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Why open source needs Simon Cowell

by Simon Brew

With apologies for the sensationalist headline, Simon Brew wonders how to get a realistic debate going in the modern world…

Noel Gallagher, of all people, is a fan of Simon Cowell. Not many of us would have seen that coming, but it’s a topic that’s apparently come up in a few interviews the former Oasis guitarist has given over the past year. The one that interested me, though, was when Gallagher told Shortlist magazine that “if the music business was full of people like him, it would be a better place because he’s real”. Richard Stallman, then.

The tragic, horrifically early death of Steve Jobs last year led to a media torrent, with commenters and journalists tumbling over themselves to get across what they had to say. At their most extreme, it came across as if Steve Jobs himself had invented the computer, and come around to each of our houses to sort out our media collections in person.

The more measured were more realistic. Jobs was a visionary. His timing, eventually, was superb. His eye for user interface and focus was inspired (even if he stood on the shoulders of others). And the computing industry will, and does, feel his loss.

But he had his faults. I’ve no urge to dredge through them here, as the media clamour inevitably distorted things good and bad. I’d just say that 56 is no age to die, whether head of a major company or a lonely hack sat in front of an ageing computer.

The Free Software Foundation’s Richard Stallman, though, had a point in his widely reported piece about the influence Jobs had on the world of computing, for which he attracted a lot of criticism. And I fear it got lost.

The delivery of his message could have been better timed, perhaps, and he’s not a man you’d necessarily want on a customer service support line. But his argument, in a follow-up post to his original words that led to such scorn being poured on him, read:
“Jobs saw how to make these computers stylish and smooth. That would normally be positive, but not in this case, since it has the paradoxical effect of making their controlling nature seem acceptable.

“Jobs’s death inspired a flood of articles lauding him for these very devices. That further increases their potential for harm, which is why now more than ever we must focus attention on it. We must not let secondary considerations about Apple or Jobs distract us from this threat until we have thwarted it.”

The threat that Stallman describes is a real one (whether you agree with his position on it or not), and the lack of focused consideration of the position of Apple in the computing world is troubling. After all, for the past decade or so, it’s got away with a lot, primarily because it wasn’t Microsoft, and because when it comes to branding, Apple has done brilliant work.

But how do we challenge what it’s done to impinge on the freedom of software? How can we possibly have a proper, reasoned and feasible debate, free of emotion and hard on facts? It might be my melancholic reading of the world, but I just don’t see that’s possible. I’m not sure it’s going to be possible for some time, either. I don’t see much thirst for it at all.

Stallman attracted criticism, and lots of it, for his words. And, truth be told, I’m wary of the response even these words will get. How can I be sure that what I’m writing won’t be construed as an attack on a man who left the world too soon? I know that’s not what I’m writing, and I’ve deliberately held back an extra month or two to be on the safe side. But am I part of the problem there? Honestly, I’ve no idea.

Right now, it seems safer for your online sanity to praise Simon Cowell than it is to debate the merits of free software. I’d love to be proved wrong…

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    • tex

      I think you make a very valid point. I’ve never been a fan of Microsoft and mostly steer clear, but I have not bought any Apple products either. Just the fact that if I would lose my iPod charger cable I would have to buy a new one because it’s product specific makes me very wary of Apple. So I buy my computers second hand and load them up with free software and I’m quite happy with my computer life. We can have a great time with free software, without the Microsoft-geeks and the Apple-hippies telling us what to do. :)

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    • land0

      Is there ever really a correct time to talk openly, and honestly about these types of issues that will not cause an emotional response? ;)

    • nick

      When it comes to devices which promise and appear to provide great things ( prestige, acceptance, angry birds), mixed in with everyones desire to be “RIGHT” less they be worthless, then you have the makings of a purely opinion based rational that does nothing to further anyones understanding of the world, except to emphesize exactly how NOT to be.

      Our culture has been shaped by monopolists whom, whether knowingly or unknowingly, steal our reality and replace it with a well sung fantacy which makes us feel sub-device.
      “No no, you don’t need to learn anything, whats the point? The device does it all for you!.”

      So people stop learning and start relying. They loose basic human skills with devices that replace them. Thus the devices become an irreplaceable part of them and defend them as such.

      You cannot reason someone out of something they did not reason their way into.

    • MGL

      Like tex, I never bought or owned an iDevice, not because of not being able to, but because I could do better, cheaper and more diverse. I’ve nothing against Microsoft geeks or Apple fan-boys, it’s their own views of what they want, but I do have a bone to pick with the media who over-hyped Steve Jobs and this left in the shadows a man that, for many, was an inspiration or at least someone to notice, Dennis Ritchie, we all know who he was and what his work still is and will keep on being, and the fact that he has been forgotten, at least leaves me sad.

    • Steve

      Simon Cowell! Yes!

      Let him audition a Windows computer, a Macintosh, and a GNU/Linux distribution and declare who makes it to the next round.

      As a disclaimer, I must say that I am not a computer heavyweight, but I use Windows at work, we have a family Imac at home, and I use OpenSUSE on my personal computer and on my test computer at work, so I am not a total idiot either. My experiences with GNU/Linux are similar to the following examples:

      I install OpenSUSE at work. All is well until I want to install an additional program. It doesn’t work.

      I find an interesting program in the menus and want to try it. It doesn’t start and it gives no indication why.

      I think I might want to put Ubuntu on a test netbook at work. I read about others’ experiences. They say things like, “Oh, yes, I got rid of that dorky Xandros and installed Ubuntu. I followed these five pages of instructions and everything works fine (except the camera and the wireless)”

      I want to put a wireless PCI card in my home GNU/Linux computer. Nobody can help me at the computer store. I look on the internet to see what kind to purchase. The reports are along the lines of, “This card works fine, after you find and install these drivers and follow these obscure instructions.” I try it once, and guess what; it doesn’t work.

      Simon would say, “Make this stuff easy, and make it WORK.”

      The computer that would win the competition would be the Macintosh. It comes the closest to providing the “it just works” experience. For most people, that’s what they want.

      In a different competition, maybe where the judge was Norm of The New Yankee Workshop, then maybe GNU/Linux would be the favorite.

    • CFWhitman

      It seems you are intending to come across as unbiased as far as operating systems go, but you don’t really come across that way.

      If you really want to compare systems between the operating systems, then you need to find a pre-installed Linux system to compare against the others or else you’re handicapping it from the start.

      I have never used OpenSUSE, so I’m not certain how to respond to the claim that you can’t install additional programs (although that seems rather unlikely as a general case to me).

      It’s funny, but when I install an Ubuntu based distribution on any of several laptops, the camera and wireless generally work without any extra work at all. The only wireless card I’ve seen not work recently with an Ubuntu based distribution was an old Linksys PCMCIA card with a somewhat obscure wireless chipset. Generally the thing that requires a little extra work is installing codecs. Still, it doesn’t require a lot.

      Again with wireless PCI cards on your desktop computer you’re not that likely to encounter a problem with a current Ubuntu based distribution.

      If your wireless is an Atheros or Intel based card, then you’d expect it to just work with almost any desktop aimed Linux from the past few years (unless the distribution is older than the card). Broadcom based cards (which are very common) only recently started having good Linux support when Broadcom started supporting Linux driver development. That’s why distributions from a just a little while ago (and even some current, but not Ubuntu based ones) might have trouble with them and require you to grab the firmware from a Windows driver file. Even the few issues with missing Broadcom firmware that still exist are likely to completely disappear on new user desktop aimed distributions within a short time.

      It’s certainly quite possible to put a PCI wireless card in your Linux desktop computer and have it require no operating system work at all to get running (beyond entering connection settings in NetworkManager or WICD). I’ve done so recently with both a Broadcom and an Atheros chipset.

    • Bert

      Well, part of his complaint might be true.

      First of all you can’t compare Win7 to MacOS.
      Apple is a hardware manufacturer who happens to have a very good OS, but this OS only has to support a limited set of hardware (chosen by Apple).
      Microsoft is a software manufacturer which, in a attempt to support as many harware as possible, makes clever business deals with computer manufacturers. ( in such an extend that it is almost impossible to buy a computer without it).
      All linux distro’s try to support as many hardware as possible so the user can choose. (without business deal)

      But the fact is that we install Linux on a set of hardware that is called a computer (possibly put together for Microsoft Windows) of which we often don’t even have the windows drivers(those are imbedded in the pre-installed windows).
      So you WILL run into trouble. (When you don’t is a big plus for the used distro)

      But most gui’s tend to hide the technical aspects. And leave the user with the (too powerfull) terminal.
      So you don’t know why a device doesn’t work. You assume it’ll be a driver.
      (most *buntu users are just ‘copy-pasting’ command lines found in user forums in a terminal and hoping it’ll work)

      The first Linux that worked for me was Puppy linux. Why? Because it had a (relatively) simple way to use windows wireless drivers without using the terminal.
      And Windows drivers can be found everyware(or are given with the hardware)

      Making easier use of Windows drivers in Linux distro’s (gui tooling) could be more helpful than trying to put ALL hardware drivers in the kernel.

    • Bert

      What I’m trying to say is; stop comparing MacOS to Win7 to Linux distro’s! It’s useless.
      It is with computers as it is with cars, choose what you like.

      If you want to buy cheap new; buy Win7 computers and adapt to it!
      If you want design and flashy looks; Buy an Apple, and adapt to it. (and spend serious $$)
      If you want to build your own system that fits YOU; buy your hardware choose a distro and build your own.
      If you’re on a budget, use older hardware choose any distro and build youre own computer.

      Distro’s: make things easy for the builders (or they’ll choose other distro’s)
      Really, that’s how Ubuntu beated Slackware, Red Hat and the rest. (and how Mint beated Ubuntu)