“Why can’t it work like a TV?”

The research of Andrew Tanenbaum (who, like me, is based in a "Free" university, but his is "Vrije" where mine is "Freie") has long involved computer operating systems, and he reserves many disparaging opinions about their general state. He regards a number of common OS concepts as obsolete, be they file systems largely unchanged since the 1960s or big, monolithic kernels that stretch to millions of lines of code. (He famously declared the Linux kernel to be obsolete while still in its infancy).

Tanenbaum's group has taken these problems and developed Minix 3 as an embodiment of many of their solutions. In his articles and talks, he often calls upon some hypothetical grandma as an argument against the woeful state of software quality. This mouse-wielding octogenarian (I mean the grandma, not Tanenbaum) laments "why doesn't it work like a TV?", meaning why can't you just switch on a computer and have it work for the next ten years without crashing?Original image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Televison_Hungarian_ORION_1957.jpg#

All respect to Tanenbaum and his efforts at producing fault-tolerant, super-reliable software systems. Minix 3 has many interesting and innovative ideas within it and has been demonstrated as an impressive proof-of-concept. Hopefully, this will help towards steering our industry towards levels of reliability common to just about every other major industry and so salvage its reputation among the public.

However, I fear the days of his TV analogy are numbered. You see, the missus and I recently treated ourselves to a new TV. How surprised I was after setting it up to find that it is powered by the Linux kernel and an assortment of GNU software. But, as we already know: where there is software, there are crashes. If we are now entering the days where TVs are essentially running full operating systems, we may no longer be warranted as citing a TV as technology that "just works". We've already suffered a Blu-Ray player that has been turned into useless brick after it demanded software updates and we foolishly obliged in providing them.




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