So I was listening to a discussion about the decision that Valve has made to release thirteen separate Steam Boxes with approximately eleventy quadrillion hardware options.  Once side thought that Valve was blowing an opportunity to complete with Xbox and Playstation: too many boxes made it too confusing for mainstream consumers.  The other side thought it was good for consumers that Valve was providing that level of choice.  I don't play video games,so I don't have more than an academic interest, but it did remind me of the choice between Apple and Microsoft and how Microsoft lead to free software.

This sounds like a silly statement.  Microsoft,after all, was hardly known for it embrace of open source technologies.  Quite the opposite: it spent a lot of time and money trying to convince companies not to use open source or free software.  A whole host of weird names sprung up around Microsoft tactics. There was FUD, spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about the value and legality of free and open source software.  There was embrace nd extend, the habit of seemingly embracing an open standard but 'extending' the standard with functionality only available in Microsoft products, with the hope that people would become tied to the Microsoft implementation rather than the open standard itself.  With that history, how could I ever think that Microsoft contributed to the prevalence of free and open source software?  Because Microsoft chose the Valve Way to sell computers.

Microsoft did not sell its own hardware when it first began.  Any computer maker could license a copy of windows for its hardware, and almost all of them did.  Competition lead to lower prices and flexibility in the machines themselves.This lead to a wealth of computers, machines of all kinds with all manner of components.  More, most machines made it easy to swap components, to add or remove or change the internals of your machine.     This, in turn, was the playground of the free and open source software.  It was easy, relatively speaking, to get your hands on hardware of almost any kind, encouraging experimentation.  Free and open source software got a big boost both from this sense of adventure, inexpensive hardware, and the ubiquity of Windows-based hardware.  Since almost everyone had Windows,  early enthusiasts had one platform to target.  Since Windows ran on x86 processors, the ubiquity of Windows provided a common hardware platform for early creations like Linux.  Free and open source software exist because Microsoft licensed the world's most popular operating system.

It did not have to be that way.  Apple had  a very different model.  Apple was, and largely still is, a hardware firm.  They made their money by selling computers, not by selling software (which explains why so much of their software is terrible, but that is another story ...).  They wanted to lock yu into their machines, and had no interest in spreading their operating systems to what they saw as competitors.  In order to ensure the proper experience, they made it very difficult to modify the hardware you bought from them.  Early Apple computers required special tools to open them.  Changing the memory on my Mac mini required violating my warranty.  They knew what yu should like, and they weren't interested in you mucking that experience up by allowing you to actually control what you bought from them.  That attitude could not, and did not, produce either a group of people who tinkered with Apple products or a widespread platform for a critical mass of tinkerers and programmers to coalesce around.  

If Microsoft had chosen the same route, it highly unlikely that open source and free software wold have taken of the way it has.  We would more likely have three commercial platforms--Apple, Windows and Unix--and ony those three commercial platforms.  Linux, Apache, PERL, etc would all be much, much less likely to have existed in their current forms, making out economic and intellectual lives all the poorer.

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