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12/26/2007
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5 Things Open Source Needs In 2008

More hardware support and better communication from Microsoft are just two of the things the open-source community must get in 2008 to continue its momentum.

There's little question that open source software -- and the open source philosophy -- has made giant strides in 2007. As tempting as it can be to just look back and feel good about our progress, it's the right time for the community to take a long look forward and figure out what needs to be done to continue -- and even accelerate -- momentum.

To get the conversation started, I've compiled a list of five suggested "to-do" items for open source in 2008. Some of the items are evangelical; some are introspective. All of these things garnered at least some notice in 2007 and are bound to remain at least as important or gain that much more attention in '08. It's not an exhaustive list and isn't intended to be one; it's simply meant to spark further thought.


1
Better Hardware Support

We need more hardware makers -- desktop PC makers and creators of other devices alike -- to take the open source plunge.

There's been a fair explosion of mainstream hardware devices that either have been certified to work with open source software or use it as a standard-issue element. It's been heartening to see Dell offer Ubuntu Linux as a pre-loaded product, to see the Linux-driven Everex gPC sell solidly, and to see Asus offer an entire subnotebook line (the Eee PC) that runs Xandros.

These types of products don't just put Linux into the hands of more users -- which is a good thing in itself -- but also produce open source drivers for more pieces of hardware. This type of development spurs competition between manufacturers to build devices that are innately and genuinely better -- that are not dependent on artificial limitations which can be worked around. One example of this would be a hardware product that has features which are disabled in the device's firmware, but which could be manually enabled through a third-party firmware.

For instance, when I buy my next in-house network router, I plan to look for something that can support open source firmware like Tomato. I'd rather not be at the mercy of the feature set decreed by the manufacturers when there's more that's possible -- especially when the time between updates for manufacturer-supplied firmware tends to be glacial compared to the pace of an open source project.

One reason why manufacturers do not allow this sort of thing more often, I suspect, is because there is (and probably always will be) a market for mandated scarcity. Mandated scarcity is one incarnation of vendor lock-in, which gives the vendor leverage over the consumer. My Canon digital camera's hardware, for instance, has the ability to shoot photos in RAW (uncompressed) mode. But it's disabled on my specific model, probably because shooting RAW is not particularly useful on a camera with consumer-level optics. That said, RAW shooting is still possible with this camera, and I wouldn't mind taking advantage of it if the need arises. (And as it turns out, I can shoot RAW on that particular camera, courtesy of a custom firmware created by third-party hackers.)

I don't think the market for artificial scarcity will be ended completely by open source efforts. I'm fairly certain there will always be a market for people willing to pay less for a device that has been crippled in firmware, and who will never bother to unlock it -- and always a reason for vendors to create lock-in. But I do think that a market where open devices are the norm, rather than the exception, has become far more possible and desirable than ever. There should be continuing outreach to hardware makers on as many fronts as possible.

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