When Giants Release Robotics Studios

Optical Illusion Warning SignMicrosoft released their MS Robotics Studio yesterday, which I applaude, but of course have my issues with because it’s Microsoft related (more on that below). The studio is “a software development kit for the robotics community that can be used with a wide variety of hardware, by a wide audience of users” says Tandy Trower, General Manager of the Microsoft Robotics Group.

Yeah, I applaude the release of free software for robotics — but I have my concerns. I commented on the Studio’s Digg submission that there was inevitably something in the studio which would handcuff you and your robot to the Microsoft empire, mentioning C# as one of those things. Immediately, an angry Microsoft user accused me of not knowing about Mono, which are additional tools produced by Novell to run .Net technologies on platforms other than Windows (OS X, FreeBSD, Linux, etc.).

Of course, the angry MS user was right. It was a bit unthoughtful of me. But overall I feel that Mono just underlines my concerns: Mono wasn’t initiated by Microsoft; it was built by the community to make amends for MS’ tendency towards maintaining cross-platform incompatibility.

I’m tired of arguing about Mac vs. Windows vs. Linux: I don’t hate Microsoft.

But Microsoft is a corporate giant. A person, basically — just a giant one. When companies grow this large, their bloated figure becomes too greasy for any single man grasp. Profits become an indispensible and controlling part of the hive mind; the overall result of which is that the users become the commodity: They are no longer selling good software to satisfy the user — they’re producing software which maximizes profits and incorporates the user as a cog in their corporation. The consumers become the consumed.

By making their software most compatible with their own system (or completely incompatible with others), they are trying to enforce that people buy more from their empire. I came across a robots.net post from 2005, which has info related to what I’m trying to convey:

Nelson Bridwell sends us Microsoft news from the International Conference on Advanced Robotics in Seattle where Stewart Tansley revealed details of what could be Microsoft’s latest effort to assimilate the field of robotics. Apparently this is now part of a larger strategy to create more University level students accustomed to using and developing proprietary software. “They have decided that the best way to increase enrollment is to work with universities to incorporate robotics and computer games into the computer science curriculum as class projects where students can exercise their technical skills.” The robotics and computer games would be developed using various Microsoft proprietary software tools instead of the currently preferred Open Source / Free software tools. Part of their plan is to develop robot platforms with hardware that runs Microsoft’s .net language natively and offering them at much lower prices than conventional robotics hardware…. read more

I buy Apple because with their ~3% markeshare I feel they’re still small enough to actually care about their customers, while still having the power of a company to produce big things for me. And I get that feeling every time they come up with a simple and elegant solution to my problems.

That’s not the feeling I get when I’m called by friends and family to come over and fix their Windows machines, going through dozens of helpless help files telling me to go this webpage when the problem is that the web connection isn’t working. I don’t want the same thing happening to the poor robots.

In summary; while I think the MSRobotics Studio might be good to increase interest in robotics, MS’ patents and copyrights might potentially limit the growth of your robot. I’d recommend looking into some of the other solutions that are already available before making any decisions.

Open Automation Robot Project

(Robot image credit: The Open Automaton Project)

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