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How proprietary software can help the open source movement


May 2, 2000
Web posted at: 10:21 a.m. EDT (1421 GMT)

(IDG) -- The open source world seems to be divided into two main camps: the religious and the pragmatic. To the religious, proprietary and closed source code are evil. The pragmatic see proprietary and closed source code as benign and even occasionally necessary.

Before I continue, let me point out that free (as in free speech) software and open source software are not synonymous. I can give away source code and still prevent anyone from using it without permission. Proprietary software and closed source software aren't synonymous either, though one usually implies the other.


Regardless, I'm among the pragmatists. To me, proprietary and closed source code are like guns. One can use a gun to protect oneself against evil people, or one can use it to murder rivals. But in the latter case it is the murderer who is evil, not the gun.

But I will agree with the religious zealots on one very important point. The world of commercial and free software is definitely engaged in a war of good and evil. And the obvious examples of evil that one can cite usually involve closed source code.


Open source advocates tend to point to Microsoft as evidence of the evils of closed source. But for all we know, Microsoft could also be using open source as a weapon, too. It is entirely possible that large portions of Windows 2000 code have been lifted from programs that are protected under the GNU General Public License (GPL). The fact that GPL code is open and freely available makes it that much easier for a company like Microsoft to steal it. Does that make GPL evil? Of course not.

Now, before you Microsoft stockholders get your panties in a knot, I am not accusing Microsoft of stealing GPL code. If anything, the evidence points to the contrary. If Microsoft made it a practice to steal GPL code, it would be more likely to meet its projected ship dates.

But my point is that open, closed, proprietary, and free source code are weapons wielded by both sides. They are not in themselves good or evil.

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These matters are currently close to my heart, since I work with the Linux Standard Base (LSB). I want to make it clear that it is by no means the goal of LSB to encourage the use of proprietary software. But as we get nearer to completion of the LSB specification, it occurs to me that LSB could encourage the use of proprietary software as a side effect.

One of the goals of LSB is to allow Linux providers to differentiate their products without breaking application compatibility. LSB is concerned only with the layer above the Linux kernel, which determines whether or not an application will install properly and run reliably. The point is to enable customers to choose the Linux distribution that best suits their needs without fear that they will encounter problems running their favorite applications.

LSB can best achieve its goals if the software it deals with is open source. The best way to guarantee a level playing field for all Linux providers and developers is to have no secrets in the software layer that determines whether an application is compatible across Linux distributions.

This fact implies that it is nonthreatening to have proprietary software outside the scope of LSB. For example, one can write a proprietary, closed-source installation program for Linux without creating an imbalance in the Linux market, because you can't assert control over the Linux standard with a proprietary installation program. Once you've got an LSB-compliant Linux installed, the proprietary installation program becomes irrelevant. You can still run any LSB-compliant applications.

LSB isn't a panacea for the problem, however. And neither is the open source nature of Linux. There are still the problems of Microsoft's monopoly in office suites and near-monopoly in browsers. As long as Microsoft controls office suites and browsers, it controls the document formats that even Linux users will encounter. It is clearly in Microsoft's best interest to keep document and Web formats as much of a proprietary moving target as possible. And so Microsoft has been manipulating these internal standards accordingly.

The open source community is attempting to circumnavigate this problem in part by supporting open source office suites and browsers. I wish these products all the success in the world -- but not if they turn Linux into a threat to independent software vendors (ISVs). Because if that were to happen, Linux would lose ISV support. The money would dry up, and Linux would fade into obscurity once again. That would be criminal.

If open source is truly the only way we can get out from underneath the tyrannical leadership of Microsoft's tightly controlled standards, then count me in with the religious open source zealots. But I personally don't care if I pay for a proprietary office suite or if I get one that's free and open source. As long as I have a choice, I would gladly accept a world where we can get out from underneath Microsoft tyranny with open document standards and a mix of open source and proprietary software that uses them.

Credit where due

If I had to sum up my opinion of the whiners who complain about every mention of proprietary software, I would say that they are biting the hands that feed them. Many independent software vendors are now supporting Linux because they prefer a level playing field on which they can compete with Windows. They know that as long as Microsoft maintains a monopoly on the desktop, Microsoft can use that monopoly to corner every application market.

But ISVs didn't see the light because of Linux. They saw the light long before Linux was a blip on the radar. The problem was that they couldn't do anything to undermine their relationship with Microsoft until the Department of Justice (DOJ) began its second antitrust investigation. (The first investigation ended in a toothless consent decree.)

Once the DOJ got involved, everyone -- Microsoft and ISVs alike -- knew that people had the power to complain to the DOJ if Microsoft did anything particularly nasty. So Microsoft backed off -- only a little bit, to be sure, but it was enough for a few of the biggest ISVs to commit to Linux. And once the big players committed to Linux, many others followed.

That, in turn, enabled Linux companies to attract investors with deep pockets. Thanks to the investors, to the ISVs, and to the resulting success of Linux companies, outfits like Caldera Systems, Corel, MandrakeSoft, Penguin Computing, Red Hat, SuSE, TurboLinux, and VA Linux are providing money and resources to support open source development.

The quality of Linux and open source software has given open source advocates much to crow about. But they would do well not to forget the role ISVs with proprietary software played in that success. The complainers, as Linux users and fans, are like the branches of the Linux tree. Sure, Linux is the root. And if you kill the root, the rest of the tree will die. But the endorsement of ISVs with proprietary software is the trunk. If you chop off the trunk, you also risk killing the whole tree. And before the complainers get too cocky, they should remember that if you prune the branches, more will grow in their place.

So my advice to the open source community is to focus on what really matters. Fight the good fight when open source creates a level playing field. And relax when proprietary source code is nonthreatening. Such an attitude will ensure the continued success of both open and closed source.

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