Hardware manufacturers and the proprietary problem

Simon thinks that having consumer-friendly standards is a good and useful thing. Hardware manufacturers, for different reasons, tend to agree…

This article is due to appear in issue 91 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Accepting that a world where the Linux operating system has overtaken Windows to become the planet’s most popular is the kind of idyllic dream that’s years off at best (if at all), there’s always a bit of me that wishes people would just get behind the principle of it all a little bit more. Not necessarily the principle of Linux specifically, rather the ideas and thought processes behind open source.

Let me give you an example. I own a Sony camcorder. Now Sony is a firm notorious in the past for doing things in a proprietary manner, right down to the point where it came up with its own alternative to MP3 technology. But in the case of this camcorder, I’d been quite content with it for some time.

However, the moment came when the charger was starting to give me problems. Hmmm. Time to take a look at a new one, I figured. How much can a simple power adapter cost, after all?

The best part of £60, as it happens. £60 for a lead that, at its most basic (and arguably at its most complicated too), has the job of taking power from the mains through to the back of the camcorder. The same kind of adapter in principle that costs far less than £10 in other cases. But because of the very precise ‘consumer-friendly’ connector Sony has employed, it means that it can charge the earth for its power unit, safe in the knowledge that nobody can offer an alternative.

It’s done this, of course, by taking a readily known standard way of taking power from A to B, and subverting it in a manner whose only intention is to get more money off customers. For what other reason can there be? It’s not as if it’s delivering power in some very precise way that only Sony products require, as if sprinkled with pixie dust of special vintage.

This is what I hate. Because it goes against the idea of having a single standard. That standard is for the convenience of the customer, and isn’t designed to be bastardised by a firm out for a few more quick bucks.

The mobile phone market too is terrible for this. It’s been over a year now since many major mobile phone companies all agreed to unite behind one universal charger for their products, having spent the last few years trying to contort the mini-USB cable into shapes it wasn’t originally designed to be contorted into. And thus, no doubt with the leaning of a government body somewhere in the world, they all made encouraging noises and, from where I’m sitting, have done absolutely nothing about it since. Now we hear that laptop manufacturers are investigating a universal laptop charger too. Bluntly, I’ll believe it when I see it.

This is why I get so frustrated when people quickly dismiss Linux. I don’t have a problem with them preferring Windows, or even passing up the idea of giving Linux a try. But I do find it quite depressing that there’s no appreciation of what’s going on under the surface. I’m not talking about a sudo command, or lines of code. I’m talking about an ethos that standards are there to help consumers, to provide a level playing field for us all.

Instead, it seems the legwork is being done, and then greedy manufacturers are rubbing their hands with glee as they mess around with said standard in a bid to line their own pockets. It can and should be stopped. But sadly, I fear that not enough people – aside from a quick grumble in a pub – really care that much. For what it’s worth? I do.

What are your views on the proprietary problem? Share your thoughts in the comments thread below.

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