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Editor's Note: Defining Success

Apr 28, 2006, 23:30 (22 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

I just witnessed a subtle, yet interesting, division in the Linux community this week. Or, should I say, the Open Source community. To be honest, the indecision about what community was involved highlights precisely the division I observed.

The catalyst for this division was none other than the announcement from the Desktop Linux Summit that Linspire is planning to offer, alongside their commercial offering of the same name, community-oriented versions of the Linspire distro to be known as Freespire. One flavor of Freespire (which I will call Freespire/Free) will be a all-open source, Debian-flavored distro, the kind you could take home to meet your parents, especially if your dad was one Ricard Stallman.

The other flavor of Freespire (Freespire/Prop) is nearly the same, except it includes certain proprietary codecs and applications that allow users to take advantage of some features not currently available to Linux users, such as US-legal DVD playback. (Actually, only the cheap or free proprietary code will be bundled in Freespire/Prop. For the good stuff like DVD playback, it'll cost users an extra fee.)

Right away, the detractors came out and denounced the existence of Freespire/Prop, and even Freespire/Free in some circles. This, they said or wrote, was an anathema to the very idea of freedom. Linspire was just out to make a buck on the backs of all the hard working, freedom-loving open source developers out there. One writer even wrote if he were going to use proprietary software, he might as well use Windows or Mac OS X.

My knee-jerk smart-aleck reaction was: Really? You'd actually stop using Linux and pay Microsoft or Apple money to use their security-hole-ridden operating systems? Interesting set of priorities.

When I settled down, it was these priorities, I realized, where the division lay. For some of us, it is more important to see open source and free software succeed. For others, it is more important to see the Linux operating system succeed. These differing priorities have put parts of the community at odds with each other over Freespire.

It is plain to see that these priorities don't have to be mutually exclusive. Indeed, they cannot be. If free software succeeds, then it is clear that Linux will succeed along with it. And vice versa. But it seems there are those in the community that want their ultimate goal achieved regardless of what it costs to the "other side."

This is where I found myself on Tuesday, reading the public and private admonishments of Linspire's plan, amazed that so much rancor had been stirred up. Linux was being polluted, it seemed, by mercenary commercial interests using proprietary software.

I find that curious. Do people honestly think IBM is working with Linux out of a sense of altruism? That they really don't want to make money using Linux? And when did it become a crime to run proprietary apps on Linux? Are we demanding new Linux business users, who might have their own home-grown applications, to port to Linux and open source their applications' code, too? No, we're not. So why must we demand it of Freespire?

This is not intended to be a defense of the Freespire project, whatever flavor. But I thought it necessary to point out that what Linspire is doing is fundamentally no different than what any other commercial Linux company does. This is just the path they took. And we are all free to follow that path or not follow it. If Linspire and Freespire/Prop have licensed closed software and you don't like it, then don't use them. Don't recommend these distros to others, since it's users outside of the Linux community who are the real target user base for Linspire and Freespire, not us. Let it succeed or fail without you.

There are some in the community who believe that Linux should succeed; not just open source and free software. They do not think that running a few proprietary apps here and there is not going to change the core technology of Linux. It hasn't yet.

Linspire thinks that it will even help build a more widespread adoption rate for Linux, which will aid Linux companies to start using their deployment leverage to start dismantling closed-source fortresses of code. Now, as perturbed as I am about the trash-talk, I have to admit that I'm not so sure about Linspire's big plan succeeding. Yes, wider adoption will give Linux more leverage, but I think if users have the proprietary tool working already, they may not care about getting that tool opened. Time will tell. In the meantime, I want that bigger server share. That bigger desktop share.

It's a near thing, but I tend to lean towards Linux succeeding a bit more than I want the world to be open sourced. For example, my good friend and colleague Steven Vaughan-Nichols just wrote that Vista would be fixed if it were open sourced. I agree with him, in that opening code is always beneficial to that code's quality. But I also disagree with him, because quite frankly I couldn't care a flying fig if Vista succeeds or not. Vista, like all of the Windows before, will not offer me the speed, flexibility, and security of Linux. Linux should be championed, not Vista. When Linux is broadly deployed, then I believe the world will truly see the value of open source and embrace it.

I think the success of Linux, OpenOffice.org, and Firefox will be what eventually wins people over to open source software. That's what I think the path should be. It's results that matter. And it's only going to be results that will get proprietary software vendors to start opening code.

So, which side is right? The good news is, I don't think that either side has to be wrong. The success of Linux and the success of open source are intertwined and should not be made separate. We do not live in a world of black and white. And one priority doesn't have to succeed at the expense of the other.

I understand the concerns people have about Freespire, even if I don't agree with those concerns 100 percent. But painting technological and commercial goals as black vs. white only is a non-constructive process. Because that's what this all boils down to: building and using a free operating system in a commercial framework. As soon as people started trying to make money using free Linux, this division was bound to crop up. Commercialism and idealism are always going to be at odds.

We just need to figure out how to balance their priorities, both methods and goals.