Hardware is Physical Software
The division between hardware and software is a tale about the mechanical apparatus that extends our human technologies. Hardware is the physical interface that allows you to manipulate reality with more control than your standard human technology: arm, leg, leg, arm, head.
Traditionally, when we think of hardware, we think of the expensive computers we buy at a store. We take them out of the box, plug them in, and we double-click a web browser to interface with Web. This is browser/web magic.
There are thousands of hardware devices which allow for us to access the Web: from desktop computers, portable laptops, mobile phones, netbooks, and now tablets. And, these devices all run some form of software, often a generic and virtual interface we are used to, that lets us access and transmit our knowledge around the world.
The battle for the open Web is a battle for the the individual. It’s a battle for your attention and focus, your time and money. Hardware purchases are one of the greatest expenditures people make today. You make the purchase with more consideration than the decision of switching browsers or sharing a status update. Buying hardware locks you into a culture for a longer period of time than our flippant changing of software and sites.
With the rise of cheap mobile devices, the increase of network speeds, and decreasing costs of internet access, the battle for the Web is a corporate battle for your pocket book, controlling how you use your time, and what you can consume.
Whereas the battle for the magic of Web browsing played out between Microsoft and the “rest”, the battle for the open Web is played out between Apple and Google. Mozilla and Microsoft, David and Goliath, don’t get it in this battle. They are supporting actors. Amazon is slowly getting there, but not for this battle.1 Apple is a completely vertically integrated company that is both removing the web from its iPhone and tablet iPad in place of custom applications that developers must submit to the corporate headquarters for provisioning on devices. Total control.
Now Google, building upon past Free Software and Open Source strategies, is creating an open source operating system, Android, which any hardware manufacturer may use on their platforms. Other companies that aren’t cool can now simply install Android, design a theme, and join the 21st century.
Both Apple and Google’s strategies are dependent upon the accelerating integration of hardware and software layers of the browser. For Apple, the more they can control the hardware and software layers of a device, the more devices they sell and the more they can control what is sold. Free has no place on Apple’s devices. Even the developers who make their devices have to pay a year to be able to participate in the grab for your attention. Nothing is free.2
For Google, they play the cool open guys with free hot lunches for employees. Segways for everyone! The more of the Internet that is free and open, the more Google ads can be placed on the net, sending more money into their pockets. Google needs you. It needs the Open Web.
With Apple products and software, we are back into bed with time-tested monopoly like from the Microsoft era. This time Apple has a complete monopoly on content and hardware. Integrated products are cheaper to manufacture; they appear like magic and just work. Provisioned applications function, but they are not the Web. The world at the close of 2010 is one where Apple controls what can be placed onto their devices, the batteries are sealed into their new products, and sales for their non-computers—iPhones, iPods and iPads—are through the roof. One day, Apple could simply remove their web browser because they say no one uses it. Could you envision a future where the Wikimedia Foundation, the company that keeps Wikipedia alive, is required to pay million a year so that anyone may access free knowledge on the Apple’s iPad 4? It is completely possible with the accelerating integration of software and hardware into the ultimate browser of the closed web, the iPad—a consumer’s ultimate forbidden fruit. Modularity is dead.
The opposite strategy is propagated by Google, the nerds next door. Success through metrics they say. While Google built their browser, Chrome, on the same standard technology Apple uses at the core of its application layer, Webkit (Apple Safari in its application form), Google is battling Apple by getting installed on more devices faster. The more open the Web, the more ads on that openness. The more public spaces, the more you can see those ads from the streets.
Apple wants you to buy more stuff, and Google wants you to click more ads. It’s your battleground though: what hardware will let you control it and allow you to fight for the open Web? This is one of the weakest battlegrounds in the fight for the Open Web. Both the fight for the Open Source browser and a new fight to create free and open hardware is afoot. New projects are on the horizon including the simple Arduino microprocessing project board that is spreading globally like wildfire.3 Also, there is the more complete and pure, in a Free Software sense, Copyleft Hardware movement led off by the Qi Hardware4 project attempting to release all plans and software necessary to both make and use hardware. Your fight for the open web cannot stop at the articificial boundary between software and hardware.
Until the hardware that connects with your human technology is completely free, in a Free Software sense, the battle for the Open Web cannot be won.