we can do better than name calling. Instead of saying that Microsoft or Apple are evil, let’s say that Free/Open Source is *better*, and then prove it.

    • Curt Wuollet

      If you think computers and other consumer gear are bad, you should check out the industrial automation arena. They have created a massive tower of Babel, where almost nothing interoperates, even within a vendors range. And you need a whole closet full of gizmos and adapters at prices that make the Sony example look positively benevolent. Dozens of PLCs that do pretty much the same things in the same way with full and blatant lock-in to enforce customer “loyalty”. A serial card worth $10 on the commodity market may be $415 with a “industrial” connector. In an example of the Stockholm Syndrome at work, many shops endure the usury and even shout down calls for Open Standards. It’s a mess. They have even perverted good ol’
      Ethernet to something incompatible.



    • Jose_X

      Kenny Strawn, I don’t think most people are against profits of some sort and many do feel at some point sorry (to themselves or to others) and try to make amends if they went overboard with greed in their past.

      Part of the problem is that while some are definitely very greedy and sometimes these end up running the more successful (greedy and aggressive) companies, many simply have not developed business models that are fair to consumers.

      As the article covered, we need to keep selling to people everywhere the advantages they will have at the bargaining table (and how they will promote the less greedy of businesses) if they try to add pressure by moving to open platforms and open standards (though “open” standards usually allow for extensions and can lead to many interop problems if there is a market leader that uses closed source and that purposely fails to read the standard as do most people).

      One “new-bie” friendly OS that I use is the KDE4 version of pclinuxos

    • Jose_X

      Thomas, many people (who are not experts at most things and have tiny leverage by themselves) have banded and view a function of their government as representing their interests by helping set rules of the game that help them as consumers, employees, business owners, etc. That is what I think many want to vote for at the polls.

    • Jose_X

      Patrick Niedzielski, corporations are not the same as all of us. Maybe you meant to suggest that the managers or controlling owners of corporations are just like the rest of us.

      Microsoft and Apple have the combination of business talent, greed, and early luck, to control in various market segments today in ways that this article says hurts consumers. Clearly, they know how to get consumers to use something that lowers our leverage significantly (proprietary software lock-in with potentially very very high exit costs and privacy costs) without “coming clean” about these very significant hidden costs.

      The same thing was described here where higher costs come later on down the line, except that Microsoft and Apple have a greater hook than does just about any consumer hardware company (even ignoring monopoly levers Microsoft has); data, privacy, and security issues enable very large hooks because of the power and vastness of the closed software these two companies make and the diverse uses we place on computers using their software.

      Linux and open source *platforms* and also open source apps on top of these *implies* that the vendor is coming clean publicly. Microsoft, in particular, is trying to pervert open source in order to keep their subversive vast software embedded in people’s lives. They have learned after many failed efforts in lying about open source and Linux that their best shot is to “embrace and extend” “openness” so that their closed underlying platforms can stay in place by providing a degree of “freebies” that people want and diverting some resources from going to and focusing on Linux. And Microsoft goes even further in trying to push unconstitutional[*] software patents into open source and Linux so they can tax it arbitrarily or even remove it from use later on as they see fit (ie, as their super high profit margins and market share dictate).

      Google poses a real future threat. For the time being there are search engine alternatives and services for everything they do. Their android system is largely open (based on Linux), but there are proprietary hooks in the phones and Googles’ vast server data stores are proprietary. They too are setting up for tremendous future leverage having accumulated voluminous quantities of data on most people. Of course, many companies gather lots of data on most people, but Google has taken this to a new level, perhaps exceeding all private companies with the possible exception of Microsoft, who already has potential or actual access to just about everything any Windows users has done on their PCs for years and years (both offline and online).

      [I believe Microsoft’s Windows EULAs place no real limits on the data Microsoft can grab about you, and their software’s secret nature makes it possible for them to gather things arbitrarily from your computer using obfuscated channel paths and triggered on a moment’s notice through an unavoidable Windows mini-update or other trigger mechanism and leveraging even obfuscatedly stored instructions whose evidence of use is essentially erased moments afterward. They can even use third party partners in nations with lax laws to provide for the triggers and data capture. Note that this is much more potential information than what Google can grab.]

      [*] The Supreme Court hasn’t yet ruled this way on the “promote the progress” and “free speech” unconstitutionality issue of general purpose or other software patents, but I think they eventually will as much evidence and academic research and insider recognition suggest is the case. In any case, software patents damage open source. The main backers of Microsoft, for example, are major investors (directly or indirectly) in major software patent companies.

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    • @Jose_X

      Please read this again:

      “And before you start calling some one else greedy, stop and look at yourself. Everyone is greedy. Everyone wants more money. “Big corporations” are the same as all of us.”

      I wasn’t clear there, perhaps? Let me try it again:

      “And before you start calling some one else greedy, stop and look at yourself. Everyone is greedy. Everyone wants more money. *In that regard,* “Big corporations” are the same as all of us.”

      Your post has only strengthened this point. You have shown the greed of companies, and their willingness to go far for revenue. Their existence depends on it. While corporations may have more leverage, their nature is no different from ours.

      Also, you say that you can pervert open source by leaving some parts unopen…well, then it isn’t really open source then, is it? Or at least, not entirely. They can open source parts all they like, it will not make them truly open source. Besides, as we can see with Oracle, patents make this just a bunch of laughs, because (as with the current suit), if they don’t like your derivative, then they will sue. Even if it is rewritten from scratch. And the patents do not have to be specific…they can be as general as possible: one of the patents Oracle is threatening Google with has been used in Emacs for the past 25 years…in TeX for even longer.

      Again, I ask you all please to stop hating corporations and instead direct your feelings to something more productive…evangelizing FOSS, showing its benefits, introducing people to the actual selling points of Free/Open Source Software…and not just that Google/Microsoft/Apple/Oracle is evil, and Ubuntu is so much better.

    • Robert

      As to the subject of the article, I am annoyed and disgusted by any kind of proprietary connector as described. It is the type of thing I pay very close attention to and avoid buying products made this way. This causes me to totally avoid what are otherwise really neat products (things like the ipod come to mind), but at least I don’t reward this kind of predatory behavior.

      However, as to the unbridled hatred of free enterprise and worship of the goodness and glory of government expressed by far too many FOSS fans, no thank you. For all it’s supposed greed and corruption, Microsoft Corporation has not been able to get one thin dime from me in well over 10 years. Microsoft cost me nothing and only affects my personal life in ways that I allow. Government, on the other hand, has forcibly extracted 10’s of thousands of dollars from me and has provided very little in return. Mostly, it has just burdened me with paperwork and regulatory headaches. The belief that empowering government to have even more control over free market enterprise will improve people’s lives is the folly of a complete idiot.

    • Jose_X

      Patrick Niedzielski, ah, it seems you are writing misleading statements, or at least that is how I am reading them. I don’t know how else to label your particular defense of Microsoft or of corporations generally.

      >> Your post has only strengthened this point. You have shown the greed of companies, and their willingness to go far for revenue. Their existence depends on it. While corporations may have more leverage, their nature is no different from ours.

      It seems we are not reaching each other well.

      Corporations have no motivation or reason to love, care, share. They don’t feel pain, etc.

      Corporation are definitely not “just like us”. They have one goal the overrides all others (if not their only goal).

      And because of the power corporations have relative to almost any individual, were they at all like individuals, they would generally be very likely to be corrupt and insensitive to those they are very different from. Note that those that own, manage, or work for corporations avoid a lot of liability for their actions by law.

      In the case of Microsoft, they have very significant levers over many of their customers and partners. Check.

      The direction taken by corporations depend on a lot of factors. Some people are more willing to hurt others for money than are other people. You don’t have to look far to see that. These people running corporations (and the largest of corporations and highest seats of power attracts these people much more strongly than it attracts most others, generally) imply a worse than average corporation and perhaps a very damaging one.

      Specifically concerning Microsoft, they have a long history (and still many of the same players playing the game) of improving their leverage significantly over others in order to help support their very high profit margins. The lock-in is designed by them. The exploitation and defense of their monopoly levers is designed by them. These are designs that by definition block or obstruct competitive value from reaching the consumer and from allowing companies entering the field from being able to get fair compensation for their work and contributions. In their case, these levers are very strong. Sure “it’s just business”, but it’s folly to expect them to support what weakens their levers nor to stop taking advantage of their current levers.

      When someone on the other side of the negotiation table is too strong, you seek ways to change this fact — open source for neutralizing Microsoft leverage. Essentially Microsoft is too strong in many ways and so consumers gain generally by voting against them.

      Do note, btw, that many people dislike tyrant human beings. It makes some sense for people to dislike misbehaving corporations.

      >> Also, you say that you can pervert open source by leaving some parts unopen…well, then it isn’t really open source then, is it?


      Microsoft does not do open source. The open source they help fund that would be allowed to run on other platforms beyond theirs is loaded with patent traps. The rest of the open source — in fact, all open source — they want to be optimized to depend on their closed platform, where, by definition, such shell applications would *not* be open source. And much of the “open source” they support does not come under legal terms recognized as real open source by most people because there are many restrictions designed by them to support their monopolies and remove others’ freedom.

      Red Hat and many other companies promote open platforms. Even if they went no further (which obviously Red Hat does), that is the crucial requirement for having open source: an open platform.

      [I ignore hardware for now because there are no monopolists there (so breaking interfaces would hurt your sales), and the amount that hard/firmware is changeable is rather small today compared to the complexity and changeability of a mega software OS.]

      >> one of the patents Oracle is threatening Google with has been used in Emacs for the past 25 years…in TeX for even longer.

      Yes, for various reasons, maybe this will be a suit to lead the SCOTUS to make a very strong and more clear statement against software patents.

      >> Again, I ask you all please to stop hating corporations and instead direct your feelings to something more productive…evangelizing FOSS, showing its benefits, introducing people to the actual selling points of Free/Open Source Software…and not just that Google/Microsoft/Apple/Oracle is evil, and Ubuntu is so much better.

      Most consumers like to know if a particular company has a history of deception. People don’t like to be mislead repeatedly if they can avoid that. It would be misleading to consumers and at least somewhat irresponsible to hide from them this sort of past and ongoing negative behavior by Microsoft. Most consumers are not well versed in the potential of a computer/software. As an example, just look at how many have adopted very broken e-voting technology and protocols!

      In fact, the more a company like Microsoft suffers in sales, the faster open source can play on a more level playing field, and this helps all open source developers, users, and competitors. Open source is end user friendly because it is built by any and all end users.

      I don’t have to “hate” Microsoft although I might have reason to, but I can certainly refuse to do business with them.

      Anyway, I agree with you on what the focus should be: to promote Linux and open source. My rebuttal is largely on the point that corporations are just like people, that Microsoft is hardly different than most, and that Microsoft promotes open source.

    • Michael

      The problem with Linux is not with propriety hardware. There actually is a market for people who want a good competitive OS, but are stuck with MS. Linux is really the only alternative. The problem is that no one has been able to come up with a competitive OS. That’s a shame because Linux has a clear advantage over MS. It runs faster, it’s more secure, and software is free.

      Ubuntu is the closest thing. I just installed it on my desktop. When I ran the boot program, all I got was a blank screen. After researching, I found out that my video was out of sync, and I had to type in a specific command to fix it. That seems to be a common problem. If I’m a consumer, that’s unacceptable. If I purchase software, and I have to jump onto a blog for a specific unix command just to get it to work, I’m going to return it. I don’t have time to search for drivers or learn commands. The DOS era is over, people. An OS is a productivity tool. Having to constantly babysit it is a waste of my time.

      Linux has been around for a lot of years. Surely by now someone can come up with something better.

    • Sally

      2Michael. Your ideal customer wouldn’t install Ubuntu by himself. He would get it clean and clear with his brand new netbook as it happens with Windows or MacOS.

      I’m not saying that the problem doesn’t exist. It does. For instance, i’ll have to go through the same researching to make a Broadcom card work on my relevantly old HP laptop. But I’m convinced that things aren’t that bad as they used to be. An increasing number of computers in stores with pre-installed Linux is the biggest proof here.

      Anyway, good article, Simon. Thanks!

    • Fantastic article and I agree, it’s a great shame. I care because I think Open Source is a really good thing, I just don’t understand why nobody else seems to care!

      @Micheal (2 posts up)
      Sally is right, and you could have just as much problem getting a Windows operating system to work nicely doing it yourself, I have, whereas I haven’t really had anything like the difficulties you describe with Ubuntu.

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    • I could not agree more, Excellent Article.

    • GrahamM

      It’s all well and good to point out how we need a single standard for power or something similar, but what happens when someone hooks up that USB to car battery jumplead the wrong way around, or figures it’ll charge their iPod faster if they connect it across the mains?

      Sometimes I can see some merit in not having such an easily accessible connector, if only to protect some people from their own stupidity…