Sustainability, Boxing Day, and Open Source Software

By Kurt Cagle
December 28, 2008

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Boxing Day, celebrated on the day after Christmas, is a British holiday that's migrated to Canada, and is slowly beginning to make inroads even into the United States. It had its beginnings in the late 18th century, when the landed lords of England, after having given one another presents after Christmas Mass began an interesting custom. After having received new dresses, dress suits, hats and so forth, they would go into their wardrobes and childrens' play rooms and find those things that they no longer wore or used or played with, presenting them as gifts to their servants and staff, a custom which eventually extended to giving inexpensive gifts and trinkets to their tenant farmers and needy villagers.

It wasn't a perfect system by any means - some lords were stingy in the extreme, giving away only those things that were pretty much unusable, but enough actually made some effort to provide something for those who worked for them and their families that in time it began to filter down the fairly rigid British class structure. It served a number of useful purposes - it culled out those clothes which were no longer worn from the wardrobe or toys that were no longer played with, making it possible for the givers to free up room for new purchases, it insured that those who didn't have the means to otherwise afford more than a pair of clothes a year an extra set of "relatively" new clothing, and it helped to bridge the divide between the classes. In short, Boxing Day is a good example of the concept of sustainability.

The initial idea of Boxing Day, however, has drifted into obscurity in the United States, and to a lesser extent, in Canada, ironically being replaced with the idea that boxing day is the day to get the best sales after Christmas (a very deliberate invention of the mass American marketing machine, don't doubt that at all). Indeed, the concept of sustainability in general, especially like that of Boxing Day, works counter to many of the precepts of hyper-capitalism.

The problem with a sustainable economy where goods are reused and passed on (when they cease being useful to the original owner) is that such actions do not translate into the purchase of new goods - it doesn't cause an increase in the velocity of money. In the 1930s and 1940s, the US economy began shifting into a consumption oriented economy, one which introduced a new term into everyday usage - "planned obsolescence". Planned obsolescence is one of the cornerstones of the contemporary capitalist economic structure - you do not build things to last, because the longer things last, the fewer the number of things you can sell.

This was brought home to me on one of the discussions that Tim O'Reilly raised (need link) internally to the editors concerning whether we have reached a stage where the consumption society is on its last legs. It forced me to think about my own house, and what's in it. I'm a tech person, and have been writing about tech and programming for the last quarter century. Yet I look in my house, and what I see is a monument to dead technology - three laptops that can't even start, two printers that stopped working, two dead desktop systems (and another one that's dying after less than two years), close to 150 feet of cat five cable in varying lengths that have failed, three dead hand-held recorders, four dead MP3 players (although I've managed to revive another three that went sideways), two dead scanners, and perhap $4000 worth of software (their initial price) that I probably couldn't give away today. That's not counting a couple of boxes full of strange devices that have fallen apart or otherwise failed whose purpose today I can't even remember, nor is it counting the fact that I do periodically take this stuff to the dump when it gets too deep.

I suspect that this tally is probably even a little on the low side of what's average for people. We don't have video game machines, and tend to use hardware (and as often as not software) until it falls apart. Part of the reason that I shifted most of the machines in the house to Linux had less to do with being a fervent open source booster as it did just wanting to actually keep machines running for a year or two after the Windows installations they ran became so bogged down with crap that they made the system unusable. It delays the process somewhat, but the entropy of the modern age is not reversed, only slowed in its inexorable battle for my hardware. Why shouldn't it - the hardware was built to die.

There are signs, however, that we are on the precipice of a new era, one in which sustainability trumps consumption. Consider Windows Vista as an example. Vista is not, in fact, that bad of an operating system. Yet it is not being picked up by the enterprise market, both because of its reputation with regard to legacy software, and perhaps more to the point because Vista, like every Microsoft operating system from MS-DOS 1.0, has placed a bet that the new functionality that they wish to add for each release, which requires more powerful computer systems, will in turn usher in the concommitant purchase of new hardware.

Computer manufacturers like this, because people buy more of their newest product (typically at its most expensive price), Microsoft likes it because it can point to an "improved experience" while not necessarily needing to optimize their algorithms, many programmers like this because it represents a potential point of differentiation, and third party software companies like it because they can sell "into the channel", providing incremental updates to their own programs (and selling them).

Yet Vista may represent a painful inflection point for Microsoft and the industry overall. Sales of Windows enabled towers are declining (and have been for some time) both because people are shifting over to the form factor of the notebook (and subnotebook and integrated mobile devices) and because people are simply trying to push their existing machines to last a little longer than before. Demand for XP, which required considerably less RAM and hard drive space to accomplish the same tasks, has risen even as Microsoft continues to try to set a firm "drop-dead date" for the five year old operating system, and even the sales of notebooks is slowing, though still growing (this may prove not to be the case, however, by the time Christmas sales are tallied in for this year).

What this means for Microsoft has to be unnerving them - Microsoft's cloud strategy with Azure and Hyper-V got off to a late start compared to other players in the industry, demand for Office upgrades is dropping off quickly, and Microsoft is now having to face the unenviable task of revamping an operating system that took half a decade to engineer to provide at a minimum the same functionality while using considerably fewer resources ... and convince an increasingly skeptical audience that they can in fact achieve this goal.

Yet Microsoft isn't alone in this (especially since Ray Ozzie, Chief Architect at Microsoft, may actually be able to pull this miracle off by rethinking the actual goals of Microsoft as a company). Proprietary software is a model that is proving increasingly untenable, especially when the annual "upgrade tax" starts factoring into the equation. For the most part, the proprietary software industry survives by convincing people that this upgrade tax goes to pay for better support and more responsive services, helps fund the creation of new software that provides improved functionality, and works better with the existing infrastructure.

Look into the cabinets in any IT department of any company in the US or Canada (and no doubt elsewhere). What you'll discover there are big boxes filled with obsolete manuals and DVDs, CDs, floppy diskettes, perhaps even in some places magnetic tape, going back ten years or more, designed to work on operating systems that no longer even exist and produced by companies that have long since declared bankruptcy or been folded into other companies. This is the legacy of planned obsolescence in the IT field. This is dead software.

The open source software movement took an alternative approach to software development. The idea, embodied within agile programming, is the precept that there is no such thing as a "final" version of software. Instead, the maintenance phase of the software is in fact a critical part of the development cycle, in that at any given stage maintenance is simply the process of freezing a development branch and moving on, being ever mindful that, as much as possible, there be a clean upgrade path between each of these freezes.

The effect of this has been that obsolescence, while it still occurs, is no longer a deliberately designed goal. All things become obsolete - this is inevitable, as new ideas and new hardware becomes available - but by removing the self-destruct code within the software, by creating a development methodology that seeks to sustain a technology as far as it can be pushed, it helps people jump off of the hamster wheel and lets them implement their solutions knowing that in one or two years time they won't have to go through an extensive (and expensive) upgrade process.

Additionally this means that hardware can be pushed out to its maximum life-cycle as well, and with the increasing move towards distributed services and virtualization, this also means that this investment in hardware can be performed with less expense and stress between upgrades.

This is sustainability within the IT industry - letting the determination to upgrade a system be made based upon the needs of the software user, not the software vendor, using agile methodology to change software development into a continuous series of innovations rather than a single big "release", providing the means to sustain development of older branches of software in order to keep "legacy" hardware systems still useful and functional and to reduce the amount of money necessary to keep systems operational.

Sustainability won't sell more shrink wrapped boxes of Ultrabigsoftware Inc.'s Enterprise Content Management Suite v 3.14. It requires a certain amount of creativity and skill to adapt such software and hardware to your needs, though as such software gains maturity it also become better focused at meeting the needs of the users (in general). Sustainability seldom comes with cool tchotchkes, two page magazine spreads, impressive conferences and fancy analyst lunches. It's not always sexy, and in some cases it can be downright ugly ... but it works.

There's a metaphor somewhere in here. Every day it becomes increasingly obvious that the Masters of the Universe, the movers and shakers in finance that lived lavish lifestyles and became media darlings were, in the main, frauds. They used people's money to convince those people to give them more money. They promised greater financial returns, improved performance, ease of use. Every so often, something or another might crash, but when it occurred, the machines were quietly booted up in the background as if nothing had happened. What we ended up with was a bloated financial system filled with worthless spam, poison pill viruses and trojan horse Ponzi schemes. Sounds a lot like the software industry right now.

Remember Boxing Day, even if you don't celebrate it on the 26th. Take some food out of your cupboard and box it up, pull out those old coats, sweaters and pants that you no longer wear (or even can wear), pull out the toys that the kids have outgrown, and take them down to your local Mustard Seed or Red Cross or whatever is the equivalent in your area. Maybe stop by the store and buy a few new things to put in the boxes too. Oh, and if you're a geek like me, pull out that old CPU that's been sidelined in favor of a newer machine, put Linux on it (and burn a couple of spare DVDs or a USB key, just in case), and give it to someone who could use it, along with the promise of some time to help them get up to speed with it.

The spirit of Boxing Day is giving that which you can do without to those who can't. That's a pretty noble goal, if you ask me.


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