16.2 The Return of the Hardware Kings

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The biggest effect of the free software revolution may be to shift the power between the hardware and software companies. The biggest corporate proponents of open source are IBM, Apple, Netscape/AOL, Sun, and Hewlett-Packard. All except Netscape are major hardware companies that watched Microsoft turn the PC world into a software monopoly that ruled a commodity hardware business.

Free source code changes the equation and shifts power away from software companies like Microsoft. IBM and Hewlett-Packard are no longer as beholden to Microsoft if they can ship machines running a free OS. Apple is borrowing open source software and using it for the core of their new OS. These companies know that the customers come to them looking for a computer that works nicely when it comes from the factory. Who cares whether the software is free or not? If it does what the customer wants, then they can make their money on hardware.

The free software movement pushes software into the public realm, and this makes it easier for the hardware companies to operate. Car companies don't sit around and argue about who owns the locations of the pedals or the position of the dials on the dashboard. Those notions and design solutions are freely available to all car companies equally. The lawyers don't need to get involved in that level of car creation.
Of course, the free software movement could lead to more consolidation in the hardware business. The car business coalesced over the years because the large companies were able to use their economies of scale to push out the small companies. No one had dominion over the idea of putting four wheels on a car or building an engine with pistons, so the most efficient companies grew big.

This is also a threat for the computer business. Microsoft licensed their OS to all companies, big or small, that were willing to prostrate themselves before the master. It was in Microsoft's best interests to foster free competition between the computer companies. Free software takes this one step further. If no company has control over the dominant OS, then competition will shift to the most efficient producers. The same forces that brought GM to the center of the car industry could help aggregate the hardware business.

This vision would be more worrisome if it hadn't happened already. Intel dominates the market for CPU chips and takes home the lion's share of the price of a PC. The marketplace already chose a winner of that battle. Now, free software could unshackle Intel from its need to maintain a partnership with Microsoft by making Intel stronger.

Of course, the free OSs could also weaken Intel by opening it up to competition. Windows 3.1, 95, and 98 always ran only on Intel platforms. This made it easier for Intel to dominate the PC world because the OS that was most in demand would only run on Intel or Intel compatible chips. Microsoft made some attempt to break out of this tight partnership by creating versions of Windows NT that ran on the Alpha chip, but these were never an important part of the market.

The free OS also puts Intel's lion's share up for grabs. Linux runs well on Intel chips, but it also runs on chips made by IBM, Motorola, Compaq, and many others. The NetBSD team loves to brag that its software runs on almost all platforms available and is dedicated to porting it to as many as possible. Someone using Linux or NetBSD doesn't care who made the chip inside because the OS behaves similarly on all of them.

Free source code also threatens one of the traditional ways computer manufacturers differentiated their products. The Apple Macintosh lost market share and potential customers because it was said that there wasn't much software available for it. The software written for the PC would run on the Mac only using a slow program that converted it. Now, if everyone has access to the source code, they can convert the software to run on their machine. In many cases, it's as simple as just recompiling it, a step that takes less than a minute. Someone using an Amiga version of NetBSD could take software running on an Intel chip version and recompile it.

This threat shows that the emergence of the free OSs ensures that hardware companies will also face increased competitive pressure. Sure, they may be able to get Microsoft off their back, but Linux may make things a bit worse.

In the end, the coming of age of free software may be just as big a threat to the old way of life for corporations as it is to the free software community. Sure, the hackers will lose the easy camaraderie of swapping code with others, but the corporations will need to learn to live without complete control. Software companies will be under increasing pressure from free versions, and hardware companies will be shocked to discover that their product will become more of a commodity than it was before. Everyone is going to have to find a way to compete and pay the rent when much of the intellectual property is free.
These are big changes that affect big players. But what will the changes mean to the programmers who stay up late spinning mountains of code? Will they be disenfranchised? Will they quit in despair? Will they move on to open source experiments on the human genome?

"The money flowing in won't turn people off or break up the community, and here's why," says Eric Raymond. "The demand for programmers has been so high for the last decade that anyone who really cared about money is already gone. We've been selected for artistic passion."