Open Source is Good for the Environment

Despite all the amazing things we can do with electronics, and despite increases in efficiency, the physical reality is very wasteful. Computers, and other electronics use a lot of electricity, much of it is used for nothing. Discarded electronics fill landfills, and release the poisonous chemicals they are made of. During the winter, they are efficient space heaters, but during summer they make extra work for air conditioners. We would all be a lot less wasteful if we reduced how many electronic devices we buy, and if we upgraded them as rarely as possible.

If you accept that, then you must also accept that open source is the only environmentally responsible method of software and hardware development.

A month ago I went to the Boxee Beta unveiling in Brooklyn. I asked Avner Ronen why the Boxee Box didn’t include Cable Card, DVR, Blu-Ray, etc. Because the Boxee Box only ran Boxee, it would increase the number of boxes under a TV, not decrease them. He agreed that there was definitely a box fatigue, and he also wanted fewer boxes under his TV. He expressed hope that another electronics manufacturer would produce a machine that would run Boxee and all of those other applications simultaneously, but the Boxee Box would not be that device.

There was a time where typewriters were obsolete, but PCs hadn’t yet become affordable, there was a product known as a word processor. All that machine did was process words. Imagine if today you bought one computer that only ran Microsoft Word. Imagine if you had to buy a separate machine for iTunes, and a separate machine for web browsing, and so on. It’s so obviously ridiculous, even normal people would laugh. You have a general purpose computer that is capable of running a wide variety of software. There is no reason to have specialized hardware for a single piece of software for the vast majority of applications, especially consumer applications.

As you are reading this right now, I want you to think about the boxes you have under your TV. I imagine that most people have a cable box, some game consoles, a DVD or blu-ray player, a DVR, maybe a Slingbox, and maybe even an old VCR. Some of these have been combined. Many cable boxes have a DVR in them. Game consoles tend to include DVD or Blu-Ray players. That being said, people I know have a lot of boxes in their primary entertainment centers.

This is just as ludicrous as having a separate computer just for word processing. All of those boxes are general purpose computers. There is absolutely no reason that you can’t have one box that is a cable box, DVR, DVD/Blu-Ray player, game console, and all around media handling machine. How come such a box doesn’t exist? Sure, some nerds have built such boxes on their own, but there aren’t any that are available to consumers on the mass market.

The reason is closedness. Cable boxes are closed. DVD and Blu-Ray decoding is closed. Game consoles are closed platforms. A DVR doesn’t have to be closed source, but many things it deals with, like video codecs, DRM, and other media protocols, are closed. Even VCRs have Macrovision DRM to deal with.

To protect the closed nature of all of this software, it is delivered to the user in a black box. They provide unopenable and unmodifiable hardware with the software built-in. If you want to add any features, you need to get more boxes or different boxes. Sometimes those other boxes do not work well in concert with the black boxes, and you get duplicate functionality. This is ludicrous and technologically unecessary.

The only benefit of this system is that it gives the media companies some slight protection against piracy and such. As I’m sure you are well aware, it is working really really well. No matter how hard I try, I can’t find any high definition movies or TV shows available for free. Man, it’s so worth wasting all this extra energy on electronics to prevent piracy.

The benefits of opening all these systems are that consumers will have an infinitely better experience, and we will reduce a tremendous amount of waste. There is no reason that we all can not have one single computer under our TVs that runs any and all living room entertainment software.

Game console makers should even pack it in. Their insistence on making games for proprietary consoles is silly. There is no reason people can’t just make PC games that have different modes when hooked up to a TV instead of a monitor. Gaming controllers like Wiimotes (unofficially via Bluetooth) and XBox 360 controllers (officially via USB) already work with PCs just fine.

If all of this software were open source, then everyone would be able to have one, and only one, box under their televisions. That box would handle everything from watching YouTube to watching the pre-recorded evening news. The software on it could be upgraded almost perpetually to handle any new applications, like 3D movies. You might not even need a power strip behind your TV. Heck, you could reduce the audio and video cable rats nest to just one or two wires. We would all save a lot of money and space in the landfill thanks to reducing our box count. Not to mention our entertainment centers would be a lot less cluttered and more aesthetically pleasing.

Also, be aware that I’m just using the home entertainment system as an easy example. There are plenty of other areas in which lack of openness increases our need for extra devices. Almost every electronic device you see nowadays has a general purpose processor inside. If it does, then it is capable of handling far more functionality than the built-in software allows. Even for all of the things an iPhone can do, the piles of rejected apps are clear evidence that the hardware is capable of far greater functionality than the software allows for. You can also see clear evidence by looking at the wide range of devices which have been made to run Doom and/or the Linux kernel.

If all of these things were open source, we could exploit every piece of hardware to its fullest potential by modifying the software. A black box is almost always going to fall short of achieving its full potential. It will always have possible capabilities that go unused due only to lack of software. If that capability is desired, it will only be achieved through the production of yet another piece of hardware, and expenditure of more money and energy.

Waste not with open source.

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One Response to Open Source is Good for the Environment

  1. Elaine says:

    I’m glad your blogging more often, I love to read it. You make some very good points and have interesting ideas.

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