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Free software and embedded systems. "Free," as in "liberty," is an important aspect of free software, as Richard Stallman and others often remind us. In a world where our lives are increasingly shaped by the code we use, it is important to have access to that code. Our security, freedom to do what we want with our computers, as well as simple convenience depend on this access.
In that light, it is interesting to consider this quote from the same Richard Stallman, from this GnuLinux.com interview:
I'm less concerned with what happens with embedded systems than I am with real computers. The real reason for this is the moral issues about software freedom are much more significant for computers that users see as a computer. And so I'm not really concerned with what's running inside my microwave oven.
"Real computers" are clearly a more interesting topic at the moment, but it is worth thinking a bit more about embedded systems. All of the pundits tell us that "real computers" will slowly be marginalized in favor of "appliance" systems which serve specific purposes. Consider the new, Linux-based "household appliance" system announced by Gateway as a step in that direction. The Linux-powered TiVo box is another.
If we accept that, in the future, we are going to be surrounded by more of these boxes, it may be time to worry about our access to what goes inside them. There is no end of freedom-related issues which can come up in the embedded context:
So freedom is an issue with embedded systems. Not only should source be available for the devices that shape our lives, but there needs to be a way to make "derived products" download new code as well. The alternative is to grant a lot of power to the manufacturers of these devices (and to groups like the DVDCCA which control the manufacturers through licensing contracts).
The Linux-powered network camera. Speaking of Linux-powered devices, the folks at Axis Communications lent us one of their Axis 2100 network cameras. The 2100 is a webcam-like device with an interesting twist - it's running Linux inside. In this LWN feature article we describe our experiences with the camera, and discuss a bit what's to be found inside the box. It's an interesting application of embedded Linux, not to mention a fun toy.
Language wars. Free software developers are rarely accused of lacking opinions or the willingness to express them. The heat that is generated on development lists can be truly amazing at times - especially when you consider that the people involved manage to remain friends and work well together. At least most of the time.
It's surprising, then, that there have not been more language-related battles in the Linux world. Languages can be a religious issue for many, and others are more than happy to jump in for the sake of a good fight. Part of the reason may be that there simply have not been that many languages that have been seen as interesting for Linux development. C remains the language of choice for many, if not most, projects. When developers move beyond C, they usually take the relatively short step of going to C++. Very few large projects have been done in any other language.
Things are starting to change, however. C is unparalleled for the degree of control and performance that it gives programmers, and will not be displaced soon. But C also brings with it a legacy of memory leaks, buffer overruns, and lack of expressive power. Increasingly, programmers are looking to other languages which make things easier. And, increasingly, there is not another default language to move to, setting the stage for some serious disagreements. Consider these two developments:
As developers look around for the best tools for the job, we are likely to see more of this sort of fight. Debate over tools can be healthy, but so is a diversity of tools. We are better off if we can work together and promote our favorite tools in their merits, rather than opposing and trying to exclude others.
LWN info. We are experimenting with a new "this week in history" section on the LWN back page this week. Drawing on over two years of LWN archives, we look back in the past at events which still have significance today. If people like it, we'll keep on doing it in the future.
It's also past time for our occasional reminder of our LWN notification mailing list. We send out a brief note each week once the weekly issue of LWN is published. See our Contact page for details if you would like to sign up.
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June 1, 2000