Meanwhile, in an alternate reality...

Tue, 5 Mar 2024

What happens if a moment in tech history turns out differently? What happens if a particular company makes a different call or a specific piece of beloved hardware never gets shelved? I enjoy these "what ifs" as they let my imagination wander. Today, let's dive into the realm of the free software movement with a twist.

Imagine this: Richard Stallman, an icon of software freedom, still has his defining moment at MIT's AI lab. Disillusionment over a printer's proprietary software still sparks the free software movement, just as it did in our timeline. But here's where things diverge.

MIT's beloved PDP-10 computer never faced discontinuation by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Moreover, DEC, a significant tech powerhouse of its time, always stays in business. The company thrives, and the PDP-10 and its operating system ITS (Incompatible Timesharing System) evolve.

ITS, known for its hacker-friendly atmosphere and openness, always retains its foothold. In this alternate reality, successive generations of developers build upon the work of their predecessors. ITS is continually refined, absorbing cutting-edge technologies as they emerge.

Let's consider the implications. Since ITS and the PDP-10 machines fostered source code accessibility, the collaborative spirit of the early hacker community solidified. Sharing and modifying software is the norm, but this reality gets interesting here.

Remember, the PDP-10 was unique. It possessed microcode but not as a buried, inaccessible layer like on your processors from Intel or AMD. Users could freely modify it and then load it into their processors from scratch at boot. We have lost this ability with newer processors, but the ITS hackers, for example, designed custom microcode to implement paging. Running ITS requires the processor to be running this special microcode instead.

Unlike our world, where processor microcode is a locked-down, proprietary secret, this reality sees microcode embrace the spirit of free software. Imagine an online repository overflowing with microcode designs shared, improved upon, and debated by tinkerers and hardware wizards globally.

Do you want your CPU optimized for video editing? Download a community-refined microcode build. Need blazing-fast number crunching for scientific simulations? There's a specialized microcode for that, too.

Processors themselves could become more modular, with the potential to swap out or upgrade microcode on a whim. A whole new generation of hackers could emerge - those who tinker not only with software but the deepest levels of computation.

Don't be fooled! This alternate reality isn't some utopia. Proprietary software would undoubtedly still exist, and Richard Stallman and the free software movement's ideals would still be critical. They would act as a constant moral compass, reminding users of their right to control the technology they rely on.

Of course, this is all speculation - an exercise in imagining the roads not taken. Yet, it's a fascinating one. This alternate reality, born from a simple change in the fate of a computer, reminds us that tech history is filled with contingencies. What kind of digital landscape would a dominant PDP-10 and ITS have shaped? While we might never fully untangle "what could have been" from "what is," these thought experiments underscore the significance of our choices - individually and collectively - in shaping our technological future.