Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Oct. 1 2015 12:37 PM

A Drone Linked to a VR Headset Lets You Explore the Sky, Almost for Real

The Indiegogo campaign for the new FLYBi autonomous drone system touts plenty of cool features, but the clear winner is its first-person virtual reality goggles. For those of us who wish we could fly—everybody raise your hand—this could be the closest we get while still staying on the ground.

FLYBi’s 12-megapixel camera streams 1080-pixel high-definition video to a pair of HD LCDs in its VR goggles. The goggles track your head movements, so when you look up, down, or to the side for a different view, the drone gets you what you want to see. Eyes in the sky, indeed.

Then there’s the FLYBi system’s Helideck. FLYBi lifts off from the Helideck and comes back to land when you’re ready, or, when it runs out of power, it will automatically swap batteries by itself. The Helideck keeps three batteries on hand and it recharges them continuously when it’s plugged in. (It also has USB ports for charging other things, like the phone you use for controlling FLYBi.) The Helideck folds up to serve as a hard-shell carrying case for FLYBi.

FLYBi flies autonomously, without joysticks, guided by an app running on your phone. Pilots create its flight plan by picking the desired destination on a map, and then setting waypoints where they’d like FLYBi to pause and hover for an extended view. If FLYBi encounters any obstacles, it just navigates around them. When the mission’s accomplished, the drone returns to the Helideck.


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Oct. 1 2015 11:33 AM

The Real Danger of That Yelp-for-People App Isn’t Negativity. It’s Empty Positivity.

If you want to restore your faith in humankind, you need look no further than the public response to the controversial, and as yet unreleased, iOS app Peeple. Typically described as “Yelp for people,” Peeple has met widespread derision and horror ever since Caitlin Dewey wrote on it for the Washington Post. Responding to the rhetorical question, “If we have it for restaurants, why [don’t] we have it for people?” one Twitter user offered the withering reply, “[B]ecause restaurants [don’t] kill themselves??”

This hurricane of disgust should quell most fears that Peeple is likely to become a real success when it’s released, supposedly in November. No one I spoke to seemed to think it was anything other than a nightmare product. “An idea like this should be treated like smallpox and not exist outside of a few well-guarded laboratories,” one of my Slate colleagues told me. Others followed suit, many of them angry that it existed at all. While I’d like to believe that my friends and co-workers are unusually good people, I suspect they’re a representative sample where Peeple is concerned. Everyone—everyone who’s speaking up, at any rate—seems to think that Peeple is a tragedy in the making.

Is all our hysteria and hullaballoo misplaced, then? There’s arguably something self-congratulatory about our dismissal of the app, our public performances of distaste a sign that we are tasteful. Of course, one reasonable fear about Peeple is that we’ll be forced into using it, whether or not we want to. As Dewey explains, someone needs nothing more than your phone number to start reviewing you. In this light, Peeple might not need widespread acceptance to find traction. Its mere existence could create the conditions for its ugly world, effectively blackmailing all of us into joining in.

Some have sought out the lighter side of participation. “I can’t wait for everyone to give the creators of Peeple terrible reviews on Peeple,” one journalist joked. Many apparently didn’t bother to wait, needling the app’s creators so aggressively that they soon made their official Twitter page private. (It has since gone public again.) If nothing else, this temporary profile lockdown suggests that many of us are more than capable of being nasty on our own, no app required.

Peeple’s creators, for their own part, seem baffled by the anger their app has elicited. In a statement posted to the company’s website after Dewey’s article ran, they suggest that it’s all a misunderstanding. Veering into martyrological terrain, they write, “We are bold innovators and sending big waves into motion and we will not apologize for that because we love you enough to give you this gift.” And what is that gift, exactly? The gift of community, of connection, of contact: “You deserve better and to have more abundance, joy, and real authentic connections,” the update’s authors declare. Here, Peeple emphasizes the good above all else. “We are a positivity app,” the statement reads in a phrase sure to baffle many. What does that mean? It means that they want “the opportunity to prove how great it feels to be loved by so many in a public space.”

It would be too easy to laugh off Peeple’s insistence that it has everyone’s best interests at heart. How could an app that would allow us to rate one another on a five-star scale invite anything other than the basest negativity? And yet the app really is set up to encourage affirmations. Any review of two or fewer stars is subject to a 48-hour arbitration period before going live, during which you’re encouraged to “work it out” with your critic. And if you haven’t set up an account, only more positive reviews of you will show. (Here, there’s a lilkely loophole: Since it’s the numerical rating that triggers review, someone could presumably give an acquaintance five stars but write nasty things about him or her.) Users are also assigned a “positivity rating,” based on the ratio of good to bad reviews that they leave for others. This figure will allow us to quickly judge others on the way they judge, separating the cruel from the kind.

Such features lend some credence to the developers’ claims that Peeple is about recognizing that you’re loved, not about cultivating hate. Maybe the Peeple people are baffled because they recognize that much of our contemporary social media environment is already centered on the positive. It’s this cultural climate that they seem to think they’re participating in. I’ve argued before—and I’m hardly the only one to do so—that Facebook is changing the way we share our sorrows, encouraging us to emphasize the affirmative at even our darkest hours. Above all else, Peeple seems likely to produce something like the irritating follow-back mentality of Twitter—five-star me and I’ll five-star you!

Of course, despite its creators’ protests, it could easily become a haven for bullies; it could be much worse for some groups than others. And to use it at all might well be to court lawsuits. But at a more general level, it belongs to our culture of empty affirmation. It’s of a piece with the implicit obligation to rate eBay sellers or Uber drivers as high as possible. And as the language of Peeple’s statement suggests, it builds on the same foundations as positive thinking fantasias like The Secret.

So, if we’re all blackmailed into using Peeple, I don’t worry that it will make us uglier. I worry that it will further polish us to an artificial shine.

Oct. 1 2015 10:05 AM

It’s Come to This: Artist Turns Dead Animals Into Drones

Every now and then, a story comes around that transforms the way that you see the world and makes you realize that it is a much more gross and frivolous place than you have ever imagined. For the latest epiphany of this sort, I would like to thank Business Insider for bringing me the tale of Bart Jansen, an artist-provocateur from the Netherlands who, in 2012, asked himself something that we’ve all wondered at one point or another during our respective dark nights: “I wonder if I could turn my dead cat into a quadcopter drone?”

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Well, you can do anything if you put your mind to it, and Jansen busied himself installing a motor in his dead pet’s stomach and propellers in its paws. I won’t make you look at it, but the end result is like something out of a Tim Burton movie: the cat’s eyes bulging, its limbs splayed out like wings. But it flew, and Jansen was satisfied. “When Orville was killed by a car, I decided to pay tribute to his lost life by giving him a new one,” Jansen wrote on his website. “Electronic life. How he loved birds.”

The project inspired extreme reactions, with some Dutch animal lovers dubbing Jansen “the worst person in the country.” The criticism didn’t dissuade him from performing similar transformations, in collaboration with the engineer Arjen Beltman, on a dead rat, a dead shark, and a dead ostrich. (“OstrichCopter, half ostrich, half helicopter. Always handy to have around,” Jansen wrote.) Now, Business Insider reports, Jansen is working to convert a dead badger into a small submarine and is also mulling designs for a vague project called a “mancopter,” which, thankfully, does not seem to involve converting a human corpse into a flying machine. (As far as I can tell, Jansen wants to turn a large animal, like a cow, into a kind of wearable flying suit or something.)

So, to be clear, it is definitely possible to turn a dead animal into a drone. But is it art? Humans are sometimes fond of anthropomorphizing technological objects, and Jansen’s corpse-copters effectively satirize this tendency. If nothing else, Jansen’s imaginative transfigurations certainly make you think, even if the only think you’re thinking is, What in the world is wrong with Bart Jansen? I would also like to note that there is a USA Today transportation reporter named Bart Jansen who often writes about drones, and it would be wonderfully serendipitous if one day this Jansen wrote about the other.

This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America.

Oct. 1 2015 8:31 AM

Confusion and Disarray in the Education Aisle of the App Stores

The touch-and-swipe interface of the digital marketplace makes it feel so easy. Looking for an app to teach your 5-year-old how to read? Flick your finger over to the education aisles of the App Store (or Google Play, or the Amazon Appstore), and press “buy.”

In reality, putting your finger on the right app takes a lot more effort. Glossy graphics belie a confusing mess. Since developers choose where to put their wares, many of them select the “education” section with little evidence that their products are educational. Their products might be better labeled as entertainment, but because they include characters that sing the ABCs, they reside in that borderland yet to be defined. It’s as if you arrived in the grocery aisle of Target to find packages of soap next to the boxes of cereal, which are jumbled in with jars of paprika and applesauce. In fact, the disorder is even worse because the packaging for the applesauce and the soap might lead you to think they are the same thing.

In 2012, in a report published by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, we named this bazaar the “digital wild west.” Two years later, our research teams went back to the app stores to conduct a deeper analysis. We explain the results in Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, a new book and website for parents and educators, and in a report forthcoming this fall. Findings show that the marketplace is teeming with early literacy products that are disorganized, mismatched, and missing labels that could help consumers make better choices.

Why does this matter? First there’s the question of truth in labeling. Developers have an obligation to adhere to educational principles and tenets of child development if they are going to lead parents into thinking that children may learn something. Apps may look cheap ($2.99 here, 99 cents there), but those costs add up, especially when the purchases are made for siblings and multiple devices or by educators for use with 20 kids in a classroom. What’s more, in the physical world, if that container of applesauce happens to be full of soap, you can return it for your money back. Ever try to return an app?

The mismatch also matters because of the pressing need for young children to gain skills in language learning and early literacy and advance into strong readers by third grade. According to data from the Nation’s Report Card, more than two-thirds of fourth-graders in the United States cannot score high enough on literacy tests to meet the proficient mark. Fixing this problem—by helping teachers and parents find materials with a research base in language development and reading comprehension—is increasingly important, especially as children are spending more time with touchscreen tablets on a daily basis.

In our app-store study, Sarah Vaala and Anna Ly of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop scanned the Apple, Google, and Amazon app stores and downloaded scores of apps. They analyzed nearly 200 apps targeted to children ages 0–8, with emphasis on early literacy and the top 50 most popular apps in the education sections of those stores.

They soon discovered that few apps were labeled to help parents find particular products for particular ages. Instead, they were often vaguely described as being for “young children,” not recognizing there is a large difference between the needs of a 3-year-old and the needs of a 6-year-old. In fact, 40 percent of app descriptions in stores or on websites gave no discernible age range for the target users at all. Only 11 percent provided parents with an age range that spanned three years or less (“this app is for 3–5 year olds,” for example). This means parents may be paying for apps that are way too easy, or way too advanced.

Vaala and Ly compared the most popular apps with those that appeared on websites that apply some expertise and curation to the process of finding apps, including Common Sense Media, Parents’ Choice, and Children’s Technology Review. They found a disconnect between what the experts liked and what became most “popular” in the app stores. Also interesting: The experts put a premium on creativity and art (such as using drawings to express ideas) but found those kinds of apps to be rare in the “most popular” lists in app stores.

The science of reading, recently distilled in the excellent book Raising Kids Who Read, shows that children develop into readers by advancing through skills that grow in complexity, from producing and distinguishing between basic sounds to reading fluently and understanding what is read. Among the apps Vaala and Ly examined, however, this range was hard to find. For example, among free apps, more than 50 percent focused on teaching children to recognize the letters and sounds of the alphabet. Less than 10 percent of free apps focused on reading comprehension, and even rarer were skills like reading fluency (the ability to read without stumbling over certain words) and self-expression.

Looking inside the apps, they found other shortcomings. Very few allowed for children or parents to form social connections around the stories or games they were playing, few allowed for content to be shared among family members, and even fewer were explicitly designed to promote moments with parents and children learning from media together. These social interactions build foundational skills for being good readers and critical thinkers, and contrary to conventional wisdom, this kind of social interaction is, in fact, possible with digital technology—for instance, Skyping and reading a book with Grandma.

App stores need to do more to promote apps that encourage this deeper learning. For example, they could become stricter about what it takes to be part of their “education” sections and push developers to take the “education” label seriously. In the physical world, there are whole industries focused on the placement of products on the shop floor and regulations around packaging. It’s time for the equivalent digitally, with parents and educators first in mind.

Until then, it’s not only buyer beware, it’s “buyer, don’t expect miracles.” Apps can’t make up for the social interactions, content knowledge-building, and storytelling that parents and educators can and should be doing with children every day.

Sept. 30 2015 7:31 PM

Netizen Report: Will Brazil Give Up on Defending Digital Rights?

The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. Mary Aviles, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Taisa Sganzerla, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

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Brazil’s lower house of Congress is considering a bill that would double penalties for libel and defamatory speech when they occur online and dissolve protections for communications privacy in criminal investigations.

The bill has a long way to go before it can reach the desk of President Dilma Rousseff—it needs committee and plenary approval in the lower house, in addition to Senate approval. But if enacted, it would dismantle privacy protections in the Marco Civil (Brazil’s so-called “Bill of Rights for the Internet”) by allowing prosecutors in a criminal case to request users' personal data, including the content of private messages, without first obtaining approval from a judge. It would also “update” Brazil’s penal code by simply adding the words “social media” to a list of crimes defined as libel and doubling resulting penalties for violations, plus allowing claimants to request the permanent removal of online content that they could prove was harmful to their honor. The bill justifies these changes pointing to the “devastating” effects of libelous speech when spread through social media.

But history just might be on the side of human rights here. Civil liberties advocates have nicknamed this the “spy bill” (#PLEspiao) or the “digital AI-5,” calling up memories of AI-5, a decree issued in 1968 during Brazil’s military dictatorship that severely restricted freedom of assembly and expression. Online campaigns against the amendments have flourished and appear to have helped delay a vote on the bill that was scheduled to take place last week but has now been postponed. A public hearing on the matter took place Sept. 29, and another vote has been tentatively scheduled for Oct. 1.

The Center for Technology and Society at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, Brazil’s premier social sciences university, called the bill unconstitutional. "Who does this project benefit? Public interest as a whole or those who want to shield themselves from public scrutiny?"

Ecuador’s president wields tools of censorship to avoid hurt feelings
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa is asserting the right to be forgotten—but only for himself. Using millions of dollars in public funds, Correa hired a Mexican company to remove critical information about him and his wife from the Internet, including a documentary by filmmaker Santiago Villa, an electoral broadcast from a rival politician, and even a report on a jailbreak from an Ecuadorean prison, according to records obtained by BuzzFeed. The news adds to the growing list of roadblocks that Correa’s administration has put up against freedom of expression in the country: Just two weeks ago we reported on the closure of media freedom group Fundamedios, and in August the Hacking Team leaks revealed the aggressive investment by the Ecuador government in malware and pro-government trolls.

More Ethiopians jailed for seeking digital education
The Zone9 bloggers are not alone among Ethiopians charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation for alleged offenses such as online activism and pursuing training in digital security tools. Zelalem Workagenegu, Yonatan Wolde, and Bahiru Degu, whose cases only recently became public, were detained July 8, 2014, for applying to attend an online security training. Like the Zone9ers, their hearings have been delayed multiple times. They are next expected to appear in court between Nov. 7–9 of this year.

French National Assembly targets global communications at their core
On Thursday, Oct. 1, France’s National Assembly will vote a new international surveillance bill that would amend a law passed last summer, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, that vastly increased the powers of French intelligence authorities to monitor and record electronic communications in the name of national security. The amendment would update the current law to allow for more pervasive surveillance of transnational and global communications through submarine Internet cables. Civil liberties advocacy groups including European Digital Rights and La Quadrature du Net are sounding the alarm with analysis and an open letter opposing the bill.

New Research

Sept. 30 2015 5:53 PM

Harry Potter–Style Moving Images Come to Facebook Profile Pictures

In an announcement Wednesday, Facebook wrote, "The world has changed since we first introduced profiles in 2004." It might seem like a grandiose way to debut some mobile profile tweaks, but come on, people, this is about "an obvious evolution of profiles." Duh.

Where before there were only still profile pictures—showing off a person's wedding or chance encounter with Ashton Kutcher—you'll now be able to make what Facebook is calling "profile videos." They're basically GIF-like seven-second snippets of footage on loop. The company is currently testing them on a group of iPhone users in California and the United Kingdom, and then they'll expand out to more people. (Note the timing: Apple just released its new Live Photos feature in iOS 9.)

The update was apparently inspired directly by Harry Potter. Facebook product manager Aigerim Shorman told Tech Insider that, "Profile videos actually came about when one of our engineers hacked his own internal Facebook profile to turn his profile picture into a video. ... Once our team saw his profile come to life like that, it reminded us of Harry Potter and we knew it was something that we had to build for everyone."

Another profile picture improvement offers a different type of insight into what's going on with Facebook employees. It seems that they feel the same social pressures that the rest of us do, because in response to the Celebrate Pride filter from this summer, a new feature lets you set a profile picture temporarily. You choose an expiration date for when you want to switch back to your old photo, and then Facebook automates the change. That way you can make an advanced decision and don't have to debate about when and how to take down an advocacy prof pic. (Facebook points out that you can also use this feature for more benign things like supporting a sports team in the lead-up to a big game.)

More options are fun, but we all know that people will just use these features to make their lives look even more glamorous and epic. Skydiving profile videos are going to be everywhere. Eat your heart out, Daily Prophet.

Sept. 30 2015 2:11 PM

FAA Fears That 1 Million Drones Could Be Sold This Holiday Season

You’re probably getting a drone for Christmas this year, whether you want one or not. Aviation Week reports that, at a recent industry summit, Rich Swayze of the Federal Aviation Administration said that the agency expects up to 1 million unmanned aerial vehicles to be sold during this year’s holiday season. Swayze’s prediction, if true, is simultaneously great and terrible news for the drone industry. It’s great news because, hooray, money! It’s terrible news because some of these drones will be gifted to kids, and idiots, and others who know and care little for safety and decorum. Many drones, though not all of them, are equipped with cameras, and you can easily imagine a million novice pilots, hopped up on Christmas cookies and eggnog, launching their drones to take an uninvited peek at what lies under their neighbors’ trees; you can easily imagine the neighborhood shouting matches that might ensue.

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A good chunk of the American public already finds drones very, very annoying, thanks to the reckless behavior exhibited by some amateur drone pilots. Though the FAA counsels drone hobbyists to respect ground-dwellers’ privacy and maintain visual contact with their devices, there is no good way to enforce these standards, and thus they are easily violated by recreational flyers who either don’t know or don’t care about FAA best practices. Heedless hobbyists have made news this year for flying drones near airports, stadiums, wildfires, and hospitals, in blatant disregard for safety protocols and common sense. This blithe behavior has prompted physical violence, angry gunplay, a passel of state and local anti-drone ordinances, and the fear that the actions of some of these early adopters might sabotage the emerging drone industry.

If a million new drones take to the air this winter, how many of them will be used inappropriately? It’s hard to say. As I’ve written before, my sense is that the vast majority of drones are used responsibly and that the few clowns who make the news aren’t representative of the whole. But impressions are sometimes more important than statistics, and it’ll take only a few “Local man flies drone into manger scene, decapitates Baby Jesus” headlines to seriously sour the public on the UAV sector and encourage legislators to pass reactionary laws and policies that might inhibit drone innovation.

What to do? In the absence of comprehensive FAA regulations or other laws that might mandate good behavior, the government is exploring other methods of preempting this potential menace. Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, in Aviation Week, called for dronemakers to avert the “irresponsible use of toys” and incorporate geofencing technology that would automatically prevent drones from flying near sensitive areas. But geofencing is no panacea, and, anyway, it’s unlikely that manufacturers will voluntarily heed this call between now and December. Aviation Week also notes that the FAA plans to meet with Walmart “to educate salespeople selling small UAVs on how to inform consumers about operating UAVs safely”: a well-intentioned idea that seems to grossly overestimate Walmart’s commitment to salesmanship and customer service.

In the end, I think, the responsibility lies with you, the harried gift-giver, to think before you buy. Much as you wouldn’t give your alcoholic Uncle Frank a handle of Cutty Sark for Christmas, you shouldn’t buy a drone for someone who you suspect might use it imprudently, like children, or people with “I Can’t Drive 55” tattoos. Consider which of the people on your shopping list are or are not cut out for drone ownership, and do what you can to ensure that you’re giving a reliable machine to a reliable person. Research drones online before you buy them so that you can better differentiate the high-quality models from the buggy ones with flyaway problems. And if you can’t decide whether to give someone a drone or a massage hat from Brookstone, take my advice, and go with the massage hat. No one has ever been arrested for reckless use of a massage hat.

This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America.

Sept. 30 2015 1:16 PM

Buckets of Clear Goo Are Helping Researchers Get Closer to 3-D–Printing Organs

If you're getting sick of 3-D printing, it's not your fault. You've probably just heard one too many times that it's going to revolutionize everything. But behind all the hype and misshapen plastic figurines, some cool stuff is going on. It's just a lot more incremental than people might want to admit.

At the University of Florida in Gainesville, a team of researchers is developing a technique for printing minute structures that wouldn't be able to support their own weight during printing. The idea is to do injection printing inside a gel medium (basically a bucket of goo) so the gel can support a structure as it is being created. The research was published in Science Advances Friday.

The approach hinges on some convenient physical properties of gels. If you've ever heard someone sounding pleased with herself as she explains that ketchup has properties of both a liquid and a solid, you know what we're talking about here. "While tracing out spatial paths with an injection tip, the granular gel fluidizes at the point of injection and then rapidly solidifies, trapping injected material in place," the researchers explained. Whaddup, non-Newtonian fluids.

So far the group has used its bucket of goo technique to 3-D–print different structures with materials like silicone, hydrogels, colloids, and even living cells. That last one could mean a step toward 3-D printing complex biological structures. Organ farms won't be popping up soon, though, because as New Scientist points out, the researchers haven't been using organic gel so far, meaning the current environment won't keep cells alive once they're printed into it.

Still, the research could also be applicable to materials science and even the development of flexible electronics. It's not all empty hype for 3-D printing.

Sept. 30 2015 1:05 PM

Linux-Loathing Microsoft Now Uses Its Own Version of Linux

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Microsoft is now running its online empire with help from its own version of Linux.

If you know Microsoft and its long history, this rather straightforward sentence reads almost like a paradox. It invites you to read it again—just to make sure it says what you think it said. Really, go ahead. Read it again.

For years, Microsoft actively worked to suppress Linux, a computer operating system whose underlying code is freely available to the world at large. It once threatened legal action against businesses that used the open-source OS, insisting that Linux infringed on patents underpinning its flagship Windows operating system. And though the company has come to realize that Linux is now one of the primary means of building large online systems—and that it won’t survive unless it helps businesses use the OS in this way—it continues to push Windows as a viable alternative. At first blush, a Microsoft Linux still seems a strange (and slightly amusing) thing.

But, yes, that sentence does say what you think it says. Earlier this month, a Microsoft engineer discussed Microsoft’s very own Linux in a Microsoft blog post. The company is using this creation to run at least some of the networking hardware that drives its online services.

Certainly this isn’t something that Microsoft wants to shout to the world, for fear they’ll see it as knock against Windows. The blog post was buried on a site far from the mainstream. And when we asked Microsoft to discuss the situation, it declined—multiple times. But Microsoft’s embrace of Linux isn’t everything it might seem. It’s not, for instance, an indictment of Windows. It does demonstrate, however, in a wonderfully complete fashion, the power of open source.

“This is less about Microsoft and its talent,” says JR Rivers, the founder of a company called Cumulus Networks, which has worked with various Internet companies on similar projects, “and more about what everyone else in the world is doing.”

The computer servers that underpin most of Microsoft’s online services continue to run Windows. In fact, Microsoft has modified its flagship operating system in recent years so that it’s better suited to running software across dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of machines—so that it’s more, well, Linux-like. Today, at a conference in Chicago, the company will surely show off this new version of Windows, dubbed Windows Nano Server.

But to run an online empire, you need more than just servers. You need networking switches and other hardware that ties all those servers together. In recent years, as they’ve expanded their online services to unprecedented size, companies like Google and Facebook have realized that traditional networking hardware doesn’t cut it. Old-school gear from the likes of Cisco is too expensive and not nearly nimble enough for the task at hand. You can’t program it the way you can program desktop computers or servers. So Google and Facebook started building their own gear and loading it with their own software.

If Microsoft did put Windows on a switch, that would have involved significantly rebuilding the OS.

Microsoft faces a similar problem, and it too has built a new kind of software for its networking switches. It could have done this with Windows. And surely, it at least considered doing so. But that would’ve been enormously more difficult, says Rivers, of Cumulus Networks, which helps companies build networking gear more like the stuff that Google and Facebook use.

All the other companies that have built their own networking software, you see, have done so with Linux. That includes Facebook and Google. Networking vendors like Cumulus and Big Switch—which help businesses mimic Facebook and Google—use Linux, too. And the hardware manufacturers who build the gear for all these companies, including chip maker Broadcom, have fashioned low-level software for this gear that dovetails with Linux.

“If you’re a company like Broadcom, and you’re going to give Microsoft a little bit of software to help them out,” Rivers says, “you’re going to give them software that was developed in an environment that is foundationally Linux. You’re not going to develop it with Windows, because no one is using Windows for networking hardware.”

What’s more, Rivers explains, if Microsoft did put Windows on a switch, that would have involved significantly rebuilding the OS. “There’s all these little bits and pieces of software necessary to build a networking platform,” he says. “That software is embedded in Windows, but you can’t just pull it out and use it on its own. It’s part of Windows as a whole.” Building a new version of Windows for servers makes sense. (Lots of people and companies run Windows on servers.) But a new version for networking switches doesn’t. (No one runs Windows on switches.)

The only logical route for Microsoft is to build its networking software with Linux, too. Among other things, it can tap into the collective work of everyone else. In fact, that’s pretty much what Microsoft engineer Kamala Subramaniam said in her blog post. “Running on Linux,” she wrote, the company’s switch software can “make use of its vibrant ecosystem.”

In recent years, this ecosystem has grown particularly vibrant where networking is concerned. Facebook went so far as to open-source the designs of its switches, and it has openly discussed its networking architecture as a whole. Google, which pioneered this new breed of networking, is sharing at least some of its secrets as well. Now, unlike Google and Facebook, companies needn’t build their own hardware and software from scratch. They can feed off the designs and knowledge of those that have done it before.

This is what Microsoft is doing. It plays an active role in the Open Compute Project, the not-for-profit Facebook founded to facilitate this kind of sharing, and it’s working with the community to build a standard way of talking to this new breed of networking gear. The community uses Linux, so Microsoft must use Linux, too. That is the power of open source.

The kicker is that Microsoft isn’t just grabbing what others have done. It’s returning the favor, sharing its work with the larger community. “This is less about Microsoft running Linux,” says Doug Murray, the CEO of Big Switch, “and more about the movement as a whole.”

Also in Wired:

Sept. 30 2015 1:00 PM

Elon Musk’s Regret: Tesla’s New SUV Might Be a Little Too Good

Elon Musk will confess to just one regret about Tesla’s new Model X, the dazzling full-size luxury SUV that it unveiled to the public Tuesday night. “I think we got a little carried away,” he said. “There’s far more here than is really necessary to sell a car.”

As regrets go, it’s a rather self-flattering one, reminiscent of the unctuous job-seeker who cops to being “too much of a perfectionist” when asked about his greatest weakness. But in the Model X’s case, there’s actually something to it.

Packed with wild features like autopilot mode, gullwing—er, “Falcon Wing”—doors, and a “bioweapon defense” button, the X is an awful lot of vehicle. It comfortably seats as many as seven, thanks to a fully functional third seating row. An oversized windshield offers panoramic views of road and sky. Like its sedan sibling, the Model S, the X has a front trunk where the engine would normally go. The battery instead lies beneath the floor, giving it a center of gravity that should make it immune to the rollover problems that have plagued SUVs past. And like the Model S, it boasts almost unbelievable performance for an object of its size, rocketing from zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds (or 3.2 in the optional “ludicrous” mode).

In short, it looks like another blockbuster effort, destined to overturn preconceptions about electric cars and SUVs alike. (Remember when “electric car” was synonymous with “econo box” and “SUV” with “gas-guzzler?”)

All of which sounds fantastic, except for one thing: The Model X was never meant to require this much engineering, this much innovation. It was conceived as a sort of stopgap—a variant on the Model S that would buy Tesla some time to work toward its real goal: an all-new, third-generation sedan that normal people could afford. The Model X was originally supposed to ship way back in 2013, freeing the company to focus on the more important Model 3. And that was supposed to be possible because it was essentially just a Model S dressed up in an SUV’s clothing.

Model X doors
The Model X's "Falcon Wing" doors lift up before spreading out, to navigate tight parking spots.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Instead, it’s late 2015, and Tesla’s production of the Model X is just beginning. It sold the very first ones Tuesday night, but they were special “Founder Series” models built for a handful of A-list investors. The next batch will be the “Signature” editions that sell for $132,000. The company has not said when the sub-six-figure versions will be available, but suffice it to say you probably won’t get one this calendar year. When they are, they’re likely to cost as much as, if not a little more than, comparable trim lines of the Model S, which starts at $70,000.

Meanwhile, the company’s target release date for the Model 3 is now 2017, and it still has a long way to go to achieve that. (I’ve written in the past about the immense challenges involved.)

The upshot is that Tesla has spent three years building a vehicle that does nothing to broaden the market for its vehicles beyond the ultra-luxury segment. Sure, there are probably some buyers who will opt for a Model X over another top-end SUV, like a Range Rover, Porsche Cayenne, or Mercedes GL-Class. But many others will likely be committed Tesla buyers deciding between an X and an S.

Worse, the attention paid to the X’s groundbreaking design, gee-whiz gadgetry, and gobsmacking performance could solidify the popular image of Tesla’s vehicles as status symbols for our new tech overlords. It’s a fine image for a luxury brand. But it’s less than ideal for a mission-driven startup that has positioned itself as an underdog disruptor while relying heavily on government tax breaks.

Musk has firmly maintained from the start that the company’s luxury vehicles are a mere means to another end: building the $35,000 Model 3 and taking electric vehicles mainstream. I don’t doubt that he’s sincere in that commitment, and I think the attacks on Tesla as a government-subsidized toy for the rich are off-base. But the Model X might have better served that goal had the company spent a little less time and money trying to justify its existence.  

Now, with all that said: The experience of driving a Tesla—with its ghostly quiet engine, sleek design, radically spacious interior, ground-hugging handling, and otherworldly acceleration—has a way of making one forget to quibble.