Tuesday, February 07, 2006

ReactOS? Hmmm... OK, I'll give it a look

As is obvious to anyone reading my posts, I'm a pragmatist when it comes to software choice; I'm certainly not against commercial software, though I certainly recommend, encourage the use of, and even provide Open Source software as an alternative.

The reasons for my pragmatism are simple: people should be allowed to make money from commercial software; as much money, in fact, as market forces will allow. I don't begrudge Bill Gates a single one of his many dimes. (nevertheless, I won't shrink from using Microsoft in this article as symbolic of all commercial developers)

On the other hand, market forces must include competition; customers should never be required to buy any particular software product. And, with the cost of software such as it is, that cost is often exhorbitant. The point here is that people pay too much for commodity software. Developers need to be fairly compensated for their direct labor, but sooner or later the economies of scale need to take over. I know, Windows still costs about the same as it ever did, but for what you can do with it, it would cost a pittance if it didn't negate Moore's Law. And since I've never seen this formally stated, I'll do it here (and if you know a "real" name for it and can prove precedence, tell me):
Leigh's Law: Software systems generally increase in complexity in inverse relationship to Moore's Law.
Thus, subjectively relative software performance remains static: the 486 running DR-DOS in my basement boots roughly as fast as the 1GHz WinXP box in my office. The computing power on my desk was out of the reach of most, if not all major governments when I started computing: thanks to Moore's Law, I cobbled it together myself from spare parts purchased for a few hundred dollars from some gypsy at a computer show. But the things an average schmuck like I can do with the software running on it, despite it's incredible complexity, are pretty similar to what I could do about 15 years ago (which is about when Leigh's Law really kicked in), and takes about as long. Granted, I can do more complex things than I could do then, but they're not necessarily better things. I can play games, but they're not necessarily better, just more detailed. I can write letters, but they're certainly not inherently better, since I'm still the one writing them. The same for accounting, or whatever. It takes me as long to compile bigger complex programs today as it did to compile smaller, functionally targeted programs on slower machines in the past. And the improvements in my online connections are more due to Moore than Microsoft.

The point here is that people pay too much for commodity software. Labor's another matter... people need to be fairly compensated for their labor. But sooner or later the economies of scale need to take over. Otherwise, people look for alternatives, and turn to Open Source, as I have. It's simply silly to believe that people should spend the megabucks necessary to fully equip a commodity computer with software; and it's simply silly to pay it if you don't have to.

So I was intrigued to learn about this: ReactOS has the goal of being a binary-compatible replacement for Microsoft Windows XP. Now, anybody who's worked on or used Linux (Unix workalike) or FreeDOS (MS-DOS workalike) knows what an amazing chore this team has taken on. It's in alpha stage now, but it seems to be working a bit, and they have screenshots on their website (which I won't re-publish because they all look just like Windows).

My knee-jerk reaction to the project is a mixture of approval and disapproval. On the one hand I have a personal liking for Linux, and I'm not thrilled about the prospect of a "new kid on the block" taking all the good press. More to the point, I'm concerned that this is a project that's chasing someone else's tail, and can never, ever catch it. To me, that's implied in the project's name. Its similarity to Windows may cause some confusion, and even some disappointment to inexperienced users who expect such features as Windows Update... though I expect this to disappear in the future as some entrepeneur picks up the product and adds this feature, as Linspire did with Linux.

On the other hand, if open-source Windows XP programs are good, then who am I to dismiss an open-source Windows XP? Just as FreeDOS exists for the people who still need DOS (and there are plenty of uses for DOS, friend!), there needs to be an OS alternative for people who want to build their own "whitebox" Windows-compatible computers on a budget. Besides, the cost of a legal copy of WinXP puts legal computing with commodity software out of many users hands. An open source operating system gives these users yet another alternative to software piracy, so Microsoft and the BSA can quit their bitchin'. The project is worthwhile, if only for that. I hope it does well.

Here's celebrating IDIC!

ReactOS Homepage

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