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A newly drafted run through some of the technology choices available today, inspired by the almost simultaneous launches of Amazon Kindle and OLPC XO.''

'''Keys': Sony eBook Reader, Amazon Kindle, Palm T|X, T-Mobile MDA, Danger Sidekick, a flippy screen tablet/laptop and an OLPC XO ? What is a public library for anyway? Sharing is good, right?

Devices

Sony eBook reader

Over here we have Sony (and others). You will pay for the expensive pretty nice hardware. You will pay for the software. You will pay for the media not just once but each time you want to experience it. There will be no sharing, and unscreened end-users and random hackers will not be developing content or code, どうも. And you will be appreciative of the opportunity to experience and pay (ありがとございますおっとさま!). Which more bluntly means that efforts to extend the functionality of the device will be discouraged, politely and very firmly. Remember that a Japanese person would never willing disagree with you in person about anything, but they will send ninjas later all the same. For instance they (Sony) sent ninja lawyers to murder a little Hong Kong based company ( http://liksang.com/ ) for having the audacity to sell Sony products worldwide (including to many Sony executives).

Amazon Kindle

Amazon's offering is a couple steps over from the utter fascism of the けいおれつ I victimized above. You will pay for the expensive but nice hardware, and for that you get network access. Conveniently, this network lets you buy books directly from Amazon.com, the biggest bookseller on Earth, at slightly less than standard prices for ebooks (actually they are antibooks, but more on that later). You pay your money and they throw you a book's image. The device might do other things (play music, surf the web) but these features are de-emphasized and not supported officially. The firmware and OS are proprietary and no information about developing applications is made available. You could probably get Amazon to sell your content back to you (and to others) if you want to go to the trouble. There is no printing and no sharing. This device will be attacked and grokked by smart people and an "arms race" will develop between the producer and everyone else on the planet. Within the bounds of that cyclical exchange of hostilities, sharing and content creation may be made possible, but it will not be supported or reliable. Each time the manufacturer fixes a hole in the restrictions scheme, the teeming masses of humanity will overwhelm it, be cause they have both mathematics and physics on their side.

Palm T|X

I read books on my Palm (the obsolete model I carry is mostly replaced by the T|X). The system is proprietary but has been opened to developers and hackers for some time. I use the Reader application it shipped with as it's actually pretty good, but I have others which are Free that I use too. Unlike some devices, Palms have historically been paired with a bigger computer to get their data and programs from. Now that Palms can get online by themselves this has been changing. What I mean is that I can snag books on my (10 time more expensive) workstation and squish them into my Palm as much as I like. There are even a few tools that allow you to create content (software or data) on the Palm. My Palm has a camera in that can take pictures and video, and I can shove these around pretty easily to workstation and to the network. There are locked down applications and data for (and on) Palm, but they are not the majority and there are Free alternatives. Amazon could easily enable people to buy their antibooks from Palms (and phones and ...) but probably won't do so. Palm actually encourages developers to write for that platform in various ways (or did ...), but they haven't done much to update the platform itself, leaving it as a weaker alternative to systems still being improved such as ...

Windows Pocket PC, Apple iPhone, Danger Hiptop and Android?

Windows (aka Pocket PC), the system that the MDA and many other so-called smartphone devices run. A proprietary platform with strong developer support that is a scaled down version of a workstation operating system (as opposed to (eg) Palm, Kindle, and Danger systems which were designed for handhelds from the start). Windows has well developed systems for locking up content and preventing sharing. They have long been in the "arms race" I described Kindle facing and have been losing steadily for many years. Lump Apple's iPhone right in here with Windows for Pocket PC, since it is proprietary and has strong support for locking up content and preventing sharing, including charging for different uses of media you already 'own' (license, actually). Ringtones. And also lump the iPhone in because the "arms race" is well under way and there are even national governments and big companies on the side that is not Apple's (France, Vodaphone). Danger's Hiptop platform is actually fairly developer friendly but the carriers are hostile. What this means is that most anybody can create new content or code for a Danger device but you can't get it onto anyone's device (not even your own) without it being reviewed and blessed. This is a non-starter for all kinds of reasons. Creatng content on the device is also pretty limited and you can't share without pushing your creations to some other device. Danger's platform may well be superseded by Google's Android, a more recent, seemingly more open system developed by the same fellow. Google is giving away Android to counter Microsoft's control of Windows Pocket PC. This may just be counting coup, as I can't see much point to it yet. (The 'mobile web' experience in North America is so terrible that I can't imagine there is any actual revenue to be had in the advertisements they are squabbling over). Windows Pocket PC and then iPhone have progressively less support for grabbing code and content with a workstation and squishing it into their devices (in the order of Palm > Win PPC > iPhone), but you can do it. Oh and iPhones have neither a physical keyboard nor the ability for you to write on the screen. Every other device I discuss has at least one if not both of those way to input data and give commands. So far, shouting at it doesn't work either, as far as I know.

Tablet screen Laptop

A much better (much more expensive) option would seem to be a laptop, particularly one of those cool ones where the screen flips around and you can write on it (Most vendors whose names are not Apple offer these now, and there is a nascent grey market for aftermarket modifications to the Apple machines to make them do it, too). Anyway you'd then have your choice (well, some) of systems to run, and could decide how much openness and how much locked-down annoyance you want to pay for, or even what colour you want, or how many buttons it has. Well, you could choose to run Free software for whatever tasks you like, but it may not work. Depending on who you brought your tablet laptop from, the stuff inside may not work with Free software (or may not work well at all) and your recourse will be limited unless the seller/manufacturer just happens to be open-minded and cooperative, and that only lasts until they get bought by a company with a different outlook. Laptops have typically been very expensive (upwards of $1000 USD) but are very flexible and powerful. They come with cameras and radios and have slots where you can plug in all sorts of other gear if you buy or make it (These things are true of modern Palm and Windows Pocket PC devices and somewhat true of the iPhone). Most any laptop can access publicly available information on the network, run a great but not all available software, and most of them can also access locked-up content that can't be shared, with various limitations.

OLPC XO

And on the other side of the philosophical divide is the XO from the One Laptop Per Child project. This is a completely open platform that actually encourages it's users (school children and hackers) to create content and code, to understand how the system works, and then modify the device's functionality. OLPC XOs have expnasion plugs and built-in radios (really good ones) and can get on local networks or the big networks with them. In the classroom setting they can access (and share, and then modify) classroom local content (like the weeks' lessons) and on the big networks they can access nearly everything including the Free and open content shared on the Internet like the Wikipedia (good) and MIT Open Courseware (better) or Project Gutenberg's plain etexts (good) and the books scanned en masse by Google and Yahoo's competitive library scanning skirmish (better). Oh and the code and content of the XO itself is also on the Internet for them (or you) to peruse or even join in the effort and contribute. Who would want to sell a device that doesn't include a sure fire way for you to make money? No one, which is why you can't actually buy one(!), but they are being given away to needy children (and crazy hackers). It's possible to access locked up, un-sharable content and code on an OLPC XO, and maybe someone will ...

If you could choose...

If you could pick, what kind of gadget would you want? If you actually have to pay money (probably a great deal of it) for a device, why would you choose one that puts so many restrictions on what you can do with it? Is there a huge market for books that you can't share, music that you can't play at a party, movies you can't watch where e'er you happen to be, and content that can't be donated to a public library even if you pay full price for it? Who actually wants a programable computer that you can't add software to, or at least fix the bugs in the software you already have? Who wants to be on a national or global network but have access to only a tiny selection of approved material? If you do decide to pay for access to something, should your price be different than the one charged somewhere else? If you move to another country would you mind paying for all of your licensed content again to gain access? You 'can' pick, and maybe you already have. Don't worry if you already did because you'll get another chance to choose soon. Right?

Some provocative words in closing

As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth's final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.

Notes

For the purposes of this discussion, some terms:

Code (aka software) is ... Content is ...

Free code and content meet the Debian Free Software Guidelines (very similar to the Open Source Initiative definition) meaning that users and developers have the freedom to use, distribute, and extend the code or content in most any way provided at minimum the original authors are credited OR any one you share with gets the same rights you had.

Free or merely open systems are documented and probably do not resist efforts to understand how they work, as opposed to proprietary systems which likely are not documented, come from only one source, and resist attempts at understanding with glue and lawyers.

Books are containers of knowledge that are portable, durable, and shareable. They used to all be physical but are not required to be. You can excerpt from them and even copy them entirely with machines (or humans) and you can have a machine (or human) read them aloud to you. You can loan books to your friends in the hope that will get to keep one or the other. Antibooks seem like books but don't let you do some or all of these things. That definition courtesy of Mr. Eric Eldred, who lost a important Supreme Court case about this stuff a few years back. One mirror of his closed site: http://users.vnet.net/alight/mid-battle.html

Links

* one * another

End Matter

This essay is made available under the CC 3.0 Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike copyleft License. The Alpha Centauri quote is Copyright 1999 Sid Meier and Firaxis Games. Go buy one of their games, you might learn something.