Free software for end users facing extinction?

Apps stores and thin clients could block FLOSS from end users

As the IT world seems to saunter merrily towards a world of thin-client tablets, smartphones, and ultrabooks, user-facing free software may be danger of extinction.

Watching yesterday's debacle of a product presentation for Microsoft Surface, many questions bemusedly ran through my head. Most of them were logistical, such as how much would this thing cost and what was the battery life?

I also wondered how the hardware OEMs that Microsoft managed to strong-arm into enacting Secure Boot on UEFI are feeling today. After years of complying with all of Microsoft's demands and controls just to have the privilege of running Windows, Microsoft releases their own device that not only competes with tablets, but presumably ultrabooks as well.

And people thought Google was bold for buying Motorola Mobility.

The announcement of Microsoft Surface is only the latest symptom in a much broader shift towards a much more thin-client world. All of the devices mentioned have their own native apps, but they also depend heavily on content and computing delivered from a centralized location. Content consumption, not creation, is the watchword for these snazzy new devices.

It's not that content creation is impossible on devices like the iPad or Android smartphones--it's just not that easy right now. I'll give Microsoft props for one thing: the Surface seems more geared for creation, particularly the Windows 8 Pro version.

With the emphasis on the thinness of the client, I feel like I am stepping back into the late 20th Century again, when PCs were rare in corporate environments, and thin-client dumb terminals were more the norm. In many respects, we are heading right for that type of computing again, with the only difference being that today's thin clients are mobile and have more on-board storage.

They also share another disturbing trait: they are could be very closed devices.

Apple, as we all know, has already fairly well locked down its iOS ecosystem: you can't install anything on an iOS device that doesn't come from the iTunes Store. (Unless you jailbreak the device, but let's assume for now many people won't want to risk that.) Making this worse is that currently Apple does not allow free software apps to be sold on its iOS devices.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Android platform, which does have a central store, Google Play, but you can also easily sideload software and content onto your Android for outside sources. Sometimes this can pose a security risk, but for the Android at least, it means that consumer-facing free software is still readily available.

Though very little has been said about how the new Surface device will actually get content and software delivered, I would suspect that it will be something along the lines of iTunes or Google Play. Windows Marketplace comes to mind, though it will need to be heavily revamped.

The question becomes: will Microsoft go the Apple closed route or the Google open route?

I can easily see Microsoft requiring that all content and software for the Surface only come through Marketplace. Seriously, given the chance to lock down a Windows platform to heavily reduce the number of vectors that malware can get installed on the device, I think Microsoft would leap at the chance. Heck, if I worked there, I might consider it, too.

But, for all its faults (and they are legion), one thing Microsoft has never done with Windows is lock out apps based on license. GPL and open source apps are perfectly welcome on Windows desktop machines, and that policy might continue on Surface.

What concerns me is what happens if Microsoft emulates the Apple model for Surface. As I have said, it's an attractive model. They lock Surface down, only letting approved apps onto the tablet. Some malware still gets in through holes in the browser or other apps, but for the most part, suddenly Microsoft has a relatively secure device on their hands. Not to mention a potential revenue stream from taking their cut of apps sold through Marketplace.

So what happens when they see how that works so well and they want to try it on Windows 8 for the desktop?

Suddenly, in this hypothetical world, Microsoft can act as a gateway over 80 percent of the world's PC machines.

And that could put free software for end users very much at risk.

It would be harder for Microsoft to pull off what Apple has done to block free software on its hardware. Apple owns the software and hardware for their devices completely. Microsoft owns the Surface, but the OEMs own their computers, and preventing software from running on a third-party device will make Microsoft the object of very close scrutiny by various global law enforcement agencies.

But, like the enforcement of Secure Boot, Microsoft could make things difficult for free software apps like Apache OpenOffice to run on Windows 8 machines. Not impossible, of course, but difficult enough to create friction for end users that will steer them toward the easier, friction-free experience they will get with Microsoft-approved apps.

Free software won't completely go away, of course. There's too much back-end functionality in too many IT sectors for that to ever happen. But with the rise of thin clients and the app store gateways, end users may have a harder time finding and installing free software for their personal or business use.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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