Linux Shedding Indie Status is a Good Thing

by Ostatic Staff - Apr. 21, 2010

Having watched people advocate the Linux desktop for more than 10 years, it's always surprising to see the same people arguing against the things that will help bring Linux (and software freedom) to a larger audience. But like the fanboys who pine for the days before indie bands went to major labels, there's a loud minority in the Linux community protesting the commercial offerings that come along with success.

Take for example Bruce Byfield, who complains in his review of Fedora 13 about the "troubling" addition of free software from corporate interests. Specifically the Zarafa collaboration suite and GNOME's Déjà Dup, which can back up user files to Amazon S3.

Here's Byfield's complaint with the inclusion in Fedora of these packages:

For many users, including me, one of the features of the free desktop is its absence of commercialization. You may see an Oracle logo when booting, but you do not see heavily branded applications or wizards. Or, if you do, the brands are for free software projects.

Now, with Fedora adding links to Amazon S3 and Zarafa (and Ubuntu to UbuntuOne and its new music store), the two most popular Linux distributions are changing. Instead of being a refuge from commercialization, they are becoming new venues for it.

Byfield further complains that the tenuous ties to commercial services are "are a jarring intrusion into a world that we have come to take for granted."

Maybe for users who enjoy doing things the hard way and using a desktop system that hasn't been able to crack double-digit market share. For those of us who want to use a free desktop to get work done it's a welcome addition to the community. For those of us who advocate the free desktop to friends and family who not only don't want to hassle with their systems but also lack the technical skills to do so, seeing Zarafa and Déjà Dup in Fedora is a great thing.

I'm not arguing that all commercial features are good for the community or the users. But after more than a decade of lobbying companies to support Linux, it's amazing to then see people complaining about their involvement or interest. Fedora's offense? Linking to corporate services that users can opt to use.

Zarafa is "open core" software, so its appearance in Fedora means that it might lead to some non-free software. However, what's in Fedora is strictly open source. The software that is in Fedora represents a net increase in the amount of open software, and is therefore a good thing. Arguing that Fedora or other community distros should only accept software if it's part of a non-commercial offering with no proprietary services in sight is myopic. All that will accomplish is decreasing the companies interested in investing in open source.

The packages Byfield complains about do nothing to decrease the freedom or quality of Fedora. They do nothing to impinge on his enjoyment of the Fedora desktop except exist. And Byfield fails to articulate what's actually wrong with "commercialization" beyond an apparent indie sensitivity that "commercialization is bad."

If Byfield considered Ubuntu or Fedora a "refuge from commercialization," he must be unaware of the deep investment in the distributions made by their respective corporate parents. The reason for so many rapid improvements in the Linux kernel between releases? Because Red Hat, Novell, IBM, and many other companies have seen fit to pour money into Linux kernel development to further commercial opportunities. The reason that continues to improve every release? Because Red Hat, Novell, Intel, Canonical, and other commercial entities pour money into X development because it furthers their commercial opportunities.

Saying that 2010 is "the year in which commercialization became embedded in the free desktop" ignores most of the last decade. The Ubuntu and Fedora communities exist because of commercial interests. If it weren't for Red Hat and Canonical believing that those efforts would produce some return on investment, they wouldn't pour the millions of dollars into community building, software development, and distribution of the community distros. That isn't the sole reason for their existence, and certainly not the key reason that so many contributors devote time to those projects, but it's also something that users and contributors need to keep in mind.

Byfield recommends CentOS and Debian for users seeking "refuge" from commercialization. Both fine projects, and they're great for a lot of users. But Ubuntu exists in part because Debian doesn't make a very good distro for mainstream users. CentOS is simply a re-packaging of a commercial Linux distro. If it weren't for Red Hat's work, CentOS likely cease to exist. So what's to gain from avoiding all hints of commercialization? Refusing to acknowledge the contribution that companies make to the production of free software?

Linux is evolving and becoming more suitable for mainstream users. Commercialization means more opportunity to expose a wider audience to free and open source software. It also means more people will be paid to produce more free and open source software. If that's off-putting for a minority contingent that can't abide "commercialization," then there's always OpenBSD...