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Editor's Note: Whose Rules, Free or Proprietary?

Feb 09, 2007, 23:30 (29 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Apparently, lot of people are thrilled with the whole idea of Canonical and Linspire's technology partnership announced yesterday, citing source code consolidation, non-redundant development efforts, and just good karma about the whole deal.

I, for one, am not one of those people.

Initially, my big problem was worry for the Debian Project. Under the terms of the new partnership (which, for the purposes of this article I will deem "Linbutu" because I am getting lazy in my middle age), the Linspire and Freespire distributions will be based on Ubuntu, not Debian GNU/Linux. Ubuntu, in turn, gets supported access to Linspire's Click n' Run (CNR) install/update toolset.

It sounds like great synergy, doesn't it? And it is. From a business standpoint, I think this is one of those matches made in heaven and I would not be surprised if we actually do see a "Linbutu" distribution for real some day. For now, just the partnership seems like a win-win for everyone.

But out of the gate, my first thought was this seemed like a huge vote of no-confidence for the Debian Project. Again.

For instance, the whole Dunc-Tank plan, where Debian developers tried to raise funding for some of the release managers could get paid and thus could work more on their projects and get them out in a more timely manner, seemed like a good idea at the time. But several developers did not share that opinion, and when Dunc-Tank went forward after a Project vote approved the idea, there were boycotts that ended up delaying the next release of Debian (Etch) anyway. Etch was supposed to be released in December 2006, and now there's talk that it won't go live until March 2007.

Based on that, and Debian's historical tendency to run late, I could not help but cynically wonder if the move by Linspire to an Ubuntu code base was an effort to just get to a code base that had a more predictable schedule.

Oh, but my cynicism had yet to start, and I got concerned about a lot more than the health of the Debian Project.

By separating itself from Debian proper, Linspire not only gets the advantage of less chaotic source of code, but it gets the added advantage of the community that's built up around Ubuntu. I don't mean that suddenly Ubuntu coders will drop what they are doing and go code for Linspire; but what may happen is that suddenly a lot of the anti-proprietary vitriol that's been lobbed at Linspire will die down a bit. Because it would be a bit hard for the Ubuntu folk to toss such accusations around now.

But make no bones about it; the real PR winner in this partnership is going to be Canonical. By throwing in with Linspire, they get more exposure to the slowly-growing desktop Linux market, they get the CNR technology, and they get a blessing from the Linux community for "going proprietary." In recent months, whenever someone from Canonical mentioned that there would be proprietary software available in Ubuntu 7.04 and beyond, there was quite a bit of squawking about it... but never enough to really worry Canonical. The company's street cred amongst its community is huge--more than enough to handle the occasional disgruntled freedom-loving developer who, at worst, would just go back to the Debian Project.

Now? Now the situation is different. In one swoop, Canonical has thrown in with the "props" crowd that is so prevalent in the open source community these days. No more hints anymore, they are now committed to "proprietary is okay." By doing so arm in arm with Linspire, they just gained an ally that has--thus far--effectively countered the "all Free/all the time" arguments.

Like I said, it's a win-win--for them.

The "props" movement within open source has most recently been codified in Eric S. Raymond in a DesktopLinux article posted on Linux Today earlier today.

"I know [there's a] camp that thinks allowing proprietary codecs into Linux distros will corrupt our vital bodily fluids or something. My view is we need to get majority market share so we can crush the proprietary codecs out of existence. If that requires a temporary compromise, I'm for it," Raymond said. It should be noted that Raymond himself has been a member of the Freespire Leadership Board since last September.

But in all of the celebration about how brilliant Linbutu is, am I the only one who's wondering if this may not be such a good idea?

Linux, as we all know, is superior technology than most anything to come out of Redmond in recent years. It is free as in beer and Free as in Freedom, and reflects all that is good about the creativity of humanity. And yet I worry that if it goes down this road of inclusiveness with proprietary software too much more, it may find itself relegated to a field of OS also-rans that tried and failed against the Microsoft juggernaut.

Before you jump on me, I am not channeling Richard Stallman today. While his arguments that Free Software is a moral imperative are noble and attractive, I do not share them. At the end of the day, software is a tool for me, and I will use the tools that do the work I need. My preference is to use Free and Open tools. But it's not a moral line for me.

No, I am going to make this argument based not on hifalutin moral stances--this one's going to be as pragmatic as they come.

One of the things that drives Microsoft absolutely nuts is the fact that Linux is Free. Because it's Free, they have discovered, you can't kill Linux. There's no one to sue, nothing to buy... heck, there's not even a crazy corporate executive to vilify in the media. Not only that, the very Freedom of Linux and its constituent applications becomes a selling point on its own. I, for instance, could not code anything to save my life, but the fact that Linux is Free appeals to me because I know there's no way Linux will ever be unsupported or abandoned. Freedom, from a very real and tangible business standpoint, is a good thing.

But if the Free nature of Linux gets more diluted, I am concerned that suddenly one of our best defensive and offensive weapons will get marginalized. Proprietary software can be bought. Or sued. And, because of its license, proprietary software is usually not lower-case free, either. Which means the price-point of commercial Linux distributions that include it will go up or not be able to ever really go to zero. (Another Linux advantage that could be lost.)

Linspire, and now Canonical, are arguing that the ends justifies the means. Get enough users on board and the hardware and software vendors will be writing Free and Open code so fast Linux developers won't be able to keep up with it. I hope they're right, but it honestly seems unlikely. I don't see any incentive to write Open software if Linux desktop share goes up, not if the proprietary code was allowed in the first place. Sure, they'll write more code if the market share climbs, but what incentive would they have to make that code Free if some Linux distros have been letting in the proprietary stuff already? If one distro maintainer says I can't come in until I open my code, I'll just go to another one that will let me keep my code closed.

I don't think that all of this signifies the End of Linux. But it may be a transition point--the end of Linux as we know it now. We shall see. Good-faith efforts on the part of the commercial distros to really get those vendors to cough up free code will help. Projects like the kernel developers offering to write driver code gratis are a plus as well.

My fear is this: the more like Windows Linux becomes, the better Microsoft will be able to handle Linux on their terms, not ours. Let's keep playing by our rules, not Redmond's.