Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Open Source Appliance (a 2002 retrospective)

Today the library of congress adopted exemptions (or here) that recognize consumer's rights to modify (jailbreak) their owned devices regardless that device's use of copyrighted software.  In recognition of this event, here is a document I wrote in 2002 on the subject.  Its pretty interesting to compare this to what actually happened.

The Open Source Appliance: A Manifesto

Rev 0.5 12/5/2002

The advent of inexpensive connectivity technologies1 has promised to drastically change the way home appliances operate. By communicating with a home computer, appliances will have the ability to provide a much richer user interface and a larger set of features then is available with the front panel buttons and the LCD display common in most appliances. By communicating with each other, appliances may be able to implement coordinated behaviors (inter-operate), creating a better, safer living environment. Interoperability will also allow appliances to use each other’s features, resulting in simpler and cheaper individual appliances, and provide [], creating features which are greater then provided by any individual appliance.
The ideal end result is a “unified” appliance that has no unnecessary or redundant parts, and is aware of its environment, providing greater flexibility and more features at a lower cost then appliances that do not inter-operate.


But lets be realistic: what will REALLY happen is that you’ll have appliances made by different companies and so will be almost entirely incompatible. For example, you may have an Acme (just a made-up company name) VCR and a Paragon phone system. Both of these systems will have a nifty Windows program (sorry, they only support windows2) that allows you to control the appliance. However, when you try to call from work to record a show you’ll realize that the Paragon phone software can’t talk to this version of the Acme VCR software. Or maybe the call won’t even be picked up because Windows has crashed (again!).
Although some systems will interconnect as advertised, especially if all of your home appliances are made by the same manufacturer, the sheer number of different home appliances and different manufacturers make it impossible to test all configurations, so many will not inter-operate. As an example of corporate ineffectiveness in ventures of this sort please examine your coffee table. How many remotes are sitting there? Unless you bought a special “universal” remote that was specifically created to communicate with many manufacturer’s devices, you probably have 3 or 4. And if you DID buy a “universal” remote, I think you’re already convinced…


The purpose of having appliance connectivity is to allow your devices to act in concert to implement coordinated behaviors or to allow devices to share resources. Through these behaviors, devices can provide enhanced features. For example, your stereo could mute when the phone rings (coordinated behaviors), and your answering machine could store its messages in your computer (resource sharing). Your answering machine would no longer need a cassette tape to record incoming messages, making it cheaper and more reliable. You could then view your messages through the computer’s display, and listen to them through the computer’s speakers (enhanced feature). In this way, connectivity improves quality of life and reduces appliance cost.
But how are a bunch of engineers (probably under great schedule pressure) going to implement the behavioral or resource sharing features that fit your lifestyle and your appliances? Although I am certain that a minimum functionality will be implemented, such as your basic connect-VCR-to-cable-box functionality, many features exist that would be great to have but do not fuel a marketing campaign. For example, I have an oven and a microwave with alarms that can’t be heard from everywhere in the house. So I would like them to beep (a different sound than ring!) my phones when the alarm goes off. And my phone could also “ding-dong” when the doorbell is rung.
I want to use my cordless phones as an intercom system. I want to use them to control what music is playing through my CD player (since the remote won’t reach far enough), either through a touchtone voice menu interface, or directly via the buttons on the phone. I want to put callers on “speaker phone”, causing music that happens to be playing to pause and the phone’s output be routed though my living room speakers. I want my answering machine to display the history of received calls on my PC and let me listen to the messages through my main speaker system. I want incoming calls to be answered by a machine before the phones actually ring, and callers be told to hit “1” for me, and “2” for my girlfriend, and then ring all phones with two different sounds… no scratch that – I don’t want the bedroom phone to ring at night.
I’m just warming up! And this is only what I think I want. I won’t really know until I use the system for a while. You almost certainly need other features. Perhaps you run a small business and want your PC to run an inexpensive touch tone help or ordering system attached to your incoming line, or individual cordless phones that can call each other for interoffice communications. Or maybe you want to automatically store your favorite TV shows on your computer’s hard drive and allow fast forwarding through the commercials, essentially turning your PC into a digital video recorder.


No company is going to fully inter-operate with all other companies.
No company is going to give you the features you need.
No company is going to act against their self-interest to solve your individual problem.

The software is developed and sold before it is USED. This is always the case, which is why the first versions of software are so notoriously poor. Companies will also develop the software for a fictitious “average” user, so it is often too simple for technically savvy users, and too complicated for “please just work when I plug it in” types. It frequently is not well tested against rival components. Arbitrary restrictions are imposed so that “professional” or “small business” versions can be sold at 10 times the home consumer price.

What can be done?

Why wait until the corporations have failed to bring us usefully inter-operating products? We must take the initiative and solve these problems now!

The solution is to create open source home appliances.

The idea that consumers can actually fix faulty products is not radical outside of the software industry. For example, consumers are responsible for the maintenance of their houses and cars, and a large “home improvement” and “automobile after market” industry exists to help consumers in this task. In fact, under pressure from congress, the [automobile association] recently released the diagnostic codes for cars’ internal computers so that individuals and independent repair shops can continue to fix all automotive problems (
It is possible to fix traditional home appliances (such as blenders). They often come with a parts list, so replacements can be ordered.
As with other products, the owner of a home appliance should have the right to fix or modify it. As software becomes central to the operation of an appliance (as in information or media appliances such as DVD players and phone systems), this right will be lost unless the appliance is based upon open source.
Open source is not a new idea. Significant open source projects currently exist. For example over half of all internet web sites are served by an open source program called Apache (see Apache itself is often run on an open source operating system (Linux). Also, the Netscape web browser is based on an open source project called “Mozilla” (see ). Furthermore, many embedded systems (basically the computer industry’s term for all non-personal computer devices that contain software, such as DVD players, cell phones, or portable mp3 players) are developed using open source development tools (gcc, gnu make, gdb, emacs, etc. see

A user would not need to purchase only open source home appliances to derive benefit from purchasing one open source appliance. A single open source product could communicate with other products, and code could be written to compensate for bugs or problems with the other product. For example, an open source phone system with an infrared light (IR) communicator accessory (essentially how the VCR’s remote control works) could be used to control a proprietary VCR. A consumer can then write a program to control the VCR through the phone system so that, for example, the consumer could literally telephone the VCR from work and tell it to record a show.

But I cannot program. How will Open Source help me fix a faulty appliance, add connectivity, or create a new feature?

An intrinsic part of Open Source projects is the existence of associated online communities. By “community,” I mean that users of the product communicate with each other about issues and problems with the product. A normal corporation’s product support site does not qualify as a “community” because all communications take place between individual users and the corporation. This makes it very difficult for users with similar problems to swap notes, especially since it is in the corporation’s interest not to report the number or severity of bugs in a product (lest it scare purchasers away). But in an open source user community, it is likely that you will find other users with the same problem, one of whom may be a programmer that can post a fix.
However, with open source, it is also possible to imagine groups of users hiring an independent programmer to implement special features or fix certain bugs. With a large enough user community, one could envision a market of programming consultants serving the user base. This has not previously occurred, perhaps because historically most users of Open Source products are programmers. However, a step has been taken in this direction – companies currently exist that provide support, add features, and fix bugs in Open Source projects. But instead of dealing with individual user groups on a bug-by-bug basis, they generally sell complete packages of the software (that contain all fixed bugs), and large, multi-user service contracts.
Over the long run, programming languages are becoming easier to use. Furthermore, the number of programmers is continually increasing, with the burgeoning computer industry. Ten years from now, adding a software feature to an open appliance may be a fun weekend project for the “software hobbyist,” just like wiring a surround speaker system or installing an after-market muffler is for the electronics and automotive hobbyist today.
Finally, mature open source programs generally have fewer bugs than their counterparts because more programmers become involved in fixing the bugs and more configurations can be tested. So you are less likely to have a problem in the first place.

Is an Open Source Appliance Company Possible?

While the purpose of this document is not to present a business case, this section is included to show that an open source appliance product is not incompatible with a profitable company.

The survivability of companies whose revenue or product line is significantly based upon open source software has been demonstrated by companies such as Wind River Systems, Cygnus, Red Hat, and many other Linux-based startups. As first stated by the Free Software Foundation’s “Free Software Definition” (, the “free” aspect of open software refers more to the concept of “freedom” and less to that of “price.” These companies have traditionally made money either by providing an essential adjunct to the open source software, selling well-packaged easy-install versions of the open source software, or by selling maintenance and support contracts.
The business case for open source appliances is even stronger due to the fact that the open source appliance software is essentially useless without a hardware and firmware platform to run it on. The customer must purchase the company’s hardware in order to run the software, thus ensuring revenue. Although competing companies could start producing compatible hardware to take advantage of the software (as happened to IBM corporation and the IBM PC computer architecture), or could port the software to their hardware, this is not necessarily bad. First of all, companies who restrict free enterprise in their product lines often fail. As an example, note that the other early PC architectures (Apple, Amiga, Commodore, Apple Macintosh), are either gone or have little market share. Secondly, note that other companies only copy successful products, implying that the open source company would have to be successful before attracting copycats. Finally, the original company by definition has market leadership, a position that is easier to keep than to gain.

Research, Development, and Marketing

It would require a large company to produce a line of home appliances from scratch, and a huge company to market and support them. A small startup would need to use a different strategy. One strategy that would shorten research and development would be to license the hardware platforms from an existing manufacturer. In fact, many consumer electronic devices are currently OEMed, so the only nonstandard part of an agreement would be the negotiation to “open” the programming interface for the hardware. Of course, this approach makes it much easier for a competing company to sell compatible hardware (they can also license it), potentially eroding the advantage proprietary hardware confers (as described in the previous section).
In terms of marketing, it would probably be best to start small and to create high quality versions of the core A/V appliances: a cordless phone network, infrared controller, CD/DVD player, digital video recorder, and A/V receiver could make up the initial products. Until the open source community starts submitting code, the software will not deliver the features, interoperability, and stability promised by open source. Therefore, it does not make sense to “launch” the product line to the general department store consumer right away. In fact, a web interface selling to programmers and audiophiles (with perhaps some PR in audiophile and programming magazines) would give the products the necessary “incubation” period, and give a company the low overhead and reasonably high margins required for low volume business. Many people are already having a lot of fun modifying their home appliances – a pastime that has become especially popular on DVD players due to the DVD region encoding fiasco (see these links for examples, This is an untapped customer base, requiring exactly the sort of niche product envisioned as a first release. When the software stabilizes and the feature set becomes greater than that of competitors’ appliances, a product “launch” could be undertaken.


In the near future, the computer shall be an intrinsic part of all devices. For open source to remain a viable and powerful concept, it must make the transition from the desktop into the world. Home appliance interoperability and intercommunication will enable this transition, both by allowing new software to be easily “downloaded” to the appliance, and by creating additional software complexity most easily solved by the open source methodology. The alternative cannot be repaired, has features that you don’t need, is missing those that you do, and is limited in interoperability by corporate feudalism. Let’s build a revolution!

1 The 900Mhz and 2.4Ghz radio bands (like wireless phones), power plug serial communications (like X11, IBM home director), Bluetooth, and the USB serial protocol (the next generation computer to peripheral connection)
2 The windows operation system is run on the vast majority of home computers because of its rich set of document processing applications, so it is unlikely that a company will support other operating systems. But there are reasons for consumers to use other operating systems, like greater reliability, higher performance, or less cost.

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