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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:

  • Security and privacy. That TiVo box may be a very nice way to watch TV. But do you know what it's telling others about your viewing habits? Is that Internet notepad built into your refrigerator sharing your shopping list - either by design or by error? Do we really want to enter into a world of set-top box viruses?

  • Freedom of use. Wouldn't it be nice if that DVD player were an open source system? A number of problems would cease to exist. The whole DVD "region code" system is an abuse of copyright protections, and we can expect to see much more of that kind of thing in the future. Freedom to program our devices can protect us, at least to an extent, from this sort of obnoxiousness.

  • New capabilities. An open device can be programmed to do things not envisioned by its creators. In this regard, the folks at Axis Communications are to be commended for keeping their network camera device open (see feature article, below). The best tools are those which can be used for new and interesting purposes; why should we accept being limited to what somebody else was able to imagine? There may even be reasons to teach a microwave oven new tricks.

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).

[Axis camera] 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:

  • Eric Raymond has coded a new kernel configuration system in Python, as was covered in last week's LWN Kernel page. Replacing the configuration system is absolutely uncontroversial, but the use of Python has upset a number of people. Several kernel hackers are upset, even though they, in all likelihood, will never have to even look at the Python code that implements CML2. One kernel developer has stated his intent to recode Eric's work in C, rather than install Python on his system.

  • Digital Creations will add Perl scripting to Zope, in cooperation with ActiveState as described in this announcement. The reaction from the Zope community has been somewhat negative, to say the least. Python programmers tend to like their language; many of them see Zope as a vehicle which is helping Python to get the attention that it deserves. They fear that admitting Perl into Zope will have the effect of crowding out Python, and messing up the purity of the system as a whole. They fear a future where they have to use Perl to work with Zope.

    The folks at Digital Creations are taking a pretty strong position that there is nothing to worry about. Zope is to be inclusive, and to support as many languages as possible. Better to welcome everybody than to attempt to be exclusive. But they also make the point that Python will remain the core language of Zope. (See remarks posted by Paul Everitt and Hadar Pedhazur for their reasoning).

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.

Inside this week's Linux Weekly News:

  • Security: Netscape and the Personal Security Manager, massive numbers of updates.
  • Kernel: No NFS update in 2.2.16; the trouble with timers, 2.4.0-test1
  • Distributions: Three new distributions, reports from Conectiva and Rock Linux.
  • Development: Xcircuit, BeOpen PythonLabs, weekly development reports.
  • Commerce: AOL/Gateway's new appliance; Corel's struggle
  • Back page: Linux links, this week in Linux history, and letters to the editor
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

This Week's LWN was brought to you by:

June 1, 2000


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