The open vs proprietary hardware debate

When I was still at school, most of the early personal computer platforms were proprietary. Apple. Commodore and Tandy were among the big names in development at that time, each with its own hardware platforms developed in house. That soon changed with the development of the PC platform by IBM which became open when it was reverse engineered by a clone maker and IBM lost control of it. Today of course, the momentum of that platform, driven by large software producers like Microsoft and the numerous hardware manufacturers such as HP, Intel, AMD et al, continues unchecked, and long may it last.

Meanwhile, Apple continues as one of a very few developers of a proprietary hardware platform to have got significant market share, although they are now increasing this by diversifying into the mobile device market. Meanwhile a few PC platform hardware manufacturers have proprietorised their offerings as much as possible, especially in laptops, so that they are still software compatible but you have to buy any hardware components needed from the brandname OEM. I have always been opposed to any form of proprietary hardware and remain so today. The vibrant and diversified PC industry that we have today would not exist if the market was controlled by companies like Apple. Competition is always good and breaking this down to the lowest level of PC components as has occurred with CPUs is a good thing. That is the benefit and virtue that we enjoy from having such an open hardware platform in the PC.

A practical example that comes to mind is the printer market. Everyone knows that you can buy consumables from the OEM, or third party production at a cheaper price. Some of the printer makers have tried to lock people into buying only from them, by making the toner cartridges proprietary intellectual property, or attaching proprietary chipsets to them which the printer will not operate without. There is one brand in particular, Lexmark, that according to a Consumer Institute review I read, has the highest running costs of any printer type in NZ. Lexmark just happens to be a company that has aggressively pursued legal action against companies refilling their toner cartridges. For all the arguments we have heard, higher profits are the main motivation for this type of corporate behaviour. However it is Apple that provides the major examples of this type of belief at work in the computer industry today, across all of their platforms. Apple’s primary motivation is bigger profit and they are seeking to build themselves into a bigger player to challenge Microsoft and win ideological battles in the marketplace. They have just invested a large sum into a huge new datacenter in, I think, North Carolina or somewhere, in order to funnel growth in cloud services, probably for the Ipad. If you have got this sort of stupid behaviour from Apple now, what is going to happen when they become bigger? It will just be a repeat of what has happened to IBM and Microsoft in the past, as examples. The US DOJ will start getting interested (they are already sniffing around) and legal action is likely to follow.

One of the interesting paradoxes of open source or open hardware or anything is the potential for growth of a big player on the back of that open platform. As we have seen, Microsoft and Google have built big empires on the back of open platforms (open PC architecture and open Internet standards respectively). Apple now wants to get a bigger slice of Google’s action by using the open HTML5 standard to squash a business rival (Adobe). If you dislike the way Google or Microsoft have grown their businesses on the back of open standards, don’t support Apple to go the same way. One of the virtues of the open PC architecture is that we have the ability to run any software and any OS on it. Anything that can be done on a Mac running OS/X can be done just as good or better on a PC running Windows or another operating system. The Mac hardware, after all, is practically the same as a PC and they are often made in the same Chinese factories these days. The big development these days is datacenters and the open PC platform has driven the development of these through the competitive nature of hardware production. Any innovation you see in Apple’s hardware these days is on the back of the PC platform which they have virtually embraced in all but name. The innovation happened because the open PC platform’s inherently highly competitive nature drove the development. All that’s happening is the ideological rival philosophies being played out in chess games across America. I bet that the only datacenter innovation in the Mac platform has come from Apple itself and has lagged behind the PC platform or basically uses the same PC parts with a little proprietorisation to stamp their own brand on it.

How has the open hardware PC platform benefited schools? It keeps prices down, remember that schools used to pay thousands of dollars to buy an Apple computer, now you can get a range of different PCs at prices in the hundreds, still a lot cheaper than an equivalent Apple especially in the bulk. You can also have choice in operating systems and software. We choose to use Windows because Microsoft’s academic pricing is very good and we only pay for server licenses which comes in at a few hundred dollars for something that is packed full of features and easy to administer. One of the reasons I don’t bother with Linux is that no vendor has got the integration that Microsoft has got with tools that are well supported and easy to administer. This is a huge area where basically Linux vendors have to move beyond the command line and make their systems easy to administer across the whole range of different technologies that are needed to make a fully functional server, and the second thing that has to happen is that vendors have to provide commercial support for these systems. At the moment MS with the deals that the government provides in NZ is simply the way and as we move into more cloud based systems the choice of operating systems in a school will become less important as the administrative burden is transferred offsite. This means the schools have less hardware and direct onsite costs to worry about and are less tied to a particular platform in any case.