My son Robin and I had this conversation about how Linux was created: a student called Linus Torvalds got a new computer and wanted to write a Unix-compatible kernel from scratch. In short, he wanted to create an operating system. In his bedroom. The story is fascinating as a testament of the power of the PC.
My son concluded by expressing his admiration for Torvalds by saying “this student project ended up as the third most used operating on PCs, after Windows and MacOS”, which is nice way to say that Linux (or actually GNU/Linux) is the least used operating system on PCs. I explained to Robin that this was not doing justice to Torvalds’ work, since the Linux Kernel is powering data centers as well as the gazillion Android smartphones that are activated everyday.
This, in turn, made me reflect on the evolution of computing. When I was a kid, there were no computers around. I saw the PC revolution happen and was part of it, then the Internet revolution, and now the smartphone revolution. What stroke me during these revolutions is the fact that these tools, the PC, then the Internet, were formidable tools for empowerment. If you had an idea, you could start “hacking” on it so that it became a reality. You did not have to ask for permission. You could use the computers on your own terms by making your own software or by adapting an existing piece of software by changing its source code, when it was accessible.
Fast forward to 2012. Tablets and smartphones are the current revolution, but things are a lot different. Creating an application for these devices is complicated. Take Apple’s iPhone & iPad for example. You need to register with their developer program, then write your application, then submit your application to the AppStore. There is no other way around to share with others the work that you’ve done. And you application may get rejected by Apple. It happens regularly.
Sure, smartphones and tablets are cool, but where did our freedom go? Was I lucky enough to be part of the only generation that could tinker with its computer? Do we really want the next generations to be just consumers and not creators? Should we accept that digital creativity has to limited to the Raspberry PI and the Arduino? These are very cool gadgets, but should we see our smartphones and tablets as devices for which only professionals can develop apps for?
I don’t think so. I enjoy the digital freedom that the PC and the Web have brought to me and those of my generation, and I expect the same from my tablet and smartphone. This is why I’m looking forward Firefox OS, and operating system for smartphones made of the Web, for which anyone with some Web knowledge can build applications.
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