Several years ago, I helped develop some software that integrates and monitors certain business processes. We chose to use Linux-based systems because of some key free and open source software that allowed us to put together a sophisticated and comprehensive software platform.
So often, the defense of Linux involves a price argument. More important than the free price is the freedom Linux and other GPL software represent. Lately, I have noticed a lot of bloggers disparaging Linux-based operating systems for all kinds of reasons, from aesthetics to business strategies.
Of these, Linux Hater’s blog stood above the rest, and though his criticisms are generally valid, he completely misses the mark. Though we should never avoid holding Linux-based operating systems to the same standards as proprietary platforms, we must recognize that any shortcomings are minor in the context of all of the successes of Linux and open source software.
We Need Linux
Linux and GPL-type free and open source software are welcome and normal reactions to a culture that remains generally oblivious to the consequences of proprietary technology. Most culturally significant geeks speak fondly of hacking gadgets and software in the dawn of the Information Age, but a lot of what was normal then is against federal law now. Just as we have seen the nearly unbelievable consolidation of just about every other industry, we now see some of the same players trying to lock customers out of products by design, technology and legislation.
GNU and Linux are essential to repelling this notion of complete privatization wherein developers would presumably have to pay royalties to use software development tools, if they were even available to lone programmers. The world of ubiquitous proprietary software looks disturbingly like broadcast media when you put it all in place.
Rather than the latest frontier for the Marketplace of Ideas, if closed-source commercial software actually killed off FOSS, the Internet would effectively be cable TV. This model has worked really effectively for powerful market participants, and they’re eager to get the Web under control and employing a more familiar revenue model in place of the prevailing ad hoc anarchy.
Ignorance Is Ignorant
I empathize and/or agree with many of the allegations and complaints of critics inside and outside the Linux community, but I’m somewhat astounded that people who seem so otherwise clever overlook the key idea of this whole exercise.
The GNU General Public License has provided an alternative to the status quo, which is hopelessly infatuated with this idea that ignorance is bliss. Rather than having good ideas stolen and privatized, the copyleft GPL makes sharing the rule. Whether you’re distributing it or writing software to hook into it, you are legally compelled to distribute your source code as well. There are ways around the spirit of the GPL and other open source platforms that accommodate proprietary software, but the GPL and Linux play essential roles in ensuring tomorrow’s geeks aren’t stuck telling stories about writing Facebook widgets.
The user interface and apps may not be as polished as OS X, but a lot of Linux-based programs are well done enough to be viable alternatives to commercial software for users who don’t have a lot of money to spend on after-market software.
Moreover, another key element of Linux and open source software is that more users mean interest and more demand. It’s easy to identify fledgling free and open source software projects, but objective observation and assessment of Linux-based software over the past three, five and 10 years clearly point to significant forward progress.
Today’s users complain about Linux-based operating systems because they expect a high-quality user experience. The operating system that is on the one hand disparaged as being an illegitimate hobbyist platform is simultaneously judged by the same standards as the top commercial operating system, and it is on the same playing field — clearly not as refined, but definitely competitive in features.
Rather than rattling off deficiencies, providing specific feedback would be a more constructive use of time and keystrokes. To that end, the open source landscape is littered with abandoned software projects, not altogether unlike the commercial software world. This can be a real nuisance, but unlike with commercial software, you can arbitrarily continue developing open source software projects (or fork them, of course, at your own risk).
Depending on your needs, you can modify the software to be custom for your organization or release it back to the general public with your changes and updates. The GPL model admittedly presents challenges for some businesses and developers that produce proprietary software, but it more than compensates by creating a collection of software that is always growing in both size and sophistication.
When observed from the standpoint of being a completely free and open source operating system that has gone from a kernel-less mishmash of programs to a stable, feature-rich platform that is used by a significant percentage of domestic servers and international desktops, one sees critics attacking straw men. Frankly, open source software is bigger than GPL, and all kinds of open source software has benefitted businesses large and small.
When the Linux Hater’s blog rails about meta community quirks and legitimate software issues, it seems almost like a (perhaps obsessed) fellow traveler, but when detractors criticize open source generally, as if it’s some sort of homogenous group, I take pause. That sort of talk makes me wonder if they’re even offering earnest tirades.
Jeremiah T. Gray is a LinuxInsider columnist, software developer, sysadmin and technology entrepreneur. He is a director of Intarcorp, publisher of the Linux-oriented educational comic book series, “Hackett and Bankwell.”