Brio and Open-Source Hardware

Intellectual property rights in technology. Great, aren’t they? Consider Brio, the middle-class fave range of wooden toys, whose manufacturers have neatly locked out competitors who want to make toys that will go with theirs by using couplings and fasteners that are proprietary and non-standard.

Elsewhere, on the NANOG (North American Network Operators’ Group) list, they discussed the thorny problem of cooling increasingly powerful servers and routers, and arrived at some consensus around using much more water cooling. Paul Vixie argued that in the future, rackmount equipment would have standard connectors for cool water in and warm water out, as it already has standard power connectors, USB ports, and RJ-45 Ethernet ports.

Cool idea! Naturally, there are already racks with water connectors, but inevitably they are proprietary and incompatible. Amusingly, someone pointed out that standard connectors and flexible pipes exist in the beer trade, which is a start. But what does intellectual property actually bring society? I know the standard arguments about the necessity of rewarding invention, but it’s very noticeable that a lot of innovation happens in the open-source world and in what you might call the non-patent space, among academic researchers and the like.

When Bell Labs invented the transistor, they didn’t try to enforce patents on it. Instead they published all their results in peer-reviewed journals and organised technical conferences to spread the knowledge. Perhaps the optimal solution isn’t to look for a total solution, but just to start pushing back the limits of the IP-sphere and see what happens, tolerating any anomalies? Again, seeing that the EU’s misbegotten software patents directive is now dead, this is something we could get started..

9 thoughts on “Brio and Open-Source Hardware

  1. There is actually value in what the massive proprietary software companies do. I mean, CVS, an OK version control system, has been freely available to download for a couple of decades now, and yet no-one but software engineers and other technical folk uses version control in general. By rights everyone should be using it, it makes life so. much. easier. and better to not have to worry about the stupid details of collaborating with other people, of reverting back to a previous version of your document because you like it better, of a sane framework for comparing them.

    It is not primarily because of open-source innovation (or blue-sky-research PARC innovation) that the fruits of such innovation are on so many desks across the world—what Apple and Microsoft did made the world a better place, it made computers easily usable for a hell of a lot more people than was the case before.

  2. > but it’s very noticeable that a lot of
    > innovation happens in the open-source world

    Can you give some examples of what you find particularly innovative in the open source world?

  3. > and yet no-one but software engineers and
    > other technical folk uses version control
    > in general.

    Not true.

    Financial types often use version control inside of document management systems. While they do not use CVS, they do have a form of version control. Hell, even Microsoft’s Sharepoint provides a form of version control.

  4. Swashbuckler; one thing I think particularly innovative is the rsync algorithm and rsync in general. The delta-based approach to recording changes is fundamentally obvious, but still really really useful, and not as widely available as one might like, and there’s even less of an excuse for that now you have this robus implementation widely available. Beyond that, VNC as open source (but AT&T supported Open Source, which is a distinct beast from the normal run of things, sure) has changed the way lots of people work for the better.

    As to your ‘not true,’ yup, you’re right in your precise counterexamples. My general feeling though is that robust version control should be on every desktop, and that this is as important as having a GUI; the flakey ‘track changes’ in MS Office isn’t good enough, committing a revision to a collaborative repository should be an easily findable button on every toolbar of every office suite out there.

  5. > one thing I think particularly innovative
    > is the rsync algorithm and rsync in general.

    Well, rsync itself sure isn’t innovative, though it may use an innovative algorithm. I doubt that it does, but I don’t know.

    > has changed the way lots of people work for
    > the better.

    That may be, that hardly makes it in and of itself innovative. However, it may enable innovation because it is widely available. Those are two different things.

    > My general feeling though is that robust
    > version control should be on every desktop,
    > and that this is as important as having a
    > GUI;

    My gut reaction is that’s overkill, but I might be convinced otherwise. Consider that VMS had a versioning file system – if it was that universally useful I suspect that feature would have made its way to other file systems.

  6. Rsync not innovative? You do know what rsync is because i don’t think you would say it otherwise.

    Versioning has some big disadvantages. It uses more space, is slower, less robust and the operating system and especialy the programs on it have to support it.
    All the big operating system have it. Even the two stallwards *nix and Windows now have it (not particulary good version)

  7. > Rsync not innovative?

    Nope.

    > You do know what rsync is because i don’t
    > think you would say it otherwise.

    I’m well aware of what rsync is.

    Sounds to me like you don’t know about the plethora of products that provide the same functionality that were available prior to rsync’s availability.

    The definition of innovation: “the introduction of something new” (http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?sourceid=Mozilla-search&va=innovation) The functionality provided by rsync wasn’t new.

  8. Note that in the UK, following the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1989, there can be no use of intellectual property rights to prevent the making of things whose compatibility lies in their shape or configuration. (I’m willing to be corrected on this).

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