Doc Searls to hardware OEMs (in gauntlet): It's time to free yourselves and your customers

Perhaps it's serendipitous that, in the process of "personalizing" installations of Linux (and Unix), one of the oldest and most oft-used utilities is called "make." The power of self-making things clearly wasn't lost on Tim O'Reilly when his company first started publishing Make Magazine.

Perhaps it's serendipitous that, in the process of "personalizing" installations of Linux (and Unix), one of the oldest and most oft-used utilities is called "make." The power of self-making things clearly wasn't lost on Tim O'Reilly when his company first started publishing Make Magazine. Today, Web 2.0, if you want to call it that, is clearly defined by users of the Web making what they want of it. Coming tomorrow, I'll have coverage of a service that takes making what you want of the Web to an entirely new level. Mark my words. It is the new killer app of the Web (and I've never referred to anything as the new killer app).

Perhaps the one question that sticks out like a sore thumb is, now that technology users can make of software what they want, why can't they do the same of hardware. You'd think that the various hardware OEMs like Lenovo, HP, Dell, etc. would have grokked this principle of technology freedom by now and figured out (or at least started to figure out) a way to make it possible with hardware too. It would take a fair amount of R&D, but do the various hardware vendors need much more validation than what's going on around them to see this as a Holy Grail that could send their businesses into the stratosphere. Yet somehow, the state of the state for hardware OEMs has been and continues to be "We will go where Microsoft leads us."

In his self-proclaimed gauntlet, Doc Searls admonishes the hardware OEMs for being the sheep that they are:

I want to challenge the big hardware OEMs — Dell, HP, Lenovo, Sony and the rest of them — to break free of the only form factors Microsoft will let them make, and start leading the marketplace by making make cool, interesting, fun and useful stuff that isn't limited by any one company's catalog of possibilities. Stop making generic stuff. Grow greener grass beyond the Windows fences.

I'll add to his insinuation that even when Microsoft offers OEMs a chance to do something innovative around a new Windows feature, they usually botch that too. Under the heading of The problem at Dell wasn't the CEO, it's the commodity R&D, I wrote about this in February when it took Asus (a hardware brand known by almost no one in the US) to come up with the most unique and interesting implementation of Microsoft's SideShow technology. Speaking of Asus', Toshiba's (lackluster), and Dell's (non-existent) implementations of Sideshow, I wrote:

Michael Dell needs to be asking someone at the company why a Dell-branded PC wasn't on stage at CES with Bill Gates instead of the Toshiba Portege. He also needs be asking why Asus (a company that hardly anyone has ever heard of) upstaged every household name in mobile computing, especially Dell, with an innovative Vista-based notebook.

But, in his assessment of unimaginative hardware OEMs, Doc correctly recognizes that the real  problem is boxed-in OS-specific thinking. Not only are OEMs stifling their own opportunities to innovate, their killing their customers' chances of it as well. The context of Doc's essay is the idea of a Linux strategy for hardware makers. On the one hand, saying hardware vendors need "a Linux strategy about as much as a construction company needs a lumber strategy," Doc finds a Linux strategy to be equally offensive as a Windows strategy. But on the other, it's clear that from Doc's point of view, Linux is the one technology that can help hardware OEM's break free of the ties that are binding them and their customers right now:

If you're going to have a Linux strategy, make that strategy about getting past an OS-bound view of the world. Because the big difference between Linux and Windows is that you can [make] anything you want with Linux. With Windows you can only build what Microsoft lets you build.

With apologies to Doc, I took the liberty of substituting "make" for "build" for the sake of consistency within this blog post. I could have made another substitution. For example, I could have substituted BSD or OpenSolaris or some other open source operating system for "Linux." That's truly in the spirit of what I think Doc is talking about. Linux just happens to be the best and most widely leveraged example of the freedom principle in practice and is likewise probably the fastest market opportunity for hardware OEMs to seize. But that shouldn't fully preclude vendors from abstracting their hardware designs from the operating system altogether. For example, when the concept people in Detroit start dreaming up new cars or the construction people start dreaming up new homes, they generally don't let any assumptions about the underlying engines or the lumber get in their way. Perhaps the best example of this free thinking in hardware design that I've seen recently was the concept smartphone (pictured above right) from Synaptics that I saw at CES. Of that concept phone, I wrote:

When you take a step back and look at the new crop of cell and smart phones coming onto the market these days, it's almost as if all of the entries are working off of one or two designer's playbooks.....So, it should come as no surprise what happens when Synaptics, a company whose legacy is primarily related to the touchpads found on many notebook computers, decides to show up at CES with a concept phone.  Instead of using existing cell phones as a starting point for the design, Synaptics used the touchpad.

It's so incredibly clear. Like concept car designers, the folks building systems at most of the hardware companies should be (and should long have been) designing hardware that solves problems without any preconceived notions about what existing hardware and software does. After all, they (the hardware companies) can control both, if they want to.

For some reason, I'm reminded of the old Apple ad campaign: Think different. In hindsight, Apple should have been nailed and nailed hard for that. Translated: "We thought differently. But we still thought for you."  Yeah, think different [sic]... just as long as the way you think the way we think.

Some day, some hardware maker will get it.  But sadly, it probably won't be anytime soon.