Moving to Freedom, .Org(on)

At Night, the Robot Slept

iRobot Roomba at Rest

Blame it on Luis Villa He wrote about his Roomba and got me thinking. I had also previously heard good things. Hmm…

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, doing the jobs that I don’t want to?

The wife was skeptical at first, but I mentioned the good things I was “hearing,” that the prices were coming down, and likewise got her thinking. If it works, it might be one of those things like TiVo that you wonder how you lived without. (Later we found out they offer a money-back guarantee after a month trial, including shipping charges in both directions, so it becomes much less risky to at least give it a try.) She came back a few days later with a model that she said I could buy. “Really? I can bring him home? I can keep him?!”

I’m mixed on technology toys. I like gadgets as much as the next geek, but I’m hardly an early adopter. I’m not even a late adopter on a lot of things. We have $20 Virgin Mobile cell phones with pay-as-you-go plans. They’re turned off most of the time. I have a Palm III that I haven’t used in several years, with no replacement PDA for it. I don’t really care to spend the money on stuff like this, and I try to keep things simple. But once I do get it in mind to buy some gizmo, I feel the same surge of anticipation as any good consumer on a shopping bender. (See: TiVo. Although that’s really more of a necessity.) And there was something exciting about the idea of getting our very own robot.

So, it arrived earlier today, and here it is, shown in its new resting place. The manual says to charge for 16 hours. Is that an awesome robot roost, or what? With a dog, two cats, and a 20-month-old kid, we needed an out-of-the-way place for him to rest and recuperate. Our cats occasionally will chew through power cords, so I didn’t want those exposed. (The upside to this lovely habit is that most of our cords are out of the way, leaving the Roomba freer to roam.) This spot is also good because there is a red/orange power light on top, pulsating as it charges, ominous, as if breathing. Probably better if we don’t see that.

The Roomba. I guess we’re supposed to give it a name. There are the obvious candidates, of course: Rosie, Robby, Bender, Hoover. I thought about Lux, as in Electrolux. As in, “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.” I don’t know. We’ll see if it works out first before I get too far into the anthropomorphization process. I’m really looking forward to the first run. We’ll have the kid and the animals on hand, and I expect complete pandemonium to break out.

Proprietary Software Problems

And then there was something for me to fret about, as a would-be free software zealot. Along with TiVo, this little machine poses a challenge. I love our TiVo at the same time that I don’t like how TiVo the company is breaking the spirit of the GNU GPL. (See: Tivoization) For myself, I wanted an appliance, and it’s worked out great for that. But it should be possible for others to hack their TiVo and run modified software on the device.

I’ve considered writing a post about the whole TiVo situation, maybe to wring my hands over it and try to justify my use of the machine in a way that Richard Stallman would approve of, but that’s never going to happen. I can live with that. It’s fantastic that RMS is out there demanding the ideal, but I believe it is possible to value freedom and work towards it, but enjoy some of our modern proprietary comforts also. (Even while acknowledging the danger of that kind of thinking!)

And with this Roomba, we run into another Proprietary Agreement. The machine was sealed in a plastic bag, with the notice:

This robot contains an electronic software interface that allows you to control or modify its behavior, and remotely monitor its sensors. For software programmers interested in giving Roomba new functionality, we encourage you to do so.

Because the functionality of iRobot Roomba can be changed by you or other third parties, usage of this Roomba is subject to the enclosed End User License Agreement (EULA). If you do not accept this agreement, please do not open this package. For more information, visit www.irobot.com.

Wow. That sounds pretty cool! What can we make this thing do? But my software freedom habit causes me to focus on the downside. An EULA to use a hardware product? (An EULA for the software part, of course, but the notice implies that it covers any use of the machine.) Now, I have no reason to believe that free, copylefted software is being used by iRobot, so it’s probably not like the TiVo fiasco, but some would have us believe that all proprietary software is unethical, and therefore we shouldn’t support companies who perpetuate non-free software and license agreements. That’s a tough position to fully get on board with, and I have a lot of thinking to do on this subject, so for now I’ll just say that I can live with myself if, like with the TiVo, I’m buying some hardware to be used as an appliance. If I was inclined to hack the machine at all, this would definitely dissuade me from investing much effort in it, given that it is not free. But I’ll be happy to have it vacuum my floors for me.

(Wasn’t there some quote, maybe from Ben Franklin, about trading essential liberty for clean floors? Ah, well, maybe I’m a feckless sell-out and deserve neither.)

I suspect there aren’t any alternative free software vacuuming robots out there right now that approach the proprietary robots in function and ease of use. This is a trade-off we make all the time in free software. Much free software is as good as and better than non-free software, but often it lags behind. Free software tends to copy proprietary examples. I’m happy with this trade-off in most cases. But thinking about that in relation to hardware devices like robots, I wonder.

Organizations and individuals are moving towards free software and open standards for many things, but at the edge there is this expanding proprietary shell, including the hardware devices on which free software runs. One concern I’d have is that it might become too capital intensive on the hardware side to keep following in the proprietary wake, and our promising free and open future will be closed before us. We can, should, and must have free software, but what if we have no where to run it?