Antifeatures

Benjamin Mako Hill (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Emerging Topics, People
Location: Ballroom A3/A6
Average rating: ****.
(4.00, 3 ratings)

In 1996, a furor erupted over Microsoft Windows NT. At the time, Microsoft was selling two versions of its popular operating system: NT Workstation (NTW) and NT Server (NTS). NTS cost roughly $800 more than the NTW.` Aiming to enforce this difference, both the NTW code and the license agreement restricted users to no more than ten concurrent TCP/IP (i.e., Internet) connections; NTS remained unlimited. It was eventually revealed that the operating systems were bit-for-bit identical; NTW workstation had the limits built in just so Microsoft could charge people to take them out.

The ability to run an unlimited number of connections is what I call an antifeature. An antifeature is functionality that a technology developer will charge users to not include. It is more difficult for Microsoft to limit Internet connections than it is to leave them unconstrained, and the limit is not something that any user would request. DRM and Treacherous Computing systems are, in many ways, extreme examples of antifeatures. Users don’t want either and they are hugely expensive and extremely difficult for developers to implement.

Region-coded DVDs, copy-protection measures, and Apple’s optional DRM music store – where users initially paid more for the DRM-free tracks – are also excellent examples. It takes a large amount of work to build these systems and users rarely benefit from or request them. Like blackmail, users can sometimes pay technology providers to not include an antifeature in their technology.

But sometimes, as in the case with many DRM systems, users cannot pay to turn their antifeatures off at all! An example of such an antifeature can be seen in the fact that Mozilla and Firefox were blocking pop-ups for years before Microsoft got around to adding the feature to its competing Internet Explorer browser. Despite the fact that Firefox has become fancy about pop-up blocking recently, simply not showing pop-ups (i.e., the way the feature was originally implemented in Mozilla and celebrated by users) is easier than showing them. Microsoft held back not because it was difficult, but because others parts of Microsoft, and their partners, used and made money from pop-ups. Ultimately, Microsoft lost droves of users to the free alternative that was willing to put users first. Until 2005, another proprietary web browser, Opera (which offered pop-up blocking before Firefox did) displayed an irremovable banner advertisement unless users paid for premium version of the software. No users liked the banners, and obviously, it’s more difficult to show advertisements than it is to leave them out.

This talk will showcase a variety of these types of antifeatures as examples of an a creative, humorous, and entertaining approach to free software and open source advocacy. This talk will point out that, unfortunately for the companies and individuals trying to push antifeatures, users increasingly often have alternatives in free and open source software.

Software freedom, it turns out, makes antifeatures impossible in most situations. Microsoft’s predatory NT pricing is impossible for GNU/Linux, where users can program around it. A version of Firefox funded by advertisements would be too – users would simply build and share a version of the software without the antifeatures in question. Ultimately, the absence of similar antifeatures form some of the easiest victories for free software. It does not cost free software developers anything to avoid antifeatures. This talk will show that, in many cases, doing nothing is exactly what users want and what proprietary software will not give them.

Photo of Benjamin Mako Hill

Benjamin Mako Hill

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Benjamin Mako Hill is a technology and intellectual property researcher, activist, and consultant. He is currently a Senior Researcher at the MIT Sloan School of Management, a Fellow at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, and an adviser for the One Laptop per Child project. He has been an leader, developer, and contributor to the Free and Open Source Software community for more than a decade as part of the Debian and Ubuntu projects. He is the author of several best-selling technical books, and a member of the Free Software Foundation board of directors. Hill has a Masters degree from the MIT Media Lab.

  • Intel
  • Microsoft
  • Google
  • SourceForge.net
  • Sun Microsystems
  • Facebook
  • Gear6
  • Kaltura
  • Liferay
  • MindTouch
  • MySpace.com
  • Novell, Inc.
  • Open Invention Network
  • Rackspace Cloud
  • Schooner Information Technology
  • Silicon Mechanics
  • Symbian Foundation
  • Twilio
  • WSO2
  • Yabarana Corporation

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