Saturday, December 10, 2005

Introduction to Geek Week: Through the Security Gates

Technology is, and has long been, a fundamentally grassroots phenomenon. Wozniak and Jobs, Dell, and many of the other characters who brought us the machines and software that we work and play on every day, began this transformation of society not in corporate boardrooms but in college dormitories or backyard garages. Ebay—that online auction house where you can sell an old grilled cheese sandwich for 60 grand—is still, for all its wealth, merely an online version of an old-fashioned swap meet.

So perhaps this story should come as no surprise. I needed an operating system for an old wintel box that I'd gotten from my buddy and co-worker Nick the Geek, and so I went to ebay to find a way to avoid paying the $200 retail price of MS XP. I found what I was looking for: a number of vendors were selling it for under $80 (including shipping)—less than half of retail! So I ordered a copy, and the photo above shows exactly what I got.

Well, I spent quite a while puzzling over what the hell the wire was for. It looked like a power cord to an internal cd or floppy disk drive—what in the name of the Redmond Devil did I want that for, when all I had bought was a copy of XP? I finally had a look back at the ebay listing, to see whether I'd missed something meaningful there. Here's what I found (just click the graphic to enlarge):

Well, that explained everything (in case you can't read it off the graphic, the message reads "The software is new sealed OEM bundled with "AS-IS" non-peripheral hardware to comply with Microsoft and eBay OEM regulations."). Now I believe "OEM" stands for "Original Equipment Manufacturer"; and thus, OEM software is supposed to be sold in or with original equipment—i.e., hardware. You know, a computer or other device that runs or contains software.

So this is how you keep Bill Gates' lawyers at bay so you can sell his software on ebay: tape a piece of "non-peripheral hardware" to the disk so you can say that you sold it with "original equipment." This also explains, incidentally, why Gates is worth $50 billion—these folks on ebay are cutting a profit too, selling his software at 60% off retail. The robbery performed by Microsoft is the same as that favored by the pharmaceutical companies: mark up the retail price on your hottest selling item by a factor of a hundred over cost, and then claim that you're spending the mutant profits on "research." If I followed the same principle, my $12 book would be going for $700 a copy so I'd have funds to "research" my next one.

I found this experience to be a kind of living parable on the type of culture that underlies the PC, the world wide web, the blogosphere, and all the grassroots e-commerce that computers and the Internet have engendered, from amazon to ebay to Froogle to the slimy underbelly of the web that's known as spam, spyware, adware, and a number of other terms that we shouldn't repeat in polite blog-ciety.

Another feature of this grassroots culture is what I call the Open Source Society, and, as I have written elsewhere, it is a model that we would do well to follow in our corporations and governmental institutions. The salient representatives of this open source model are Mozilla, whose Firefox web browser has eaten up nearly a fifth of Microsoft's market share in that arena in a little over a year; WordPress, the vibrant open-source blogging software/community; Mambo, a content management system that beats the pinstriped slacks off many corporate CMS applications; Wikipedia, the online, self-correcting encyclopedia written over an open forum; and the various flavors of the Linux operating system for PCs—most notably, Ubuntu.

The open source model has become so successful that it's drawn the attention of the biggest and baddest giants of the corporate realm. A few weeks ago, Sun and Google announced a partnership that many have concluded will lead to a Google-sponsored development of Sun's OpenOffice application, an open source office suite. If this does indeed happen and it's half as successful as Google's other inventions, purchases, and collaborations, then MS Office will finally have some serious competition.

So geeks and geekdom are no longer the sun-starved, weedy, four-eyed insects that popular culture has imagined them to be. The word itself, at least among IT cognoscenti, is now an honorific: you become a geek by knowing at least one or two computer languages or by showing the ability to construct an actual working piece of OEM hardware out of a vast collection of the kinds of parts that shipped with my XP disk.

Now I am very fortunate to work among geeks, though I do not rate inclusion in their fraternity (unfortunately, most of them, in this country, at least, are men—this is something we need to correct in the next generation). My experience has been that they are an extraorinarily sophisticated, intelligent, and generous people. If they weren't, this blog would probably not be where it is now—I get help from them continually in fixing problems, navigating technical arcana such as configuration settings, and learning about the shape of the technology horizon.

This week, we'll focus on that last area—the layout of the dizzingly ephemeral landscape of technological change and development, in both hardware and software; amid the realms of toys, gear, games, productivity enhancers (and inhibitors), and plain old cool stuff. We'll also have occasion to consider the personal and cultural meaning of the information age—both the delights and the challenges that arise from all the things that geeks have brought us, and continue to bring into the world. We will look back at the past year of the blogging explosion, the further expansion of wireless networks and devices, the entrance of dual core processors onto the silicon stage, and the omnipresence of those white earbuds in heads all around the world.

So if you're trying to decide whether to buy an iMac now or wait till Apple lets loose its first Intel-equipped machines; if you're curious about what Vista and IE 7 will look and work like; if you're burning to know how to get your website rocketed to the first page of Google search results; or if you need to know how to squeeze every episode of The Sopranos onto a video iPod; then perhaps you may not find all your answers here (though we will have quite a few). But if you suspect that we as a people are more connected but less in communication than ever before in the history of mankind; if you're a parent who fears that we're about to be overrun by a new generation of xbox-PS2-gameboy zomboids; if you're a corporate worker who takes his Blackberry to the toilet with him; if you fear the zotob worm more than the bird flu—and you want to try and make some sense out of it all—then perhaps you may benefit from reading along with us this week, and adding your comments and suggestions. Let Geek Week begin...

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