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Anti-spam solutions are gaining visibility these days as big name vendors start to make more of a splash. Trend Micro issued an anti-spam announcement this month and Computer Associates (CA), Symantec, and Network Associates are expected to follow in the near future with announcements of their own.

Most commercial products actually on the market, though, are still from smaller, specialized start-ups. Meanwhile, some administrators are trying to save money for their organizations by turning to free solutions. A couple of years from now, will you still be relying on the same anti-spam strategy you’re using today?

Quite possibly not. By then, spam will have undoubtedly become an even larger problem than it is today. According to a recent survey by Symantec, 37 percent of respondents already receive more than 100 spam messages each week at work and at home.

Drawn by the beacon of customer demand in a bleak economy, major commercial vendors are hitting the market from a number of different angles, typically with new or enhanced “converged” products that combine spam fighting capabilities with antivirus or Web page filtering or both, while smaller vendors are striving to make a mark with unique bells-and-whistles like honeypots, collaborative filtering, and “e-mail challenges.”

Features Trickling Up from Freeware

In fact, some of the technologies now showing up in commercial products and services have trickled their way up from freeware counterparts. For instance, Vipul’s Razor, a free collaborative network for spam detection and filtering, forms the basis for Cloudmark’s commercial product.

Even if you’re unable or unwilling to spend a dime, there are countless anti-spam tools to choose from. Aside from SpamAssassin, a multi-featured anti-spam gateway written in Perl, popular freeware tools include Groovy Blackhole, a free spam and virus filter for all major SMTP servers, and SMTPblock, a tool for detecting SMTP relays on Unix /Linux servers, for example.

If you have money in your budget, the possibilities open up even more, although many of the new commercial offerings are only a few months old and others haven’t even left the gates yet.

This month, antivirus maven Trend Micro unveiled Spam Prevention Service (SPS), a subscription-based service that integrates anti-spam logic from Postini. Already shipping for Sun Solaris servers, SPS is expected to become available for Microsoft Windows by May and for Linux by June.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, Network Associates — the producer of McAfee antiviral software — purchased anti-spam maker Deersoft, with integrated products expected to follow shortly. New anti-spam offerings are reportedly under development at Symantec and Computer Associates as well.

CA’s upcoming product, eTrust Content Control, is now in beta. The new software initially combines e-mail and Web page scanning, but CA is considering integrating anti-viral capabilities in the future, too, says Ian Hameroff, CA’s security strategist. (One of the existing members of CA’s eTrust family is eTrust AntiVirus.)

A Web page scanning specialist called SurfControl has jumped into anti-spam and anti-viral filtering for e-mail. In terms of shipping products, SurfControl is currently “the only company with credible solutions for both e-mail and Web scanning,” according to Maureen Grey, research analyst at the GartnerGroup.

“Although the rules-crafting language and management tools are consistent, these are still two distinct products,” the Gartner analyst added.

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Will 2023 Be The Year Of The Linux Desktop

The “Year of the Linux Desktop” is a fabled time when Linux finally rises up and becomes the dominant desktop operating system, supplanting Windows.

Now, that might sound ridiculous, but the notion has been fueled over the years by Linux’s rise to dominance in every other market. The vast majority of servers run Linux. Just about every supercomputer runs on Linux. If you have an Android phone, it’s running the Linux kernel. Even the Internet of Things and automotive computers are primarily running some variation of Linux.

So it’s not too hard to see why Linux fans would keep hope alive that their favorite operating system would someday claim the mainstream desktop market too.

Defining the Year of the Linux Desktop

If you really think about it, this concept of the “Year of the Linux Desktop” is harder to pin down than it seems. Does it mean that Linux will be more common than Windows overall? Does it mean that Linux takes the majority of the desktop market? Or does it just mean that Linux moves into the mainstream and gets respect as a first class citizen? It’s really hard to say.

To make matters worse, the desktop market itself is changing. How many people still use a traditional desktop? Laptops and tablets are becoming the same thing. In that case, does Android count?

For this article the “Year of the Linux Desktop” is going to be considered the year that traditional desktop GNU/Linux (Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, etc.) moves into the mainstream and becomes a serious choice for non-technical users. That seems like a fair balance.

Bundled Installs

One of the main reasons that Windows rose to such dominance in the 90s was the fact that it shipped with nearly every computer sold. When you bought a computer, it had Windows, and it had key Microsoft products like the Office suite. Microsoft was brilliant with this, engineering dependence on their products. It was so effective that the US government had to step in and treat Microsoft as a monopoly.

To some degree, that’s still the case today. The vast majority of computers still come with Windows installed. Now, though, there are clearly other choices. Macs are more popular than they were in the past, and Google’s Chromebooks (running modified Linux) provide a great low cost alternative. So where does Linux fit in?

To be perfectly honest, the outlook for Linux still isn’t very good. Dell does offer a handful of Ubuntu laptops geared towards developers, and there are a couple of smaller specialty PC manufacturers catering to Linux, but the chances of walking into your local electronics store and picking up a computer running Linux are still very slim.

Mainstream Use

Is Linux ready for mainstream daily use? Absolutely. There is no reason at all why even the most technologically challenged can’t use Linux.

While it’s still possible to use Linux in the most obscure and arcane ways imaginable, the majority of Linux installations give you a complete, functional, and user-friendly experience. If you set up a distribution like Ubuntu on your computer, you’ll probably find yourself with most things that you’d want from your PC without needing to install any extras.

The main desktop environments like KDE, GNOME, Cinnamon, and XFCE are all very complete, with GNOME and KDE Plasma being the top contenders. Not only do they have all of the features that most users would want and expect, they look really nice, too. Plasma, in particular, easily looks just as good, if not better, than anything Microsoft or Apple have put out.

Installing software packages isn’t exactly perfect. Graphical app installers have most of the functionality that users would want, but they’re still a little clunky and don’t always show accurate search results. They’re getting better, though, and all provide a simple way to keep the computer updated.

Most installers are very easy to use now too. Ubuntu’s is probably the best, and almost all Ubuntu derivatives, like Mint, use it. In reality, if you can install a program using a wizard on Windows, you can install Linux.


Gaming on Linux is an unfortunately complex topic. There isn’t exactly one way to play games. Is it a native Linux game? Is it a game for Windows? Is that Windows game supported by Wine? Would you rather have a launcher like Lutris? There’s a lot more consideration that goes into things than just inserting the disk and installing.

There are actually a surprising amount of games available natively for Linux. Services like Steam, Humble Bundle, and GoG all support Linux very well. Steam even has over 2000 titles available for Linux. However, the games available for Linux tend to be indie titles with a few bigger name ports coming from studios like Feral Interactive.

Then, there’s Wine and the launchers like PlayOnLinux and Lutris that use it. Wine is a compatibility layer that translates Windows code to something that Linux can use. It’s not perfect, though. There is a performance cost, and not every game will work. Even still, there are plenty of games that you can play through Wine.

Linux gaming isn’t perfect, but as long as you don’t need the latest games as soon as they come out, you can definitely get by and have a great time gaming on Linux.

Third Party Support

Third-party support for Linux is a big topic. There’s a lot to cover. Both hardware and software support have been gradually improving for a long time, though.

Hardware support was a big problem in Linux’s past. New devices were simply not supported, and even more were really poorly supported. Now, though, that’s not the case. The vast majority of devices work immediately on Linux systems.

There are two sore spots here: wireless adapters and gaming hardware. Some wireless adapters are still poorly supported. Most are fine, but it’s something you should check before switching. Most “gaming” peripherals aren’t supported at all, meaning all of the special gaming functionality won’t work, and the device will behave like a standard USB keyboard or mouse. That said, there have been plenty of third-party community efforts to get these devices working, so some do. Again, it just requires that you look into it before making a purchase.

Obviously, software is a different story. There aren’t nearly as many companies developing commercial software for Linux. A lot of commercial software doesn’t support Linux at all. It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds, though. The open-source community has created a rich ecosystem around Linux that provides just about everything you could ever need. The open-source alternatives to many commercial products are not only just as good, they’re completely free of cost.

The Desktop Market

When considering the “Year of the Linux Desktop,” it’s important to consider the current desktop market. It’s bad. The sobering truth is that desktop computing isn’t nearly as big a deal as it once was, and the majority of people don’t care.

Desktop and laptop computer sales have plummeted over recent years. Microsoft even saw the proverbial writing on the wall and has shifted a lot of its focus into the cloud. Apple went so far as to suggest that tablets would make the computer as we know it obsolete in a recent ad campaign.

So, if it does arrive, what will the “Year of the Linux Desktop” even look like?

So, Is It?

Is 2023 going to be the “Year of the Linux Desktop?” No. In fact, the idea is a little ridiculous. There’s not going to be a year where a switch gets flipped, and suddenly everyone starts using Linux. It currently is and will continue to be a gradual move.

As bugs, security issues, and invasions of privacy that come from commercial operating systems continue to be a problem, people, mostly younger people, will seek out an alternative. Meanwhile, desktop computing will become more and more of a specialized professional practice. Somewhere along the line those things will intersect and create the climate for Linux to overtake Windows. And, by that point, Microsoft won’t care. There simply won’t be enough money in it for them to care.

Actually, there is a remote, but still somewhat logical, scenario where Microsoft themselves will usher in the “Year of the Linux Desktop.” They’ve already thrown their weight behind supporting Linux on their Azure platform because it makes sense from a business standpoint. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that a future Windows release may use the Linux kernel because it’s more economical to develop that way.

In any case, 2023 won’t be the “Year of the Linux Desktop,” but it is a great time to give Linux a try. It’s a modern operating system, and it’s absolutely mature and stable enough for daily desktop use. Give it a shot, and see for yourself. You may just find yourself falling in love.

Nick Congleton

Nick is a freelance tech. journalist, Linux enthusiast, and a long time PC gamer.

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The Year In Service: Giving Thanks, And Time, Year

The Year in Service: Giving Thanks, and Time, Year-Round Part four of a five-part series on giving back to the community

Volunteers (left to right) Maddy Weber (COM’08), Rachel Mennies (CAS’08), and Steve Reilly (CAS’07) load food into the Student Food Rescue van. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Whether they’re delivering food to local homeless shelters or cleaning up the disaster-stricken Gulf Coast, many students at Boston University are eager to help people in need, in Boston and beyond. BU’s Community Service Center, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this past spring, is a great place for students to seek volunteer opportunities. With 13 student-run service programs — including the popular Alternative Spring Break and Student Food Rescue programs — and a volunteer base of approximately 1,500 people, the CSC clocks in more than 75,000 service hours each year.

By Vicky Waltz

When winter holidays loom like the Abominable Snowman, thoughts inevitably turn to food — turkey with cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, pecan pie. This is also the time that Salvation Army volunteers make their annual appearance outside supermarkets and department stores, their jingling bells reminding patrons that not everyone is fortunate enough to enjoy a hot meal or a warm bed during the holiday season.

“This is when people tend to become more aware of the fact that there are hungry people out there,” says Maureen Merrigan (CAS’08), who volunteers with the Boston University Community Service Center’s Student Food Rescue (SFR). “Our holidays tend to be really focused on food, which makes people want to help those who would otherwise go hungry.”

Volunteer inquiries spike around Thanksgiving, according to Sue Marsh, executive director of Rosie’s Place, a Boston-based shelter for poor and homeless women. In fact, interest is so high that volunteer spots can fill up as early as the summer. “I think people feel more charitable during the holidays because this is the time when we are home and tend to think of our families,” Marsh says. “But women are hungry and homeless every day of the year, and we’re always looking for volunteers.” 

If you’d like to spend part of your holidays volunteering at a soup kitchen or shelter, now is a good time to contact the organizations and sign up for a spot. Below is a list of local organizations where members of the BU community can volunteer — now, later, and any day of the year.

Founded in 1988, BU Student Food Rescue annually collects 150,000 pounds of food from local restaurants, supermarkets, bakeries, and coffee shops and delivers it to area food pantries, shelters, and low-income housing facilities. Students complete 22 two-hour food runs every week. Volunteers must commit for at least one semester. SFR works closely with the local organizations Community Servings and Fair Foods. For more information, call 617-353-4710 or e-mail [email protected].

A nondenominational faith-based initiative, the Boston Rescue Mission has aided the homeless and poor of Greater Boston since 1899. The Mission offers food, shelter, and social service programs to homeless men, women, and children, and provides them with the necessary support, training, and resources to eventually sustain independent living. For more information, contact volunteer coordinator Morgaine Gilchrist-Scott at 617-338-9000 or [email protected].

Community Servings provides free home-delivered meals throughout eastern Massachusetts to people with HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses who are unable to shop or cook for themselves. Volunteers contribute more than 750 hours each week to prepare, package, and deliver 1,300 meals. Kitchen, van, and Saturday-delivery volunteers are all needed. For more information, contact volunteer coordinator Jennifer Pockoski at 617-445-7777 or [email protected].

Since opening in 1990, the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, the nation’s first and largest veteran-specific homeless shelter, has provided aid to more than 12,000 veterans. The shelter seeks volunteers for a variety of tasks, including serving meals, administrative duties, and tutoring. For more information, contact the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans at 617-371-1800 or [email protected].

Little Brothers–Friends of the Elderly is a national nonprofit, volunteer-based organization committed to relieving isolation and loneliness among the elderly. On major holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter — volunteers provide companionship and deliver nutritious meals, food packages, and flowers to the elderly. Volunteers also serve as hosts, cooks, and drivers for holiday parties held at the Little Brothers’ house in Jamaica Plain. For more information, contact volunteer coordinator Mindy Newman at 617-524-8882.

A shelter for poor and homeless women, Rosie’s Place opened in 1974 to help women maintain their dignity, seek opportunity, and find security in their lives. The shelter serves women as young as 18 and as old as 80, and about a third of its guests have children. Volunteers work in every department and annually donate what would be the work of 21 full-time staff members. Volunteer opportunities are available in the kitchen, clothing room, food pantry, classroom, and more. For more information, contact Rosie’s Place at 617-442-9322.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at [email protected].

“Giving Thanks, and Time, Year-Round” originally ran on BU Today on November 22, 2006.

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Review: Aukey Wireless Sport Earphones Will Stay In Your Ears, Won’t Break The Bank

Aukey is a Chinese company more commonly known for producing charging accessories like in-car chargers and multi-port USB stations. But, it also builds headphones. I’ve been testing the wireless Bluetooth earphones while out running for a few months now. For $25, it’s really hard to argue against the Aukey Sport Bluetooth Headphone…

It’s important to note, for me, buying wireless earphones was about fitting a couple of specific needs. I use on-ear and over-ear headphones for regular daily listening, so I didn’t need something for every day. I needed a wireless pair for when I went running. It had to be wireless because I hate the feel of the audio cable tugging on my ear when jogging up and down, it also had to be cheap. I wasn’t going to go spending $100+ on a pair of headphones that would only be used 2-3 times per week for 30 mins at a time. They also had to stay in my ears, or they’d be completely useless. Audio quality wasn’t such a big deal since the music would be mixed with the sound of me panting, and my exercising app barking orders at me.

The Aukey Bluetooth headphone ships in a minimal, brown cardboard box and comes with a number of useful extras. There’s a pouch for stowing the earphones when not in use, 3 pairs of ear buds in small, medium or large, plus several different types and sizes of ear hooks. There’s also a small USB to Micro USB cable for charging and — of course — the earphones themselves.

With the included equipment you can swap out ear buds until you find the ones that best fit inside your ears, and swap out ear hooks until you find the ones that keep the earphones in your ears. In my experience, it took about 3-4 runs with different combinations to find the best solution for me, but once I found it, I was more than happy with the fit. In the end, I settled with a pair of small earbuds and a pair of shark fin-like hooks. I found the bigger earbuds would slip out of my ears constantly during a run, the small ones stayed snug and tight.

Trying to beat a time on my 4K run, sweating, my asthmatic lungs panting and a right ear bud that kept slipping out made for a pretty angry runner with the wrong fit. If it wasn’t for my planned review, I would have thrown them into a river. But I’m glad I stuck with them until I found the right bud/hook pairing. Once I did, the earphones stayed in my ears consistently and didn’t fall out once — that’s no exaggeration. Even with the slightly bulky plastic casing, they were light enough that they didn’t even feel like they’d dislodge themselves from my ears.

Design-wise, the earphones are pretty unremarkable. That’s to say, you get exactly what you think you’d get for $25. All the components sit inside an upside-down tear-shaped plastic housing, with Aukey’s brand name stamped on to a small, neon-colored plastic panel on the side. They don’t feel particularly well made, as they’re very plasticky, but again, you expect that for the money. They’re pretty much exactly what I thought they’d be.

On the right earphone, Aukey’s managed to squeeze in the power/pairing button as well as a volume up/down rocker made from a more rubbery material and a microphone for making handsfree calls. To say they’re fiddly to use would be an understatement. I found my fingers tripping over the volume buttons, or my thumb accidentally pressing the power button quite often. I found it far easier just adjust the audio level on my phone rather than fiddling with an earphone. Saying that, once connected, I was pretty impressed by the sound. They were clear, and listening while running was good enough. Vocal tones came through well.

Once more, my praise of the audio comes with the caveat: these earphones are cheap, and they’re not for audiophiles. But audiophiles know that already, they’d likely not dream of spending less than $100 on a pair of earphones, especially not wireless ones. As far as sound quality goes, I was pretty pleased. The bass wasn’t so overpowering that it killed the middle and treble tones, likewise, it wasn’t too wooly. Treble levels were at a decent enough level, although the overall sound was lacking a little in clarity.

I’m not an in-ear headphone kinda person; when I’m listening to audio casually, I like to feel enveloped by sound. I also really don’t like having things inserted in my ears. But, for exercising, on-ear or over-ear headphones aren’t the most practical solution. They also look a bit silly. So, to have a cheap pair of wireless earphones I could rely on to deliver music and ‘motivation’ from my running app was valuable. I didn’t want a pair that cost a fortune, since I’d only use them when running. Likewise, I didn’t want a pair that was so terrible I’d hate even running with them. The Aukey set perfectly fit my budget and feature requirements.

You can buy the earphones from Amazon for just $25, and you’ll almost certainly not regret spending that little on a pair, as long as you manage your expectations. They’re no JayBirds, but they’re perfectly acceptable for the price. At time of writing, you can even get $10.00 off using code SS38IIUM at checkout.

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Last Year In Tech: 2023 Edition

Magic Leap Goggles

We have seen some things. Oh my, have we seen some things.

Year-end wrap-ups are the best. We get to sit here in our new holiday pajamas and dish out harsh judgments on everything that happened during the past spin ‘round the sun. Interestingly, though, the end of 2023 doesn’t look all that different from the beginning. Smart home stuff is still popular, social media emotions still fluctuate wildly between “ooh, fun!” and “ooh, scary!” and nobody cares about fidget spinners.

So, before we roll into 2023, let’s take a look back at all the stuff that happened in the tech world since the last time they dropped the ball in Time Square.

Best of What’s New

If you want a look at the best new tech from this year, you should check out our 2023 Best of What’s New selections. It’s a collection of important and influential new products and technologies that came into the world in the last 12 months or so. It’s a great way to see promising new tech, free from all the negative stuff that also happened.

Fidget Spinners came and went

Google Trends: Fidget Spinners

Here, you can see the Google Trends graphs for “fidget spinner” (blue), as it compares to “Samsung Galaxy S8” (yellow), and “chicken fingers” (red), which apparently didn’t have a great year.

The Google Trends report—a graph showing how many people were searching for any given topic at any given time—for fidget spinners is fascinating. At the beginning of the year, these plastic toys registered a zero, but by the first week in April, the score was pinned to 100. It was a meteoric rise for a truly useless product. Now, the score sits around 3. The age of the fidget spinner ended as quickly as it began, leaving the toys relegated to their bargain bin coffins.

Net Neutrality died

The FCC voted to repeal 2024 regulations that classified the internet as a utility, meaning it should be equally accessible for all people. We won’t know for some time how this will actually affect the Web as we know it, but it opens up the door for internet service providers to start making crucial decisions about who gets access to what content and services. Get your wallets ready.

Augmented reality got more interesting (and less depressing than actual reality)

Ikea Place iPhone App

Digital chairs were all the rage in 2023.

We spent a lot of time this year fussing around with virtual furniture in our real-world spaces thanks to Apple’s augmented reality ARKit. Microsoft also bet big on AR by integrating its Mixed Reality tech into just about every device running Windows 10l. We even got to see the wonderfully ridiculous Magic Leap AR glasses for the first time after literally years of hype. Expect a lot of digital creatures—and probably also more couches—in your future.

WannaCry HQ trivia happened

The top app charts are still dominated by social media, smart assistants, and addicting games, but a live game show app made one of the biggest, loudest splashes. The app started earlier this year, but now gets hundreds of thousands of viewers during each one of its live shows, which happen twice each weekday and once a day on weekends. The show has had some hiccups, including its unnecessarily toxic live chat, but it’s carrying a lot of momentum into 2023. We’ll see if it fares better than QuizUp, another trivia app that raised tens of millions of dollars four years ago, only to lose most of its users and sell for a bargain-basement price.

AIM died

AOL Instant Messenger played a very important role in the formative years of many internet users, myself included. It was everywhere from college dorms to workplaces, and its away message function was the prototype for the eventual rise of social media—in which we have to type everything we think and feel into a text box that our friends can see and react to. Now, AIM is officially dead. I tried logging into my account before it was shut down, but I couldn’t remember the password. RIP, AIM. My 17-year-old self will truly miss you.

Bitcoin got expensive. Then it got cheaper. Now it’s kind of expensive again.

At the beginning of the year, a single Bitcoin was worth roughly $1,000. By the end of 2023, one Bitcoin is worth approximately $15,000. Of course, it might be zero tomorrow, or it could be $100,000 and all those who got in early will be driving around in yachts with the word “blockchain” written on the back. There’s no telling, really.

Tesla birthed a bunch of new vehicles

AMD came roaring back

With the release of its Ryzen processor products, AMD rose up to take on Intel’s position of CPU dominance in the PC world. Even if you’re not a total computer game geek, the competition is good if you plan on buying a new computer any time soon.


PUBG screenshot

This is a good place to pull your parachute if you want to float around for ten minutes and then die right when you land.

The biggest PC gaming hit of the year was Player Unknown’s Battleground, a multi-player free-for-all shooter that drops 40 players on an island where only one player can emerge victorious. The learning curve is relatively steep and the potential for mayhem is high, but the game crossed 30 million active players on PC alone before it got a port over to the Xbox One earlier this December. If you’re a player, you may have seen me crawling around in the fields, hoping to go unnoticed until I die anticlimactically.

Switch saved Nintendo

Both Sony and Xbox unleashed powerful new consoles this year, but it was Nintendo that dominated the living-room. With its portable playability and an arsenal of really excellent first-party games—including the best game of the year, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild—the Switch was the most fun gadget to happen this year.

HDR became really important Homes got smarter

Google Home Max speaker

The Google Home Max is the most powerful smart home assistant speaker around, at least for now.

We won’t know exactly how many smart home devices sold in 2023 until this year is in our rearview mirror, but Amazon says it sold “tens of millions” of Echos during the holiday season alone. Google doesn’t share its sales numbers, but with the Google Home Mini matching the Echo Dot’s $30 price point at most major retailers, it’s a fair assumption that they sold a bunch of them. The notable exception in the smart home boom is Apple, which missed its 2023 shipping window for the upcoming HomePod speaker, now slated for early 2023.

iPhone X

While Apple had trouble on the HomePod front, it also released the most-notable smartphone of the year. The iPhone X made waves with its FaceID unlocking tech as well as its $1,000 price tag. Real talk: Phones aren’t that much different at the end of 2023 than they were at its beginning.

Twitter grew up, literally Equifax leaked your info

Remember when one of the world’s biggest credit agencies gave up a bunch of crucial personal info on people who had never even actively engaged with the company as customers? That sure was fun.

Drones were kinda boring

DJI Spark

This tiny drone from DJI can understand hand gestures, which is cool, even if it’s not all that practical.

DJI unleashed its adorable Spark drone in 2023, but not a lot has changed in the space when it comes to hardware. We did get some confusing drone legislation though. In May, the government repealed the requirement for drone pilots to register their crafts when used recreationally. Then, in December the regulation came back. Not confusing at all.

The year in cameras

As a photographer and camera writer, this segment of the market remains close to my heart and, despite the continued dominance of smartphone shooting, cameras actually made a small sales comeback in 2023. Compact camera sales are still off the proverbial cliff, but both mirrorless cameras and DSL

OK, that’s it for 2023. Alexa, set an alarm for 2023.

2014: The Year Of Free Hardware

Usually, I avoid making predictions. However, increasingly, I believe that the sleeper trend of 2014 will be free-licensed hardware — and that its availability could transform free and open source software (FOSS) as well as hardware manufacturing.

Meanwhile, the newly founded MakePlayLive is developing the KDE-based Vivaldi tablet, and has released the Improv engineering board to help small developers bring their product to market. Almost certainly, others are flying under the radar.

Having FOSS on commercial devices is hardly new, of course. As Jim Zemlin, the executive director of The Linux Foundation, is fond of pointing out, Linux increasingly runs the hardware of our daily lives.

What makes these efforts different is that they are not simply cases of corporations using FOSS to speed development and shorten time to market. Instead, to varying degrees, they represent the new trend of community projects starting to manufacture hardware and entering the commercial market.

For some, the trend is a small step. Ubuntu has always been dominated by its commercial arm Canonical, while the size of Mozilla has often made it seem as much a corporation as a community.

But for others, the trend means combining the community and the commercial in a way unimagined since the idealistic days of The Cluetrain Manifesto. It not only means making devices that are as free-licensed as possible, but also attempting to graft FOSS ethics on to business. Make PlayLive, for example, sees itself as a “cooperative brand” much like a FOSS project, consisting of a group of individuals who pool their skills to accomplish what they could never do by themselves.

Transformative Works

Many of these efforts are going to fail — not necessarily because they are flawed, but because most new manufacturing ventures fail. Manufacturers and distributors of computerized hardware are intensely conservative, and newcomers without a record of success have trouble gaining footholds. Even when they do strike deals, their products are often not promoted with the same enthusiasm as products that are the clones of popular devices.

Many, too, are entering saturated markets. Often, one effort at free hardware will be competing against others.

All the same, the very effort to create free hardware is likely to reverberate through the FOSS community. For one thing, the effort means that pockets of the community are going to have a knowledge of manufacturing that, right now, very few have. Simply by trying to market their devices, participants are going to shed the naive suspicion of business that is still a feature of many parts of FOSS community and replace it with practical, firsthand experience.

Such experience can hardly help but change the way participants interact with companies like Google or IBM, for whom FOSS is primarily one strategy among many. The community will gain negotiating strength simply by being better informed and better able to assess announcements and events. It will be able to look after its own interests better.

Furthermore, if some of this community-based capitalism succeeds, the effects will be even greater. As the number of people involved simultaneously with the community and commercial efforts increases, new roles and relationships emerge. It already sounds, for instance, as though MakePlayLive is reinventing the idea of the cooperative.

But what happens if free hardware becomes a priority for dozens of small manufacturers over the next decade? Then, slowly, free hardware gains a voice in the industry, and perhaps manufacturers rethink proprietary firmware, and completely free devices become a market choice.

Yes, the idea is quixotic, even absurd. But so was free software once, and now it is a serious alternative.

The way events are shaping, 2014 could become the start of all these changes, to say nothing of others that we can’t foresee. Win or lose, these efforts at open hardware promise to renew the idealism and plans for world domination that are FOSS at its best.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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