OS Development Beyond Market Forces

Steven J. Searle

Web Master, TRON Web

The human mind is an amazing thing. It is a labyrinth of interconnected systems that somehow function as a totality. Exactly how many of these systems exist and how they work has so far defied human investigation, but work they do. Some of them work in "real time," which is why humans can play a game of catch with a ball or hold a conversation with another human being. Others seem to work at a much slower rate. Perhaps it is because I have reached middle age--I don't know--but it seems there is a very slow motion associative function that works within the brain. This function appears to allow us to relate at a much later date things that are seemingly disconnected in the present. That is to say, events, facts, and statements seem to line up like the planets do from time to time. When that happens, we arrive at a deeper understanding than we would have had we tried to connect these disconnected things earlier. Could this slow motion associative function be one of the functions that underlies what humans wisdom? Perhaps, but it is also the source of some interesting perspectives. Let me give an example for those who have not followed me so far.

Last year at TRON Show 2000 Mr. Nalin Advani of EnThink Inc. spoke as a member of a panel that discussed the ITRON subproject. Of all the things he said, one thing stuck in my mind. He said that "in the U.S. technology does not determine markets, rather markets determine technology." I believe what he meant was something like the TRON Project would have never appeared in the U.S.; and, even if by a miracle a TRON-like project had somehow been launched there, it would have surely failed as a result of market forces conspiring against. My immediate feelings when I heard this statement were: thank God Japan exists, and thank God outside pressure has yet to succeed in transforming Japan into something like the U.S. That's because you can only create the infrastructure for an advance computer society by first creating a technological framework for it to evolve it, and that framework has to be open so that all companies can create products based on it. However, Mr. Advani's statement continued to ring in my ears for months, since it carries another meaning that he probably didn't intend. That is, if technology evolves outside of market forces and is not determined by them, then technology will be determined primarily on the basis of engineering considerations and thus will be better.

Now, my readers are probably expecting me to launch into a commercial about the BTRON-specification operating system here--this is your brain's high-speed associative function at work--but there is actually an example of a computer company benefiting from technology that evolved outside of market forces in the U.S. In fact, that technology is helping the firm to develop a highly stable operating system, something that it had been unable to do previously. The company is Apple Computer Inc., and the new operating system is its Mac OS X, which is based on the FreeBSD operating system that many server operators swear by. In fact, some of them give it higher ratings than the much more widely known GNU/Linux operating system that like FreeBSD is a product of the "open source movement" in the U.S. Both FreeBSD and GNU/Linux came into being and evolved outside of market forces and marketing considerations, and, as a result, their core technologies are well engineered and of higher quality than commercial offerings of the same time frame. The only area where the commercial offerings excelled them was in ease-of-use. This is because the commercial operating systems are aimed at technically illiterate users rather than the highly skilled programmers and engineers FreeBSD and GNU/Linux were originally intended for.

So does that mean that Mr. Advani was wrong? He's correct that market forces can determine the course of commercial technologies, that is, technologies that depend upon cash flow from markets to fund research and development, marketing, distribution, etc. However, Mr. Advani's viewpoint overlooks the fact that market forces cannot prevent non-commercial technologies from coming into existence independent of market forces, and they cannot prevent those non-commercial technologies from developing in parallel to markets. This has been the case so far with FreeBSD and GNU/Linux in the U.S., and BTRON in Japan. All of these operating systems came into existence and then were developed for some time beyond market forces, although all of them have now been committed to markets. In Japan, BTRON now serves a small niche market, and this provides developer Personal Media with the cash flow to create new functionality. And, as new functionality is added, more users join the niche market. In other words, BTRON is now using market forces to slowly gain strength. Accordingly, Mr. Advani's statement about markets determining technologies was neither right nor wrong, just correct for the most part.

Ah, we seem to have discovered yet another function of the human mind--the ability to make generalized conclusions. Truly amazing, this human mind of ours.