Open source – open spectrum?

I haven’t blogged much lately. This entry is a cross-post from my work’s blog.

There was recently an interesting opinion to open up Wifi specs at BusinessWeek. Those ideas come close to what some call as Open Spectrum. Technically the idea is to open up more frequencies out of state control and give users more control for what they can do with their communication devices (through configuring their own software radio to alter the signal strength, frequency etc.).

At first sight this sounds like a straightforward application of the principles of open source: create a wireless commons and let the users innovate us the needed technical infrastructure. Only if it would work that way.

First, there are technical hurdles (such as interferences, unreliability, misuse possibilities). Second, there is the great wall of regulation: if my little iTrip is illegal in Europe at the moment, I’d be sceptical to see something like WiMax as free as Wifi anytime soon… Third, there is the problem of business propositions… which actually isn’t a problem but the main driver, which may make open spectrum a reality sooner than we think. Just think of all the start-ups once again challenging industry giants such as handset manufacturers and telecom operators. Would it be any different from the dot-com era? I really don’t know, but I’d sure like to see it happen!

When open source went dot-com

Just came back from Joi Ito’s talk in Helsinki. He talked about the future of music business largely based on a recent Wired article.

Don’t get me wrong. The talk was great and thought-provoking. I did enjoy it. I just happen to have second thoughts of most of the stuff he said. His talk was like a troll-post to me and I’ll post my second thoughts here as I’d post them to any troll. Keep this in my mind if you go on to read my harsh critique in what follows.

* * *

The main message as I got it was that the music business is going open source. You’ll have the commercial “head” which is shrinking and is doomed. You’ll also have the long “tail”, which has all the future talent, and the real creative force. Folk, karaoke, Garageband, the stuff you really want to do. CDs are history. Big labels who do physical distribution and search artists at the moment will suffer and need to fundamentally change their “business models”. Mass media made us believe they had a role but in reality what they produce us is just crap (in terms of quality). We won’t have new Michael Jacksons’ anytime soon…

And the business in this new world of music? Mr. Ito claimed “prosumers”, for the lack of a better word, at the tail’s end will pay to get more attention. So one idea is to make some platform stuff (obviously software) for them. What else? Niche groups around folk bands and artists will be the center of action – so you can for example sell T-shirts to your audience. Great! Moreover, if you release just some of your stuff free you might later get bought by the big Hollywood-guys!! This is getting better and better – still more ideas!? The real bomb: DVDs!! They won’t disappear, there is a lot of development potential in music DVDs.

What a mess of “ideas”. Let’s refute them quickly:

1. Platforms won’t be business to anyone. If it’s going to be popular, it’ll be open source and free for all. Read IT doesn’t matter.
2. T-shirts… remember dot-com?
3. Get attention to get bought by the big labels – what is exactly new in this? And doesn’t this go against the very idea of p2p, open source and amateur revolution?
4. DVDs… again, what’s new? Ironically, to refute his earlier arguments, mr. Ito went on to show enthusiastically a new Rolling Stones DVD (which has camera angles to exite the audience and make them not to connect this to the earlier bs about marginal-artist revolution and the death of CDs)

* * *

The main impression I’m starting to get is that all this open source, open content, free/open whatever Internet-related stuff is at the moment the worst kind of hype available. The problem is people are getting interested, they want gurus to speak and the cycle starts to feed more and more belief in us. Success story here, success story there. Somebody makes a business proposal and mass psychology takes care of the rest. Open is the answer! Freedom or death!

I don’t doubt that this hype reflects the cultural and social impact of the Internet. Obviously people will share more, and it is indeed possible to cooperate and get “creative” in some ways unthinkable a few years back. Richard Stallman is the real guru of creativity and freedom in this sense.

However, mr. Stallman has nothing to say about business. Guys like mr. Ito make that mistake. Further, they go on to generalize open source to open whatever without much reality checks. We should not believe that the open/free/power-to-the-people trend has any business impact in the first place. Money is conservative. Money doesn’t follow the free. Money loves control and hierarchies, it wants to be in a safe place.

I bet Gekko would said to freaks like mr. Ito something like this: “You’re walking around blind without a cane, pal. A fool and his money are lucky enough to get together in the first place.”

I want my free wifi!

Reading this slashdotted piece on how free wifi is advancing in Estonia made me think deep once again. Why the hell free wifi hasn’t become popular outside northern California … and Estonia?

The point is that wifi is not a business case. I figured this out in early 2001 when I was living and testing the first hotspots in San Francisco Bay Area. Go any coffee shop in the states and you’re most probably online. Many places are free. Starbucks via T-Mobile is one of the most expensive – around 5 euros for an hour or something like 30 per month. Typically you’d go for 20 per month.

In Finland, the mobile internet has been since 1995 or something the GSM (or GPRS for the name’s sake) modem speed. It’s a big joke. Because people don’t experience wireless net they don’t get it. If you haven’t ever watched TV you don’t need it.

Occasional free wifi in a city is a totally different experience from the current closed airport and hotel hotspots. I remember when I returned from California in the late 2001 with my wifi card installed. I found out the biggest operators had started wifi tests. I call them: in order to use any of them I’d have needed to subscribe something like hundred accounts to my big company. The situation hasn’t changed ever since! When do they get that wifi is first and foremost consumer technology?

Finally, my 5 cents. I tried to push free wifi in Finland to EFFI’s agenda in fall 2003. Unfortunately the whole idea has been somehow frozen to a draft stage. Maybe people aren’t interested in wifi after all?

Why video rentals suck

1. You don’t get but the last five years of Hollywood mainstream
2. You don’t get the hottest titles anyway cause someone was there before you
3. Even those hot titles had their world premier at least half a year ago
(4. If you happen to get the movie you want, It’ll be 4 euros – around 5 bucks – and five minutes of forced commercials, region lock, copy lock, and other devaluation)

My gut feeling is that CD is going to outlive DVD. Both of those medias will die soon, that’s clear, but CD will undoubtedly win. I still buy occasionally CDs although I get most of my aural pleasure from the radio (online and offline), various p2p software and iTunes. Why still CDs? The quality is great (same as the “original” in most cases) and the price for used and bargains about right. You also get enough usage-freedom when you own a CD (except the fucking “copyprotected” ones).

But I don’t buy DVDs anymore. And I won’t rent DVDs either, just because the renting system does not work. I re-experienced movie renting the last few weeks while we’ve had to live in a temporary apartment due to some renovation in our own. We have a DVD player in our temp place and the two main Finnish video rental chains just a one-minute walk from our door. So I tried them a couple of times and disappointed big time as you can read from above. Where the hell is iTunes for movies? Before we get anything like that, I urge anyone to try the latest p2p tricks before entering any movie rental shop in Helsinki.

Free licensing problems

There is little doubt that GNU General Public License (GPL) is not only the most used but also the most controversial Free Software license. While it gives users the freedom to use and study programs, it does not give them freedom to do whatever they want with derivative works. In fact, GPL is incombatible with many Open Source licenses.

Now MySQL has published a solution to GPL-incompatibility problems. Basically they have added an exception saying that code under GPL can be combined with code under any other Open Source compliant license. Technically speaking, MySQL users have an option to choose either a “plain GPL” or the amended, more Open Source friendly, version. Free Software Foundation currently classifies Free Software licenses according to their GPL compatibility, which in my opinion just confuses people. MySQL’s new policy is an example of an attempt to make information, and software in particular, available to all with no artificial (whether they be commercial or ideological) constraints.