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Open and closed products

posted 5 Apr 2010, 02:26 by Andrew Conway   [ updated 5 Apr 2010, 03:00 ]
Easter Monday. I go downstairs about 07.30 and am soon joined by my 5 year old son who's desperate to play Super Mario Bros. We start up the Wii and  - shock-horror! - all the save games are gone. That's months of completing all the worlds and collecting big star coins gone. Well, it's only a game so we both give a philosphical "oh well" and set about completing world 1 again.

This got me thinking: if only Nintendo hadn't "closed" the Wii down so heavily I might've been able to go in there and fix the problem. I know it's possible to hack into a Wii but for once I was actually happy to have a device that allegedly "just works" and didn't require me to go in and meddle with its innards. But, as it turns out it only "just works" most of the time and when it "just doesn't work" there's nought I can do about it.

In contrast, a very "open" product I recently bought - precisely for that reason - was a Netgear WNR2000 router. It runs linux (like many do) and bundles a GPL v2 paper license (that's a free as in freedom type license in contrast to an "open source" license). As such, if I don't like some aspect of the way it works (or doesn't work) I can just go in and reassemble,  recompile and/or replace its operating system. Well, it turns out there is one feature of it that seems to suck big-time. The DHCP server (that dishes out IP numbers aka internet addresses) does not work with any of my wireless devices, namely: eee pc, laptop, G1 phone or Wii. When I search the web I find fellow consumers of this product giving the advice "oh, that's the way it is, just replace the OS". That's extremely rubbish. So I should hack into the device and meddle with the operating system? Erm, well, ok, I suppose, except I'm certain that it would gobble up hours or possibly days of my time and I'm quite sure there are better things to do with my life, like go for a walk in an April shower and look for rainbows or talk to a friend or perhaps play Super Mario Bros with my son.

Whether a manufacturer's policy is for open or closed software - and I advocate the former - it hardly matters if the manufacturer and their consumers have lost interest in making and buying things that work properly. Oh for the good old days when we didn't have many gadgets but the ones we did have actually worked better. But, on the upside, rainbows still work.