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You Own Nothing

About a year ago, it was revealed that I was the benefactor for the $200,000 Linux on Xbox project. The goal was to get Linux running on an Xbox without making any hardware changes. Many people perceived the project as a jab at Microsoft. It wasn't. Others thought it was an attempt to get publicity for

Learn more the Xbox Linux Project
Linspire. It wasn't (they used another Linux product). In fact, I did it in secret so the focus would be on the technical challenge and the implications of closed hardware. Only after the project leaders begged me to disclose my name because it would bring more attention to the effort did I allow them to tell the press. Though the project did not achieve its full technical goal, still $150,000 was distributed. To me it was money well spent because it raised awareness of the biggest threat to personal ownership in the digital age - DRM (Digital Restrictions Management).

In spite of sharing the insides with a traditional PC, the Xbox has a dramatic and dangerous difference. A PC buyer can install any software or hardware that they wish. They own the machine and can change it to suit their needs - true ownership. There are no limitations. This open architecture is largely responsible for the two-decade personal computer revolution. With an Xbox, the user is merely renting the box. Microsoft decides what software (games) users can load and even how they can use it. When it connects to the net, Microsoft can and has instructed the machine to change its behavior to block certain users, functionality or software that it does not agree with. They are changing the rules after you purchase it to suit their needs and not your needs.

The Xbox served as the training wheels for Microsoft's new Longhorn operating system, which is slipping to a 2007 launch. Like the Xbox, Longhorn will limit what software you can load. In the guise of "security", Microsoft is trying to dramatically change the way PCs work. Instead of the owner deciding what software they want to install and run, Microsoft is seizing that power from them. Under the smokescreen of security, they are pronouncing that it is good for Microsoft to decide what software you can use.

It's the ultimate marketing challenge to explain to the world that turning over more control to Microsoft is an improvement that computer users should desire and pay money for. Microsoft has floated a series of hyper-technical sounding initiatives like Palladium and Next-Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB), each time explaining why it's a good thing for Microsoft to decide what software users should use. Earlier this week, Bill Gates talked about how it was like a "black box flight recorder," a not-so-subtle reference to 9/11 designed to tug on emotions. I leave it to others to comment on whether Microsoft has the security track record to decide what software is secure enough for me to be running. I'm more interested in the liberty and cost issues.

Some of you may be wondering why having choice over software is a "liberty" issue. We are quickly moving to a world where every communication, document, photo, song and movie is digitized and living on a PC or PC-like device. Software is the gateway to access parts of those elements. Without control over the software, there is no control of the underlying digital item. Your access can be taken away or modified at anytime. No control means you do not have ownership. This would be like buying a new home and then finding out that someone else has the keys to the front door and they control your access in and out of the home. You'd hardly feel like a home "owner" in such a situation.

Let me give you a concrete example. The biggest deployment of software control is Apple Computer's iTunes. Unbeknown to most users, all the music purchased from iTunes music store is only accessible from iTunes software because of DRM limitations. Buyers can't decide to listen to their songs on other software or even other hardware devices - Apple decides that, and they can change the rules when it suits them. (Apple states this in their Terms of Use.)

Unfortunately this is not a theoretical risk; it has already happened several times. Apple removed the ability to stream music from your home and office if they are on different networks. They tightened restrictions on how many CDs you can burn. They further clamped down on how many computers can stream the music simultaneously. They've even altered the iTunes software to limiting interoperability with music from competitor Real Networks. The problem is that this change all take place after you purchase the music and will continue to happen whenever it suits Apple. Music buyers are forced to use the new software because of bug fixes, security issues and new music needs they have, forcing users to meekly swallow the arbitrary changes Apple makes, which affects their music purchases. This is analogous to a rental agreement where the landlord can raise the rent, ban pets, or change other rules on a moment's notice. Now imagine this same corporate control over every document, photo, video as well as music file. This is what Microsoft will have and more if they can dictate what software can be run on your PC with their upcoming operating system.

Learn more about Lsongs

I want to own my property. I want the liberty to decide what software I use. I want the freedom to listen to music and movies that I pay for on whatever device I want. I might like iTunes today, Windows Media tomorrow and  Lsongs next year. I want that choice. The world needs consumers to have that choice so they will always be treated fairly. If consumers lose the choice they become locked into one vendor and lose control over the digital products they had purchased and assumed they "owned."

I don't think Apple or Microsoft are intentionally evil. I just think that corporations cannot resist the urge to block competitors and squeeze customers at every turn. If Microsoft controls what software I can run, they will charge a lot of money for that software because I will be locked in. If Apple has control, they will make it only work on their hardware, which won't be cheap. I don't want any company - even Linspire - controlling my digital world. If a corporation controls my PC, my software or how I use my digital property, then I really don't own it. Historian Lord Acton said it best:

"The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern... Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
,, SIPphone, MP3tunes, and all the other companies I am or have been involved with have steadfastly stood for open standards.  I will continue to champion choice for consumers so each of us truly can own and control our property, including the portfolio of digital property consumers are acquiring in today's
ever-expanding digital world.   

-- Michael

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