It does sound like a setup for a joke, doesn't it? What was I, the Open Source Guy, doing at Microsoft's gala Windows 7 launch party in New York City yesterday? A colleague of mine pointed this out, and I joshed back that I felt like the only guy in a corduroy suit at a black-tie ball. Actually, my first jolt of perspective came before I even stood on line for my badge.
The fellow on the train next to me had a copy of Newsweek, and right as I handed the conductor my ticket I glanced down and saw an ad for what I can only assume is the next wave of Android-powered phones. The same ad turned up on billboards around town as I walked towards the Win7 event:
Well, I mused, if iCan't do all that with the iPhone, then how come the iPhone still sells like mad and still has a veritable avalanche of (for-pay) apps pouring in for it? Surely not for lack of direct competition. Clearly Apple is able to appeal to its audience without ever needing to invoke the words "open" or "free".
The same goes for Microsoft, of course. I didn't expect to hear much praise for open standards or the like when Steve Ballmer took the floor and practically shook with glee, and I don't think anyone with an honest appraisal of Microsoft was expecting such a thing. What I did see was a big kick-off for an OS that's been sweated over and made into something very, very good indeed. It may not be itself open, but -- unlike the iPhone -- it does allow the development and implementation of open things on top of it. And I suspect a bash replete with light shows and media glitz isn't going to be the most logical place to talk about such things.
The appeal of "open" and "free" in computing tends to be self-selecting. That doesn't mean they're unimportant; they are, vitally so. But it does mean that such things, when pitched on those terms, will mainly draw in the people who have primed themselves to care about them. If you don't buy an iPhone, that means you probably have no interested in the apps store for same, either -- and that's probably why the Android phones have been labeled as "Powered by Google", since that gives most people a good idea of what it offers. I'd rather go for an Android-powered phone than an iPhone any day, if only because it's likely to be that much cheaper and work with some carrier other than AT&T. I also have to live gracefully with the fact that many people I know -- some technically savvy, some not -- choose the iPhone despite all that, because it gives them something they feel they can't get anywhere else.
The same goes with Windows 7 and Windows itself. A good deal of the work I do is difficult to achieve without some version of Windows, but that doesn't mean I can't try to learn how to use solutions that can work on any platform. I do also have to fight the temptation to say that people who stay with Windows time and again are "hugging their chains" or something equally silly: they found something that works, and the varieties of freedom and open they don't have are not impacting the work they do in any meaningful way. The biggest danger they face is in trusting their data to a program that has a proprietary, undocumented and unsupported file format -- or to a service where you're allowed access to your data only on someone else's terms. I see both Microsoft Live and Google in this same light.
As I walked between one computer and the next in the exhibition pavilion, I saw a great many folks who were, by and large, not themselves technically inclined. I imagined a die-hard open-source / free-software advocate running up to one of them and giving them the whole canned "freedom" lecture, and getting a size-seven blank stare in return. And I could imagine why he'd get that kind of response, too: because in the minds of most of these people, they're already quite free. What few restrictions life with Windows has imposed on them are not odious enough to inspire full-blown revolt, and the free/open folks constantly misjudge this. To the end users, a little less "free" and "open" often means that much more truly useful.
Most of where I've rejected proprietary software has been on an app-by-app basis, rather than full-blown platforms. I have a dual-boot laptop that runs both Windows 7 and Ubuntu (actually, the Fedora 12 beta right now), and Win7 has as a matter of course run that much better than any of the recent Linux systems I've put on it. The one platform I rejected definitively was the Win9x strain of Windows, which was borne of compromise and remained that way until XP finally killed it off for good. That said, I've dumped a good part of Office -- save for Word and Outlook, which are very difficult to replace -- my legacy desktop-publishing and content-management apps, and a great many other things that I paid for but only out of a grudging sense that someday I wouldn't have to. And the Linux systems are valuable as both a learning experience and as a way to work directly in the environment where things like Movable Type (which I use) and my web server itself will work. But it still hasn't completely eclipsed my day-to-day work habits. I have more long-tem hope for something like HaikuOS doing that, frankly.
If I get to a point where I only pay for the OS and little or nothing else, that would suit me fine. If it's a case of paying not for the OS but for certain special apps that cannot be found anywhere else, that would work, too. The one thing that matters most is whether or not I can do what I need to do without undue pain. There is no one formula for that, and while Microsoft has found a set of compromises that appeal to most people, I'm not foolish enough to believe they appeal to everyone. But they're not sitting still, either.
I don't think Microsoft is ever going to give their farm away, as it were -- and frankly, I don't think they should ever have to. If their place in the world is in developing a for-cost platform on top of which no-cost software can be developed, run, and distributed, I'm fine with that -- just as long as I know that walking in. And when I walked out of the Windows 7 party and into downtown Manhattan's bright and breezy air, I hadn't seen a thing to change any of that. An odd sort of comfort. It was good to know precisely where they were coming from.
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