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Editor's Note: Defending Values

Oct 06, 2006, 22:30 (26 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Boy, there's nothing like sitting down to your computer with a nice cup of tea, opening your browser and finding out that you're "morally bankrupt." Oh, sorry, my mistake. That's Red Hat and "a number of other Linux distros." I'm part of the "technical media who ignores the fact that your freedoms go down the tank by making these compromises."

Such were the words delivered by OpenBSD developer Bob Beck in a thread of an open letter to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project from OpenBSD founder Theo de Raadt posted out on the openbsd-misc mailing list yesterday afternoon. The "compromises" that de Raadt and Beck refer to is the decision by Red Hat, Inc.--in their work for the OLPC--to agree to a hardware vendor's non-disclosure agreement on the documentation of a hardware device driver needed for the OLPC platform.

The device at issue is Marvell's 88W8388, a wireless chip. The OLPC, according to de Raadt, needs Marvell to customize the driver so the OLPC device will handle "low-power mesh networking while the main CPU is powered off." Apparently, Marvell would only agree to do this if Red Hat, the operating system vendor, would agree to an NDA on the device's documentation. The net result of this is the OLPC gets the necessary device driver (as well as Red Hat, though we don't know if Marvell has licensed it for use beyond the OLPC), but no one on the outside, such as the OpenBSD Project, can get a glimpse at the documentation.

de Raadt is not the only one complaining about this; Richard Stallman has also sent a letter to the OLPC that essentially agrees with de Raadt's. In his open letter, de Raadt chastises Red Hat for agreeing to Marvell's stipulations all in the name of business.

"When large players like you make such private agreements with such secretive vendors, you work against our common goals of getting more open documentation for devices," de Raadt wrote.

For the most part, de Raadt is absolutely correct. NDAs, proprietary licenses, and the like are counter-productive to the cause of free software. Here's where he and his followers, lose me:

"I've heard claims that you (OLPC members, Red Hat employees) think this relationship with Marvell will eventually prompt/teach them to be more open in time. Do you not realize how much of a delusion the history of free/open operating systems shows that point of view to be? Very few chip vendors have ever opened up unless they were pushed," de Raadt stated.

Pushing vendors may have gotten a few to cave and open driver documentation, of that I have no doubt, but I also wonder how many vendors would be participating as open partners if they'd been encouraged by the opportunity to generate more business? More, or less? I'm willing to bet more, but de Raadt seems to be under the impression that anyone dealing with free software had better automatically be free themselves.

And yes, in an ideal world, that would be absolutely wonderful. But that's not why businesses make decisions. Businesses who own software make decisions about that software based on the rules of business, law, and common sense. Public companies are even more tightly bound by the legal and moral obligation to benefit shareholders.

This is not an apologetic for Red Hat, or any corporation, though I am sure some will accuse me of that. I have stated what my personal views on Red Hat's decision--but I would be remiss as a journalist and as a member of this community if I didn't point out the reality in which we are all dealing. The sad but simple truth is, a vast majority of vendors aren't getting into Linux because they want to be Free. They are coming in because they see an opportunity to build new business in a more efficient way (i.e., without the "Microsoft overhead").

My point is made by the fact that thus far, vendors have been voting with their feet: they have been coming to Linux as opposed to *BSD, Solaris, or one of the other Unixes. No one's holding a metaphorical gun to their head. Linux is simply the better deal.

de Raadt's argument does serve a valid warning: Linux may indeed be the most attractive operating system out there, but as we are flush with success, are we letting vendors take advantage of us and corrupt the very values we hold dear? After all, if it's good for business does not mean it is good for all.

I see validity in both sides of this argument, but I have to say I prefer the more moderate approach of the Linux vendors and developers. Thus far, it's done pretty well, both in terms of commercial and community success.

But I must also be completely honest with you: I am beginning to have my doubts. I think the words of the the OpenBSD developers should serve as a cautionary. We should not let any corporation dictate our collective value system, and if enough people agree with deRaadt and not with me, Red Hat should be reminded of that.

Because that's one of the real powers of free software development: voting with your feet.