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Editor’s Note: Defining Success

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.