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December 2nd, 2013

Entertainment Fosters Innovation

If I asked which two aspects of human life helped propel the digital revolution the most, do you think you know the answer? Would you believe me if I told you it’s computer games and the adult industry? Now, for obvious reasons, we will discuss just the former.

Computer games came about in their vast, colorful abundance in the 80s and really shattered the myth that the computer was just a thing for the academy and finance. At that time the PC became affordable. When coupled with DOS it brought about a revolution, spearheaded by a whole generation of people enjoying entertainment at the tips of their fingers. No longer did you have to leave the comfort of your home and head over to the modern equivalent of the arena. You could have all the fun you wanted, with yourself, by yourself, right there.

Fast forward thirty years or so and little has changed. Entertainment need is at an all time high. People still play games. Some of the more popular titles earn as much as a blockbuster film production. And while the world is trying to downsize, using phrases like “the economy downturn” as an excuse, this one segment of the market marches boldly forward.

Yes, you got it right. The gaming industry.

But there’s a catch. Recently, there’s been an almost reverse trend in the tech world. Let’s call it affordable computing. Most of the hardware vendors out there are now actually trying to sell you lower powered devices with extended battery life, be they phones, tablets or notebooks, rather than offering you just their state-of-the-art, most powerful gadgets they could possibly design. Still, at the far end of the spectrum, you have the hardcore gamers screaming for their extra pint of digital juice.

This shift is rather interesting. Just a decade ago everyone was talking about GHz frequency for their desktop and it did not matter what you wanted to do, you kind of needed the processor to be as mean as possible, with a graphics card to match. Nowadays, there’s plenty of options for those not inclined to game. Since it turns out that brute force is not really required, ancient processors have found new life in the form of the next-generation backbone for low-end devices. Kind of makes you wonder why we spent ten years forging new technology, doesn’t it?

So indeed, what happens with the latest and greatest? Luckily, we have the gamers, a loud bunch, and they like to shout their specs everywhere. You should be thankful for that.

If the digital world is undergoing a binary version of the global warming awareness thingie, you can treat the gamers as a solar flare heading straight for our atmosphere. They don’t care about how long your smartphone battery is going to last, because they need a nuclear plant’s worth of power to play their games. They need the best games, and accordingly, the best hardware. Which means, if you want to be the gamers’ darling you need to design hardware that can do that and then provide drivers that bring all that power to bear. Like cars and their transmissions.

Linux game

Almost accidentally, it has become a matter of pride for hardware vendors to be the ones that best the FPS benchmarks. Competition, innovation, all in the name of entertainment. It does not matter that only a fraction of people will be enjoying their most advanced technology, they need to be the ones who created it. Pretty much like Mercedes Benz. Whatever they put in their S class fleet will be coming to Average Joe cars in a decade.

So what has this got anything to do with open-source or Linux, pray?

Well, everything.

Today, the open source world resides mostly in the software sphere. Hardware is the domain of powerful companies that can afford to print circuit boards and bake silicon wafers and the like. In a way, you are at the mercy of these giants, in what and how they provide you.

So you buy your expensive graphics card, but you must use their coding language to make the best of it, and you must use their closed-source driver to even begin dreaming of utilizing the hardware the right way. In other words, innovation, for the sake of the entertainment of the masses, is governed by other people. You, the open-source guy, you’re left with the leftovers.

Not a bad scenario, overall, if you think about it. For instance, personally, I’m quite satisfied paying for my Nvidia hardware and using their closed-source drivers. I get what I need. In this regard, it’s about as good as it gets, with a small number of vendors providing the finest the technology can offer today. And realistically, it’s hard to see how one can possibly compete against the likes of Intel, AMD, Nvidia, and friends.

However, there’s today and there’s tomorrow.

Let’s deviate briefly into the world of super-computers. You take a bunch of discrete systems, with their state-of-the-art hardware, and you create a super-entity that exceeds the individual components by several orders of mangitude. And you use a super kind of glue to bind all of them together. Apparently, that glue is called Linux, or at least, in some 480 odd cases out of 500, it will be called that.

Linux supercomputer

The simple reason why Linux is used in this crazy world of clusters and grids is in the sheer extensibility, flexibility and inherent openness of the operating system that allows subverting the finest hardware to your will, well beyond the original intentions and capabilities of the their vendors, y’know, the market leaders really.

Now, try to project this reality onto the gaming industry. What can possibly happen if you gain the ability to super-glue the graphics hardware with Linux? Not just any one single server or any one overclocked and SLI-ed desktop gaming rig. What happens when you achieve control, connectivity and usability on the scale of thousands and millions?

What could your games of the future be like, if you can bunch the best hardware with the best operating system, or let’s say, the most potential-worthy operating system? What happens if you enhance the closed-source architecture of your best graphics card with a kind of supervisor technology based on Linux?

The gaming industry seems like the best candidate for this kind of experiment. It sure might happen and the first attempts by the Valve Corporation at creating SteamOS is a good indication of a possible future trend. Linux itself may or may not be the right answer for this pseudo-philosophical challenge, but it surely is your easiest bet. It’s not about what the future gaming console might look like. It’s not about how good the drivers will be. It’s about creating the next level of technology that will spearhead future innovation. All for the sake of entertainment.

What does this mean? Well, rather than developing games that match the hardware, why not go the other way around? Create games that will demand a new generation of hardware. Force the companies to sweat their intellect extra hard, and this way, bring about the next level of innovation.

How do you do that? Simple. Linux. On a one-to-one scale a code developer is a code developer, so you can hardly claim that your Linux programmer is any better than whatever the big names out there can offer. But when you scale up, no one has the numbers, the ability and the diversity that the world of Linux can muster. This is where you can play the game on your terms. Look what happened in the enterprise world. Now, converge the two. The Linux experience, the breakthrough creativity of the gaming industry. Let the fun begin.

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Igor Ljubuncic, aka Dedoimedo, is the guy behind the Dedoimedo web site which made a second place showing in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition for 2013. He makes a living out of his very hobby - Linux, and holds a bunch of certifications which he says "make a nice pile in the bottom drawer."

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