Hobbyists, activists, geeks, designers, engineers, etc have always tinkered with technologies for their own purposes (in early personal computing, for example). And social activists have long advocated the power of giving tools to people. An open hardware movement driven by these restless innovators is creating ingenious versions of all sorts of technologies, and freely sharing the know-how through the Internet and more recently through the social media. Open source software and more recently hardware is also encroaching upon centers of manufacturing and can empower serious business opportunities and projects.
The free software movement is cited as both an inspiration and a model for open hardware. Free software practices have transformed our culture by making it easier for people to become involved in producing things from magazines to music, movies to games, communities to services. With advances in digital fabrication making it easier to manipulate materials, some now anticipate an analogous opening up of manufacturing to mass participation.
It is important to keep sharp open hardwares more transformational edges, on agendas such as dismantling intellectual property and releasing investment for alternative business models. Only through a mix of craft, politics, and the support of social movements, will open hardware fully realise its potential to democratise technology.
There are numerous organizations and initiatives voiced and supported by the Open Source Hardware Association and a vast thriving community of supporters and technological enthusiasts that are doing to advance this core value. The Open Source Hardware Association aims to be the voice of the open hardware community, ensuring that technological knowledge is accessible to everyone, and encouraging the collaborative development of technology that serves education, environmental sustainability, and human welfare.
Technology and culture ought to respect user freedom. A year ago, AMD made a giant leap towards a fully open source Linux graphics and compute stack driver stack. While still offering proprietary hardware running proprietary firmware, having the driver and the libraries as open source opens potential for modification and performance optimization. In addition, it gives other GPU manufacturers, including NVIDIA and Intel, a standard to aim for. Finally, it gives hope that there will be further openness in the future.
This is why we celebrate Graphics and Compute Freedom Day, GCFD. We want to take one day every year to remember all the open standards, open source software, and open hardware that have made it into the mainstream in the field of computer graphics and GPU computing. It has been exactly one year since AMD has unveiled GPUOpen on 15th December 2015; let’s celebrate GCFD and let’s hope that this year is just a start of many more successful years of graphics and compute freedom.
GCFD will be hosting a livestream starting at 14:30 in Central European Time. Join at www.gcfd.stream.
Watching streaming events is cool, but having them in your city is even cooler. I was invited to speak at the local Skeptics in the pub on whether the proprietary technologies are dying. Aside from being happy to speak about the open source in public, I was also happy to speak about the computer science more broadly. Too often people make the mistake thinking that the computer science researchers look for the better ways to repair iPhones, clean up printers, and reinstall Windows. Well, in some way we do, but we don’t really care about those particular products and aren’t really focused on how to root the latest generation of Samsung phones, or clean up some nasty virus that is spreading.
That isn’t to say that any of these things should be undervalued, as most of them aren’t trivial. It’s just that our research work approaches technology in a much broader way, and (somewhat counter-intuitively) solves very specific problems. For example, one such overview would be to look at the historical development of Internet protocols at Berkeley in the 80’s and later; one such problem would be the implementation of Multipath TCP on Linux or Android.
Short version of the presentation is: computers are not just PCs anymore, but a range of devices. Non-proprietary software vendors recognized this expansion first, so open technologies are leading the way in many new areas (e.g. mobile phones and tablets), and have also taken the lead in some of the more traditional ones (e.g. infrastructure, web browsers). The “moving to the open source” trend is very obvious, at least in software. However, even in software, the proprietary vendors are far from being dead yet. Regardless, there are two aspects of the move towards the open source technologies that make me particularly happy.
First aspect is that, with open technologies taking the lead, we can finally provide everyone with the highly sophisticated tools for education. Imagine a kid downloading Eclipse (for free) to learn programming in Java, C, or C++; one does get to experience the real world development environment that developers all around the world use on a daily basis. Imagine if, instead of the fully functional Eclipse integrated development environment, the kid got some kind of a stripped-down toy software or a functionally limited demo version of a software. The kid’s potential for learning would be severely restricted by the software limitations. (This is not a new idea, most people who cheer open source have been using this in open source advocacy for many years. I was very happy to hear Thomas Cameron use the same argument at 2015 Red Hat Summit welcome speech.)
Second aspect is that LEGO blocks of the software world are starting to emerge in a way, especially considering the container technologies. Again, imagine a kid wanting to run a web, mail, or database server at his home. Want to set it up all by yourself from scratch? There are hundreds of guides available. Want to see how it works when it works? Use a container, or a pre-built virtual appliance image, and spin a server in minutes. Then play with it until it breaks to see how to break it and how to fix it, preferably without starting from scratch. But even when you have to start from scratch, rebuilding a working operating system takes minutes (if not seconds), not tens of minutes or hours.
When I was learning my way around Linux in the 00’s, virtualization was not yet widespread. So, whenever you broke something beyond repair, you had to reinstall your Linux distribution or restore it from a disk/filesystem image of some kind. If you dual-booted Linux and Windows, you could destroy the Windows installation if you did not know what you were doing. Finally, prior to the Ubuntu and subsequent Fedora Live media, installation used to take longer than it does today. And if you think further and consider the geeks who grew up in the 90’s, it’s easy to see that they had even less ease of use in open source software available to them. Yet, both 00’s and 90’s generations of geeks are creating awesome things in the world of the open source software today.