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Open Source, the only weapon against "planned obsolescence"

Comment Microsoft, Apple... all the same
Wed Mar 28 2007, 09:41
FIRMS WOULD LOVE to have you dump your computer every year, and your accesories, and your MP3 player, and your DVD, and your entire movie collection, and replace it with new ones. The software world is getting closer.

I think that "Planned Obsolescence" is sadly here to stay; but there's hope, only one: open source. Microsoft has lately perfected the planned obsolescence game with its decision to make flagship products like Internet Explorer 7 not available for previous OS versions like Windows 2000. Cutting updates and no longer releasing patches for insecure products is not enough. Interestingly, at the time the Department of Justice was investigating the company, the firm "suddenly" developed an interest into porting Internet Explorer 5 to other platforms, including to arch-rival Sun Microsystems' SunOS -Solaris- Unix, -"see, your honour, we're playing nice".

And it did "play nice" with competitors, for a little while, until it got the DOJ off their back -despite the fact that few if any SunOS sysadmins I knew would endure running IE. Nowadays, Microserfs claim "backporting" IE7 to Windows 2000 would have been too much work, in an amazing example of double standards.

Lately, Microsoft has also changed the way its LAN shares authentication works, and thus if you have a Linux-based Network Attached Storage (NAS) appliance, you might find that suddenly you cannot access shared folders from Vista. The open source camp had to play catch-up and release an update to Samba that implements Microsoft´s changes. But of course, not all hardware vendors have released updates to their NAS firmware, and if you have a NAS unit no longer supported by its vendor, then too bad. The result? The Vista users sees there's "a problem" with the NAS units... and blames the units, not Microsoft for changing the way authentication works, and faced with the choice of having to dump Vista or replace the NAS, they might end up choosing the latter. The Vole rejoices!. Planned obsolescence at its best.

In the hardware world, things are much more evident. Take PDAs for instance. Most PDAs out there use a given "family" CPU (say, Intel´s Xscale) that is more or less compatible between different versions of the silicon. Yet, often, the PDA manufacturer updates the OS when releasing a new model, but owners of the previous model are left with no choice but to dump their perfectly working PDA if they want to get the new OS. The last time I remember a company extending the life of a PDA for almost a decade was Palm's line of monochrome units, which were able to upgrade its OS all the way from version 2.x until PalmOS 4.1. Sony is a case in point, the company dumped its line of Clie PDAs, but there´s hundreds of thousands of those PDAs still in operation, but the users are stuck with PalmOS -now renamed GarnetOS- version 5.0. Nothing would technically prevent the company from releasing -for sale and as a profit opportunity, I don´t mean a free giveaway- an OS update to the latest version of "Garnet OS".

Palm Inc admits it clearly, over here: "In the first few years of Palm OS's existence, it was possible to upgrade almost any device to the latest Palm OS version, regardless of the device's hardware features. (...) These days, Palm OS upgrades are released only to fix bugs and provide moderate enhancements on a given device. New devices may come with the latest version of Palm OS, but you won't be able to upgrade older devices to a dramatically new Palm OS version".

I think the answer to all this madness is simple: open source software. Take Nokia for instance: it released its Linux-based "internet Tablet" (the Nokia 770) back in mid-2005. When it released the latest one, the N800 a few months ago, the company updated the OS to "Nokia Tablet OS 2007", yet, in a noticeable and welcome change, also released and "backported" the new OS to the early edition 770. Being open source, hobby programmers will ensure that the old Nokia units continues performing with the latest OS features, as long as there´s interest in maintaining the software.

Our reader James Massola from Australia kickstarted my thought process when he contacted me, asking if I have anything to say about the madness of "planned obsolescence" in the hardware world, and putting Apple´s "gen 4" to "gen 5" iPod accessories changes as an example. I think the main reason hardware manufacturers can get into "planned obsolescence" is ironically because of software: closed source software and firmware.

I will also be blunt: I think Apple is hardly an open company, and can only be compared to Microsoft. I sigh every time people present Apple as a worthy alternative to Microsoft. In my view, Apple is just "a Microsoft wannabe with a sense of design and style", but the company is just as secretive as Microsoft. Why isn´t there a Quicktime for Linux? -but don't make me think about it too much, with VLC and Mplayer, who needs Apple's broken player?. Apple's partner in crime, Adobe, isn't very different: Why did the firm only submit PDF to a standards body after the pressure and threat of a competing format form Redmondia.

Apple is not an open company, if it were, they would have embraced by now and made it the default Office suite for the Mac. It could also arguably make the same amount of money -if not more- by selling Mac OS-X "updates and support" subscription service, while at the same time making all of its OS open source. Not to mention allowing people to even run Mac OS/X on custom-built PC "beige boxes". Red Hat seems to have no trouble doing it.

Until the world switches to Open Source software, I think "planned obsolescence" is sadly here to stay. In the meantime, I will vote with my wallet and will try to stick to open sauce OS(s) for my PCs, and to buy devices which run on Open Sauce, whenever possible. µ

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Windows: planned obsolescence
SNL parodies Apple's "planned obsolescence"
Nokia Tablet OS 2007 hacked for the previous 770


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