The Proprietary Software/Linux Conundrum

Tuesday Jun 23rd 2009 by Matt Hartley
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Can proprietary software/driver modules find a home in an open source platform that was designed to be the complete opposite?

For most people, computing comes down accomplishing their daily tasks with as much time saved and cost efficiency as possible.

There are also users (such as myself) who want to know that the applications we use are running code that is not locked in by any one company. This gives us freedom of choice.

Where things tend to go wrong, however, is that we do not live in a world where Open Source software and mainstream needs are always on the same page. No matter how much I might wish that everything could just be Open Source, sometimes the issue is a bit more complicated than it seems on the surface.

Proprietary code on an open platform.

Open Source software enthusiasts will tell you that if you open up the proprietary Pandora's box onto an Open Source platform such as desktop Linux, you're playing with fire.

For instance, listening to music. The end user could choose to convert their CD collection to Ogg Vorbis if they want a music jukebox experience on their desktop. And on the video driver front, just how important is that 3D desktop really?

All a person needs to do is use the default video drivers instead of "infecting" their system with problematic proprietary video drivers. Clearly, this is the smoothest approach to a stable desktop Linux experience.

But is this also providing a practical experience as well?

Exploring this further: Let's say you own CDs, have a full understanding of how to rip music from the CDs to Ogg Vorbis or FLAC and have something portable to play your music on that works with Ogg Vorbis. Then you're in good shape.

If, however, you're someone using a Linux distro, own an iPod and have all of your music in iTunes, then going with open formats might not be practical.

While this might sound incredibly trivial to you, realize that for someone who has spent tremendous amounts of money on music locked up in a DRM prison, this really puts a damper on being able to enjoy their media on a Linux desktop.

Then there is also the issue of ease of use. Clearly not being locked into a proprietary application sounds attractive, but is it really easier to convert other people to using the same software you are in order to select Open Source software over that of a proprietary nature?

Is easier truly better?

Skype vs Ekiga – which is actually easier to use?

This is one of my favorite examples of using open vs. closed source software as it hits close to home for me personally. I have been using Ekiga since the days it was known as Gnomemeeting. Ekiga has always served me well as my preferred VoIP client for quite some time now.

However, once Skype came to Linux I found that I was suddenly not using Ekiga as often anymore.

The problem was that Skype has a massive adoption rate among all three major platforms, whereas Ekiga does not. And despite Skype having some issues early on with video, PulseAudio, etc, it's what most people are using for VoIP communications on the other two major platforms these days.

Unfortunately, I found that it takes a bit of research to understand how PulseAudio best works with Skype. Ekiga on the other hand, does a much better job working with PulseAudio out of the box. Yet back on the flip side of the coin, Ekiga's UI is not as familiar as Skype's.

To make matters worse, voicemail was bit confusing for those few users that I did convince to switch over to Ekiga on other platforms.

Next Page: Proprietary software at home in Open Source World?

The biggest issue was the end user getting their head around SIP voicemail on Ekiga. With Skype, voicemail just works once it's subscribed to. With Ekiga, however, voicemail availability depends on your SIP provider providing it and how you are then alerted to new messages.

So even though I believe that Ekiga can provide a more stable user experience, it loses to Skype due to the fact that most people are not going to join you in using it.

Proprietary software at home in Open Source World?

Can proprietary software/driver modules find a home in the heart of a platform that was designed to be the complete opposite?

Yes, but not without compromise. Despite the belief that we as a society are ready to move on beyond proprietary code, the fact of the matter is most people are not going to go along with such a notion unless the process comes with a near seamless experience for them as end users.

"Joe Average" wants their computer to serve them, not the other way around. So rather than trying to pitch Open Source products as some religious experience, I think the Open Source community will continue seeing success with the biggest motivator of all – cost savings. Not just in software, but in avoiding the ongoing need to purchase new hardware just to keep up with the latest and greatest.

If having some proprietary code involved in an otherwise Open Source platform is what it takes to help the masses enjoy the benefit of desktop Linux, so be it. For those who are opposed to catering to the masses, I have great news...there are distros that cater to the "purist" point of view. You are not locked into using a distribution that goes against your software philosophy.

One thing I believe all of us can agree on is that the divide between purist-driven distributions and those distros seeking to attract a more "mainstream following" is growing. Whether or not this creates bigger issues in the development of this platform down the road, still remains to be seen.

Regardless, I remain hopeful that we can keep the lines of communication open between the two camps rather than allowing anger, frustration and bickering to further drive a wedge down the middle of issues that I do not see changing anytime soon.

ALSO SEE: Free Download: 100 Open Source Apps for Windows

AND: Does the Linux Desktop Innovate Too Much?

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