Editor's Note: Defending Values
Oct 06, 2006, 22:30 (26 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)
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By Brian Proffitt
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
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
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
"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
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
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.