Frequently Asked Questions about Merlin

  1. Why build hardware for Merlin?
  2. Why don't you program it in C?
  3. Have you patented it?
  4. How will Merlin be sold?
  5. Won't hackers disable this system?
  6. How is the project financed?
  7. How can I help?
  8. You mean anybody will be able to use Merlin immediately with no training?

  1. Why build hardware for Merlin?
  2. This is a good question, exactly what people who are knowledgable about computers ask first about the project ( the second is "
    why don't you program it in C?" ). What makes Merlin unique is its software, yet a significant amount of the scarce manpower available has been used to build and debug hardware prototypes ( see the project's history ).

    When the project was started, there was simply no choice: a PC with 256K of RAM and floppies was US$3000 back then in the United States, several times that in Brazil ( thanks mostly to the "reserved market" policy ). Today, with cheap motherboards flowing in from Taiwan it would seem a good idea to simply sell Merlin as a set of disks to be installed in any PC. The start up costs of a software company are also far less than those of a hardware manufacturer.

    The reason why the Merlin project still includes hardware is that it is designed for computer novices. An integrated solution is Apple's main selling point today. In many environments the end user must install and maintain their computers without expert help.

    It has often been pointed out that a software-only Merlin would lower the cost of trying it out. This, however, also has its down side: it also lowers the cost of giving up - people are more prone to abandon OS/2 than the Amiga, for example ( yes - I know Commodore's fate and NeXT's situation ). Besides, it is only cheaper if someone already has the necessary hardware, but in that case they already have a software system that is meeting ( at least partially ) their needs. So this solution is most attractive to people who are unlikely to be Merlin customers. On the other hand, these "experts" are probably the ones who will advise the novices on their purchases and future Merlin programmers will most likely come from their ranks. So a 386 port of the system is planned.

    It is interesting to note that the question novices ask first about the project is "have you patented it yet?". They rarely have a clear notion about what software is and find it quite natural that a new computer is to be sold.

  3. Why don't you program it in C?
  4. Many people are surprised when they learn Merlin is being developed in Self and wonder if I don't know or don't like C. Actually, C is the language in which I have programmed the most so far, and the first release of tinySelf includes a lot of C code.

    While I like to use different languages for different tasks, Merlin was designed to be easily learned. This meant that a single language for all uses would be better. The language would have to be simple but extensible. It would also have to be very dynamic to cope with some of the requirements of the system.

    Just a few years ago the low level code would not have been possible in a pure object oriented language like Self, but the Self group has developed advances in compiler technology which have made this option practical.

  5. Have you patented it?
  6. No.

    I think that software should be protected by Copyright, not patents.

    The hardware designs were never patented either. While they have included some original ideas, it would surprise most people to know how little uniqueness there is even in designs "on a clean slate" like Merlin. The age of "chip-sets" has made computer design patents even less likely.

  7. How will Merlin be sold?
  8. It won't.

    The revenue from Merlin will come from a new system called "superdistribution" ( see articles by Brad Cox for more details ).

    The basic idea is that charging for each use, rather than for each copy, better matches the characteristics of software products. The objects might be distributed via the internet, on a free ( or cheap ) CD-ROM in a magazine, given away by a friend or any other conceivable way. The scheduler in the Merlin system will monitor the use of each object and create an encrypted "software bill". The user then connects to a payment agency every month ( or two months ) and the corresponding value is charged to his credit card. An encrypted "receipt" is loaded into the user's system and some objects might choose to check for its presence before executing.

    A central payment agency will eliminate most of the problems that shareware programs face ( problems which would be much worse in the case of superdistribution of nothing were done to solve them ). Many people fail to pay for shareware because it is terribly inconvenient and not because they are dishonest. Sending off three five dollar checks is more bother than most people are willing to put up with. If the authors are from a different country, things become much worse. The banks in Brazil charge 70 dollars to send any amount to South Africa, for example ( mailing money is illegal in both countries ). With a central agency the users can easily make a single payment and authors can receive a single check each month corresponding to thousands of users all over the world ( minus a small service charge for the agency, of course ). There might be several competing agencies, which would then collaborate with each other so the users could pay through any of them and the authors could register with any other.

    It is important to note that we have talked about the payment for the use of "objects", not "programs". These objects might be a text editor or a game, but they might also be a new font, a drawing, a text describing a rare species of fish, and so on.

  9. Won't hackers disable this system?
  10. This superdistribution system is very interesting, but doesn't it require special hardware to work?

    The only totally secure system would be to include special accounting hardware inside the CPU itself. Other hardware solutions, like that used in the superdistribution project, make breaking the system much harder, but not impossible. A software-only system is easier to defeat, but also much more convenient for the users.

    Given that many people will depend on the proper function of the accounting software in Merlin for the income, a solution called "continuous upgrade" was developed based on the ideas that:

    The real economic damage comes from the second group making their hacking available to part of the first group. With the continuous upgrade system, every time the users pay their monthly software bill they also automatically upgrade the accounting software to a new version. New objects (or upgraded versions) distributed in the net will only be compatible with recent versions of the accounting software, and will simply not work on a machine that has an old hacked system.

    Pirates would have to break a new version of the system each month, and then distribute this a others. This can't be done without risking detection, so is not very likely. This guarantees that the loss to authors due to illegal free use of their objects will be limited to some small fraction.

  11. How is the project financed?
  12. Currently, Merlin is being developed as a personal project - I am only able to work full time on it because my parents are helping me. There are no venture capitalists in Brazil, and banks are not a practical alternative with their fantastically high interest rates, but past partnerships (with Softec from 1986 to 1988 and with LSI/USP from 1989 to 1992) did improve the situation, a little. A loose collaboration with LSI/USP still allows things (like these pages) which would not otherwise be possible.

    It is not surprising that such an ambitious project is taking so long, given the limited resources. Things should get much better when Merlin is commercially available, which should "bootstrap" the project financially.

  13. How can I help?
  14. Ok, so nobody ever asks this question. But I'll bet that many people think it and are afraid to ask.

    While in the current phase of development there is little you can do to help except to send suggestions, the system is being designed to be as open as possible. On the first release of Merlin, ( scheduled for late January, 1996 ) a beta testing program will be initiated and the more people that participate, the better.

    With its reflective architecture, it will be very easy to replace any component. So not only will the development of applications for Merlin be welcome, but also alternate networking software, multimedia system, persistent stores and anything at all! Due to the revenue system adopted ( see selling Merlin ) the components developed by me will not be privileged in any way. This is the opposite of the Microsoft way where more and more parts are built-in to Windows making any user interested in third party solutions actually pay twice.

  15. You mean anybody will be able to use Merlin immediately with no training?
  16. Unfortunately, no.

    No one becomes a Master Magician without some studying. The idea in Merlin it to eliminate useless learning, of which there is a vast amount in today's computers. How does learning the difference between XMS and EMS memory help users in their daily tasks? It doesn't - it is only a silly obstacle in the path of more important things. But there are many things that must be learned to accomplish tasks that were impossible without a computer. Suppose you want to find out how to automatically color code your mail according to the sender - that requires useful learning.

    People used to say that in the future computers would be as easy to use as the telephone. But just try to install a phone with fax and voice mail and you will see that a no-training system is not here yet...

    Training tools will be developed for Merlin ( see the tutorial ), however, so it should be possible for a novice to use the system itself to learn how to make the most of the system.

see also:
| new3 | | intro | | faq | | history | | runtime | | tutorial | | tiny | | plan |
back to:
| merlin | | LSI | | USP |

please send comments to (Jecel Mattos de Assumpcao Jr), who changed this page on Nov 30, 00:12 .