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Editor's Note: Where Doesn't Tux Want to Go Today--Linux in the Service of the Monopoly-Minded

AOL Using Linux in an Anti-Competitive Way?

  • October 19, 2000
  • By Michael Hall

Let's all pause a moment and reflect on a pair of news items that played out this week:

Item 1: America Online (AOL) was at the "Creating Digital Dividends" conference in Seattle announcing its intent to create "AOL Peace Packs" to send out with Peace Corps volunteers. There's a certain charm to the thought of AOL amongst the rustic poor, finally providing them the wonders of instant messaging and the remarkable convenience of being able to type a keyword like "Houseof1000Corpses" to learn more about Rob Zombie's latest movie.

More seriously, it's a fairly ingenious marketing move--AOL will be on the ground floor of the dawn of Internet Consciousness among people the Peace Corps reaches. The earnest talk of AOL spokespeople about "bridging the gap between the haves and have-nots" would be irritating if it weren't so darkly comic in its transparent, market-driven cynicism. The image of a falling Coke bottle in "The Gods Must Be Crazy" has been replaced with the cheery cry of 'You've Got Mail!'

That had nothing, by the way, to do with Linux.

Item 2: AOL again. This time, it's regarding the launch of AOLTV, which is a joint production of Gateway and AOL to produce a set-top box for Internet/AOL connectivity. The devices will be powered by Linux and Transmeta Crusoe chips.

AOL, as we are all aware, wants very badly to merge with Time Warner. At issue with regulators, though, is the tiny question of the bandwidth the merged titan would command and who gets access to it. The prospective partners are, of course, happy to share their pipe with anybody but set-top device providers. Why? Because the wisdom rampant in the computing world has it that the PC is on the slow path to obsolescence via special-purpose devices. The Internet made the PC market, so, the thinking goes, the Internet will unmake it when connectivity becomes the province of convenient, easy-to-use, no-maintenance appliances.

In other words, AOL and Time Warner are investing in their future by attempting to deny access to the bandwidth ISPs will need to make their operations viable once they make the (anticipated) jump from servicing PC users to servicing appliance users. And Linux plays, in its own way, a prominent part in their plans: it's giving them the cheap, embedded OS they need to crank out the boxes to meet the demand to be generated when the great set-top migration begins. Considering the schizophrenic relationship the Linux community enjoys with AOL thanks to its healthy population of Internet veterans who look back on September of 1993 with sorrow, this can probably be filed under "one of life's small ironies."

It's also a reminder of why the embedded space matters, even if to the average desktop Linux user it seems like an area of computing that won't touch them meaningfully. After all, the OS a sealed box is running doesn't seem to matter much. The inability of Microsoft, for instance, to earn much market share with WinCE or PocketPC is taken as an indication by many that users don't expect their handheld's OS to be in lockstep with their desktop's as long as they can synch their calendars and address books.

AOL's move, though, represents the use of Linux in an anti-competitive pre-emptive strike. If Microsoft attempted this, we'd be shaking the rafters with our protests even if our immediate interests as Linux users weren't directly affected, because the core values of the community include a sense of fairness and concern for maximizing the freedom of end users to choose the best solution. Most of us accept that Linux (and Free Software in general) can and will be used to make a buck. How many of us accept that it can be used in a run on monopolizing the public's experience of the Internet?

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