Saturday, February 20, 2010

Open and Closed Case

Lately I've been having entirely too much fun playing with the real-time sample cutting/cueing software called mlrV (see it in action below here). mlrV was built to run on the monome (pictured here): an open source hardware project (all the specs and circuits are freely available and no attempt is made to protect intellectual property) that runs open source software written in a special audio-programming environment called MaxMSP.

The monome is hard to explain because it doesn't do anything on its own out of the box.  It is a sound controller.  It provides a physical interface to control what a computer does with sound.  It's just a grid of buttons with lights under them.

But the open-endedness of the project is also its strength.  mlrV is only one of dozens of powerful programs, written by scarily intelligent and talented music-nerds posted and supported for free here.  Such is the power of open source software + open source hardware.

To make my point further, I don't even own a monome.  They are in such high demand that they sell out in seconds after they go on sale despite their $500-$1000 price-tags.  I couldn't find one to buy.  But last November a British company called Novation built this sound controller called the the launchpad.
Look familiar?  It's made to control another more comprehensive, expensive and wonderful software called Ableton Live.  Also it costs less than half of  the price of the cheapest monome because it's mass-produced in China instead of lovingly hand-crafted in the Catskills.

Days after the launchpad was released a clever hacker  wrote a piece of code in MaxMSP that lets the launchpad use (almost) all the free open-source software written for the monome.  The response of the people who make the monome?  "Good work.  We love what you're doing to expand the project."

This is open development at its best.  Not simply because I got a powerful tool for free or more cheaply (though this is a common outcome) but because the creators were willing to let the cultural/creative process happen without trying to lock it down so they could make more money from it.  There is a willingness to prioritize the broader cultural or community benefit over individual financial gain.  You either love music more or you love money more.  Apparently the people behind the monome love music more.

Also tonight, I was reading an a post (on my iPhone) from a blog called Create Digital Music.  The author was arguing that Apple's new iPad while very shiny and cool, is ultimately a step in the wrong direction.  I've heard these arguments before but tonight I became convinced.  And it has everything to do with control.

First: control of the software.  Apple's made no secret of controlling who gets an app in their store and often they block good apps for no good reason and let in thousands of bad apps.  But it's the apps (like this life-changing one) that make the iPhone such a useful and interesting device.  The size, connectivity and touch-screen have changed the way we use computers, despite Apple's capriciously run app store.

Second: control of the hardware.  I have spent a good 3-4 hours total attempting to restore to working order a perfectly good iPhone a friend of a friend gave to me.  The problem is that he tried to "jailbreak" the phone so he could run apps other than the ones Apple sells in its store.  Normally if a computer's software gets messed up you would just reset the phone back to factory settings ("restore" in iTunes).  But because of the escalating war between the people who find ways get around Apple's tight control over their phones, and the people at Apple who then create more ways to maintain control, this is no longer possible.

Now if you want to restore your phone in iTunes (even if you haven't attempted to "jail-break" it), iTunes has to check the software and your hardware against its records on a server somewhere they control.  If they don't like the software you're using to restore it, or if they think you have restored it too many times, or in a suspicious way, they terminate the restore process remotely.

The net outcome is that I have a perfectly good piece of hardware on my desk the software of which is still being controlled by the company that made it, even though it has already been bought and has changed hands three times.  The simple reason is that if they can retain control they can make more money.  Apparently they love money more than they love the cultural/creative process that is the development of technology: hardware and software. 


  1. i keep thinking "i should have taken the red pill."
    adam c

  2. huh. i jailbroke mine and restored without a problem.

    good post.

  3. @adam re: your mac purchase? The mac platform is still comparatively very open. because its a "real computer."

    @ryan not on iPhone OS 3.1.3 you didn't. That's when the change occurred. You can check the dev-team blog for the latest if you think about trying it again.

  4. Also, my friend, Matthew, who is himself a software developer, argued against my assertion of the money bias driving apple's closed hardware/softeware move. He suggests that they are trying to maintain a very high user experience and that part of doing that is setting very clear limits/expecations on what the device is for and what it isn't. I get that. I like that the phone part of iPhone almost always works without a problem unlike my old windows mobile phone. And if you can make a compelling argument that that's been the sole issue driving the seemingly capricious decisions on which apps get apple approval and which don't, then okay. That's a legit motivation for creating a limited device.

    But don't actively create new artificial (software) limitations that render the hardware unusable for people who want to experiment with it and see what new thing they can make out of it. In my counter example, the monome, people have used the technology (hardware and software) to create all kinds of things never intended by the original designers. Some of them work great. Some of them are terrible. What apple did with the latest limitation on the updates described in my post is similar to if the designer of the monomer activated a secret circuit in a chip inside all of the devices that caused them to turn to stop working.

    It's one thing if I mess around and install bad code on a device I'm experimenting with and "brick it." It's another thing if the people that made it decide two years after it was released that they don't like the idea of people experimenting with it and "brick it," remotely. The latter is what has happened.

  5. I realize it's not the point of your article - but here's the low-end-music-tech-hack version of the monome...


  6. Bruce! Very cool indeed, and on the contrary, the kind of project you are working on is precisely the point of open source hardware/software. With some creativity and work you can make use of a software set that was built for very different hardware. The key is that the monome community is excited to see the process spin off in directions they didn't expect.


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