Open Source vs. Proprietary Software, and ESR

It's funny, about a year ago, I wrote a rather lengthy article about how annoyed I was that Eric Raymond, didn't think GPL-style licensing was necessary anymore in favor of more BSD-style, public domain type licensing... and now I find myself seeing his latest statements to be some of the few reasonable opinions out there. Don't get me wrong, I still stand by the fact that GPL and LGPL type licensing is still very much necessary, however now there are new topics to discuss.

His statements lately are that the Linux world needs to wake up and realize that as great as open source development is, we can't pretend like proprietary software doesn't exist. Unfortunately, at the moment, we still need quite a few components in our Linux distros, that have no viable open alternatives currently.

This is the logical middle ground that many Linux users agree with, but few mention because as in all things, it's the extremists who always talk the loudest.

Let me just first say that I love open source and everything it stands for. I wish all the software out there was open source, however that's just not the way it is. One thing to remember is that one of the biggest advantages in the open source world is the concept of choice. However, many forget that choice also entails that people can choose to release proprietary software too. For now, a mixture is the way to go. Now, most of this going to be geared towards GNU/Linux based operating systems, but it can apply in other areas as well.

The Linux community says it wants the common computer user to start using it and other open source software, but their not willing to make the compromises necessary to make it happen. Groups like the Free Software Foundation and Debian have the mindset that you should refuse to use anything that's not based off open source/free software, but that's just not feasable at the moment. Linux can be a very easy to use, friendly, yet very powerful operating system. But, a large portion of the content that people want to use their computers for are based off of closed/proprietary components. There are thousands of audio and video files out there that are only available in a proprietary codec such as Mp3, WindowsMedia or Quicktime. And if you're running Linux you have two options. Either A. use a reverse-engineered codec that might work sometimes, might not others, and almost never at the same quality as the original proprietary one, or B. use the proprietary codecs. For most, the choice is simple... either stay absolutist and for go most of the multimedia content available to you, or enjoy your content and get over it. As the people willing to boycott this content is an extremely small minority, this mindset accomplishes nothing. If there were a considerable number of users willing to do without; say about 15% or more of the entire desktop PC user market, then it might inspire change but right now, it's hurting our cause overall more than it is helping.

When we try to convince current Windows or MacOS users to switch to Linux or any other open source operating system...they're going to want to know that they can continue to watch all their videos and listen to all of their music they currently enjoy. When we have to stop and explain the current complex situations our stubbornness is causing, it makes them question the possibility of switching even more than they would have before.

The same thing goes for certain hardware drivers. If someone has an nVidia or ATI video card, and they want any decent 3D hardware support, then their only current feasible option is to use the proprietary codecs. However, once again, many distributions do not install them by default, thus making a new user feel like Linux is incapable of the same 3D graphical performance they've experienced on their machine in Windows.

These codecs are interesting though in that the manufacturers have gone out of their way to make sure they work on Linux systems and integrate with the kernel properly. These codecs may be proprietary, but they are freely redistributable, so there's nothing holding distros from releasing them with their systems by default. In the case of video codecs it is not so simple. Most of the solutions available to play proprietary multimedia codecs under Linux are in questionable grey areas as far as legality go, so of course no one would want to get into legal troubles just for these codecs. However, there is still another option, the companies that make these codecs are all willing to make them legally available if the distro developers were willing to make the proper arrangements.

A company named Fluendo recently licensed the rights to release a free, legal codec for Mpeg/Mp3 multimedia files for any Linux distro. Any distro that wants to include Mp3 support out of the box now can, yet there are still some who won't because it's a proprietary codec. A few distros like Linspire/Freespire are taking a proactive route on this issue though. They have gone the extra mile to make sure they can legally include support for things like Quicktime, WindowsMedia files and encrypted DVDs. They also include all the proprietary drivers, as well as Java and Flash. Flash, once again...while proprietary is freely distributable, but many distros still choose not to.

Java is a very interesting case as Sun has announced that they plan to make it open source within the course of the next year. This is good because there is a large number of programs developed in it, and things like GCJ just don't cut it when it comes to speed and quality.

It's not surprising to me that E.S.R. is an advisor for Freespire now with their pragmatic middle ground stance. I for one fully intend on giving it a shot in the near future. I've always heard nothing but negative comments from people about Linspire (once called Lindows) from all of the other Linux users I know, but I think it's time to find out for myself. With this realization and the fact they now have a community driven, free edition I think it's time. However, since they've only released an initial offering that doesn't vary much from prior versions of Linspire, I think I will wait for their upcoming 2.0 release this spring.

For now I'll stick with Ubuntu, and continue to jump through hoops just so I can use my computer the way I want to... If only they would take a similar approach maybe they'd be able to make greater strides against their so called "Bug #1".

Update: I just found an Ubuntu derivative called "Linux Mint", which is basically just Ubuntu plus Flash, Sun Java, and all the proprietary codecs (including DVD) built-in by default. This seems great, but most likely it's still in that questionable legal grey area and just being hosted from a country that doesn't care about things as much as places like the US do...