Thursday, December 08, 2005

How much is "free" worth?

It struck me the other day that the GP2X would be a perfect case study to illustrate the advantages that free software has over the proprietary brigade.

Consider the PSP: A proprietary handheld that will only play proprietary games unless you downgrade the firmware, and encourages you to buy new (proprietary) copies of movies for it rather than ripping them from DVDs you already own. They've gone out of their way to make it hard to use it without paying money first.

Then look at the GP2X. A few (three?) people in Korea created it. They got an OS that could handle multiple CPUs for free (plus a little development work); they got players for all common media formats, both sound and video, for free (plus a little development work). They released it with little more than those basic media playing capabilities: No bundles of commercial games or anything, just an assurance that "There will be lots of games soon, honest".

If the PSP had been released without any games available, how many units would have sold?

But the demand for the GP2X has been far greater than the supply. People are ordering it months in advance, and it hasn't even been officially released yet. The firmware is still buggy & prone to crashes, and nobody considers this to be any real problem. But the Xbox 360 also has teething troubles and lawsuits are already underway.

And the lack of games for the Gp2x? Well, that's being fixed: There are hundreds of devs out there, working (for free) to provide games to Gp2x owners (for free). Heck, Quake was ported to the Gp2x before even the first buyers got their hands on one!

The manual for the Gp2x, as I mentioned before, is a waste of paper - if it weren't in the box, you'd be no worse off. Are people complaining to GPH about it? Nope, instead they're just writing a new manual for them, and making it available for free online.

I wanted to watch movies on my Gp2x. There was no documentation anywhere to tell me how to get a DVD movie transferred using free Linux tools. So I wrote one. Somebody else had already written one for Windows. So there's multiple guides out there, with screenshots & example transcodings, being hosted entirely without cost to GPH. (My bandwidth usage has quadrupled since putting the guide up, btw)

The default skin isn't that pretty. New themes are popping up all over the place - I'm working on one or two myself.

In short: GPH put some fairly generic hardware together to make a rather cool toy. They gave it full multimedia capabilities for virtually no cost by using free software. They released it to the community with no games and lousy documentation.

The community has since been working furiously to create cool games, attractive new looks, and top-notch documentation, all of which enhance greatly the value of the Gp2x at absolutely no cost to GPH. GPH didn't need to make software, there's a huge community happy to do it for them.

With the huge advantages they've accrued by using free software, the mind simply boggles that there are people out there who say that only anti-capitalist idealists support the idea of non-proprietary software. If the Gp2x had been locked down & proprietary, it would never have sold so well. In fact, it would probably never have been released: Without the free software OS & apps, they'd have had to buy or create their own. That's not cheap, not by any standard.

Instead of making the front page of Slashdot, a proprietary Gp2X would have sunk without a trance. "It's buggy," people would have said, "it's expensive, it's got no games, the manual is lousy. . . why would anyone want it?"

Apple's understood this for years: Sell hardware, and the software is just icing on the cake. If you want to ditch OS X and put Linux on an Apple, that's fine by them: It doesn't cost them a cent. Contrast that with ditching MS Windows and replacing it with Linux. That hits MS right in the pocket.

Red Hat's understood it for years: Sell support for software proverbial (right or wrong) for being hard to use, and who cares that the software was free? MS sells software once, and then has to convince its customers that the old version sucks & needs replacing every time they release an upgrade. Red Hat customers pay nothing for the software, but gets money every time the customer needs help no matter what version of the software they happen to be running.

IBM's learning just how much money they can get out of free software. Sun's getting there too.

Considering how eager Microsoft is to make the Xbox a complete home media solution, maybe they're just beginning to understand it as well?

Of course, they'll be better off if/when my last post is proven to be true: Right now, you can't play legally-bought iTunes on a legally-bought Xbox because they use incompatible DRM. Who knows, maybe MS will wind up being big champions of anti-DRM music if it become a big enough barrier to their success. . .


Andrew Wilkinson said...

A minor niggle: Although Linux does support SMP it treats the GP2x as a single processor machine as the 940t doesn't have an MMU.

Other than that, a nice article.

4:16 PM  
Threequay said...

Yep, good article.

I came here by way of the GP32X forums btw.

11:21 AM  

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