Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Linux Action Show's Host to Produce Non-free Software

So I'm a regular listener of the Linux Action Show, a podcast devoted to news and commentary about -- you guessed it -- Linux.  The "action" part of the show is that they talk loudly.  For the most part I've always found the show to be interesting and insightful without being overly preachy, as Linux advocasy often is.  Essentially: Linux is good but needs work and we can put up with a few proprietary drivers even though we hate them.  Knowing of the show's pragmatic stance on free software, it still came as quite a shock when co-host Bryan Landuke recently announced that he is going to be producing commercial, closed-source applications exclusively for Linux.

By no means do I subscribe to the FOSS evangelist "philosophy" perpetrated by Richard Stallman.  In fact, I rather enjoy poking fun at it.  But there is one area where I do believe that FOSS values are not only appropriate, but necessary: free operating systems.  Linux, of course, being one of them.

The hosts of the Linux Action Show have long held the belief that in order for Linux to become "mainstream", it has to look right.  I agree with this wholeheartedly.  If a Linux distribution doesn't look as professional and asthetically pleasing as its commercial competition then the mainstream consumer is not going choose it over a proprietary system.  Another idea often emphisised by the Linux Action Show is that Linux is lacking high quality consumer / end user applications.  This I also tend to agree with.  Aside from a few shining examples like, many Linux applications are very lacking in ease of use, documentation, and overall visual appeal.   Great, so these guys are on the same page as me and they're all ramped up to actually do something about it!

The solution?  Make more proprietary, non-free, closed-source applications for Linux that look really nice.

ZZZZzzzttt!  Hold it right there.  This makes no sense.  I actually had to rewind the podcast a little bit to make sure I was hearing things right.  I was.  Unfortunately.  

After hearing Bryan's entire spiel about the two applications he'll be launching (some kind of e-readers...I don't really do much e-reading) I quit listening and almost decided to go unsubscribe from the podcast.  Then I realized that unsubscribing would involve work, and that unsubscribing from a podcast to convey my righteous dismay was about as lame as starting an internet petition to save the world from global warming, so I decided to remain a listener.  (not to mention it's like the only quality Linux show left now that LUG Radio called it quits)

The problems with Bryan's assertion that Linux needs more commercial applications are many.  Let's think about this.

It is true that the state of desktop computing today has a lot to do with commercial vendors licensing closed applications as a business model.  A paid software engineer will produce more code than a non-paid one, and the money has to be made somehow, right?

Well, yeah, but that's besides the point.  Windows did not become the market force it is today because a whole bunch of developers decided that they would make money by licensing software on Windows.  This egg comes before the chicken.  Developers chose Windows because Microsoft made it into the gorilla it has always been by sheer business force.  Windows is where the customers are, and that's why it's where the developers are.

Producing closed-source commercial programs on Linux to demonstrate that it can be done successfully in the hopes that others will follow suit is fatally flawed.  As we just implied, Linux doesn't have the market share to support a large number of niche closed-source developers, so all that will be proven is that it can't be done.  But just for fun, let's assume that Bryan does pull it off, and he sells enough copies of ones and zeros to pull in the necessary income to replace a regular W2 job in the industry (assuming this number is in the range of $60-100K for a man in his 30s, plus enough to cover the self-employment tax burden... that's a lot of shareware to sell).  What will this do for Linux?

It will do absolutely nothing for Linux except, perhaps, gain it a few properietary niche applications.  Will anyone switch to Linux because they can buy a comic book reader for it?  I think not.  Even if Adobe released its entire Creative Suite on Linux it still wouldn't make people switch.

OOOh, I can almost hear your grunts and groans!  But I'm right.  The person who would switch from Windows to Linux because Creative Suite ran on Linux is somebody who is ALREADY RUNNING LINUX.  That person just also happens to be running Windows or OSX too.

To be frank, Linux is not as polished or easy to use as Windows or Mac OSX.  The devil is in the details, and while some Linux distributions like Ubuntu work great overall, it's the little things that hurt.  Why don't those extra buttons on my laptop do anything?  Why isn't my wireless card working?  Why is it so hard to use a projector?  Why the hell are all the fonts so damn big?  Which of my smart-ass younger relatives can I call when I suddenly can't change my desktop resolution?

No, Linux's value is not in its polish, that's Mac OSX.  Linux's value is not in its giant install base, that's Windows.  Linux's value is that it's free.  Free as in beer and free as in libre.  I can install Linux almost anywhere, for any reason, without having to worry about licenses or activation schemes.  I can use my Linux applications freely knowing that in general they support open standards, have long lifespans, aren't tied to a specific machine, and don't force me to upgrade every six months.  That is the value of Linux, which is the value of FOSS itself.

Nobody is going to make the switch to Linux because they can buy more commercial software for it.  They're already getting their properietary operating systems for "free" with the machines they buy anyhow, and they have no trouble buying commercial software for them.  Adding commercial software to Linux won't fulfill any real need. 

And what happens if Bryan's plan does work, and work better than he ever dreamed?  What if we had scores of closed-source applications on Linux making Linux more comparable to Windows or OSX?  What would we have gained?  Better DRM support?  Less control over our data?  Applications that phone home to activate?  Fun and exciting commercial EULAs?  Wait, why were we using Linux in the first place?

Here's a suggestion, Bryan:  create awesome looking, feature-rich applications for Linux and give them away, source and all.  Pick a modern business model that doesn't involve artificial restrictions and show us how you can make money at it.  Show us that open-source software doesn't have to suck because we aren't paying for a license.  This would impress me.  This would be good for Linux.  

Until then, I'll be self-righteously thinking about unsubscribing from your show every time you mention your plan, but then not actually unsubscribing.  (It's my protest and I can conduct it on any scale I choose, thank you very much.)


Anonymous said...


This certainly makes a good point. I'd like to see the response of others on this topic. Thanks a lot for sharing it.

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CDC-EX said...

Get off your ass and start writing more why-i-dont-like...

You are the Andy Rooney of software. said...

This won't succeed as a matter of fact, that's exactly what I consider.