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What is a computer, really?

Posted on | July 31, 2008 | 3 Comments

I received a very interesting e-mail from the FSF today, sent via its announcement mailing list. The FSF (and numerous others) are very concerned about the IPhone being out of reach of free software due to its locking restrictions and the Apple developer NDA.

I began to wonder, in this day and age, what is a computer? Is it something with a processor, memory and persistent storage? Apple says no, the IPhone is a phone, not a computer. Cisco says no, their blue boxes are network appliances not a computer.

I think it comes down to what you buy the thing to do. If I buy a phone, I buy it to make phone calls. If I buy a router, I buy it to route network traffic. If I buy a Tivo, I buy it to pause live TV. If I buy a PC, I buy it to use however I please.

I really see a time coming when FLOSS software is going to be horribly fragmented by license and political issues, even more so than now. This fragmentation could slow innovation almost as much as our current patent system. The stuff that I write will always be free so long as one copy of the code exists on the Internet. This is the biggest reason why I’m adopting the 3 clause BSD license .. it allows anyone to use my code however they wish. You can use it in a GPL2 project, a GPL3 project or anything else. Fork it, re-license it and do whatever you like – the license I picked says you can do so.

I guess my concerns that revolve around keeping my stuff useful usurps my desire to keep my software out of the hands of `evil’ companies. To me, seeing a free software project not be able to use something that I wrote due to license incompatibilities is far worse than seeing something that I wrote locked down on an IPhone. Besides, my license prohibits Apple or anyone else from saying that I endorse the use of my software on their product without prior written permission.

I support most of what the FSF does, they are a very needed organization. However, I have to disagree with the FSF’s definition of ‘computer’. I feel that a computer is something that has no pre-determined use other than obeying instructions from software, at least as far as user’s expectations of ‘freedom’ should go. If you travel to some country controlled by a ruthless dictator, you have no reasonable expectation of freedom. If you buy an IPhone, you have no reasonable expectation of software freedom. Why is this news?

If by some freak event the IPhone became mandatory for every citizen to carry (by law) and our lives depended on it .. I would be screaming at Apple every bit as loudly as the FSF. I will not go to work for a company that forced me to carry an IPhone. I think that you’ve probably guessed .. I would never purchase an IPhone, it looks bloated and over complicated for its intended purposes.

But really, does forcing Apple to open their product really justify further fragmentation of the free and open source community? I think that we should choose our battles wisely and this battle is unwise.

Feel free to flame, that’s why you see a comment form. My opinions are my own, they do not represent the views of anyone that I work with or for :)


3 Responses to “What is a computer, really?”

  1. Henning
    August 8th, 2008 @ 6:56 pm

    Interesting and plausible opinion under a name that didn’t let me expect this direction :)

  2. mat
    August 17th, 2008 @ 10:23 am

    I have to agree with you, I have used viop on my pc, and on my pda countless times, tho this is obviously different then an iphone. it still turned my devices into “phones” one portable and the other at home. both i have used for other things, i have never considered them phones, just another computer with a another way of communicating. The iphone may have been intended to be a phone, but I can see many people using it for its PDA functions. It’s basically an I-touch with cell phone components.

  3. Emilio López
    September 14th, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

    I must say I completely agree with you. I have an old Palm and I was locked down to Palm software, but I never considered it a PC. It was a PDA, and I used it as such.

    PS: Have you seen iPhoneLinux? :p

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