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The Importance of Purity on the Linux Desktop

By Katherine Noyes
Jul 21, 2008 4:00 AM PT

Well, the dog days of summer have begun to set in, so it's not too surprising that the Linux blogs were relatively quiet last week. Linux geeks across the nation were no doubt seeking refuge wherever they could -- it's hard to withstand flames on the blogs when you feel like you're aflame yourself!

The Importance of Purity on the Linux Desktop

One topic that did set off quite a discussion, however, was an article Matt Hartley posted last weekend on Datamation regarding the question of purity on the Linux desktop.

"While the core of the desktop Linux operating system (regardless of distribution) is powered by open source code, it is commonly used side by side with code that gets less attention -- indeed, many Linux purists seem to forget about: Closed source software and drivers are used with desktop Linux every single day by thousands of people," wrote Hartley in the article.

"From specific firmware added by select distributions to ensure wireless compatibility to the open source software known as 'Wine,' which allows users to run closed source Windows applications, proprietary code has its place on the Linux desktop," he added.

Ubiquity vs. Purity

We here at LinuxInsider thought we might have misinterpreted -- what Linux fan, after all, ever argues for closed software's right to exist on an open desktop? Then we saw the discussion on Slashdot, where a virtual stampede of more than 650 comments appeared by Friday.

Hartley's article "raises the question: Is it better to embrace some closed source fixes, and so create a larger user base, or to remain pure, and keep Linux for the specialists?" began kdawson, who first drew attention to Hartley's assertions.

"There is no reason why people who want to be pure can't be pure and the people who are pragmatic can't coexist," replied lyml. "It's wrong to force a choice upon others and I thought that was one of the main points about 'free'-software?"

Getting the Job Done

Then there was the pragmatic view: "I use software to get work done," wrote QuasiEvil. "I fundamentally believe that free software is better because I can tinker, tune, and extend it as I need, but if it takes something proprietary to *get the job done* at a price I feel is a fair trade (cheaper than writing my own, doing it the hard way, etc.), then so be it."

On the other hand: "The 'if the code works, use it' attitude is what gave us the DOS, Windows, and MS Office monopolies," shot back speedtux. "It's particularly dangerous because most people have no idea what 'working' means when they start out using something, and then establish a bad standard.

"Being purist about this sort of thing is pragmatic," speedtux added. "OK, so occasionally use Skype or whatever if you really need to. But if you simply don't give damn, you risk condemning us to another several decades of bad monopolies of one or the other kind."

Finally, a little perspective: "Hey, stop talking like this is a great and epic struggle," wrote loganrapp. "Zimbabwe is a great struggle. We're just talking about computer operating systems."

Ever-Changing Kernel

Nevertheless, the question is a good one. Just how open is "open"? Is it an all-or-nothing phenomenon? LinuxInsider took a little informal poll to find out.

"Ideally, it would be best to have a 'pure' open source desktop, but in reality, if everything is working the way you want it to work, it doesn't matter if the code is open or closed," Mhall119, a blogger on Slashdot, told LinuxInsider. "But when things break, or don't work quite the way you want, then you realize the benefits of open source. And once you're in a situation where you have realized those benefits, you become reluctant to give them up."

Regarding the Linux kernel, "I would definitely advocate for a pure kernel, even though I use the proprietary Nvidia driver myself," Mhall119 added. "The kernel changes faster than proprietary companies can keep up, and they have to keep up if they want their driver to work well."

Hardware companies shouldn't depend on software implementations to make their products competitive, nor should they have to worry about the Linux kernel internals, he explained. Rather, "they should just make the best hardware they can make and tell everybody else how to use it (as in, release the specs so Linux drivers can be written by Linux programmers)."

For "userland" applications, however, the question is much less critical -- "mostly because it is easier to switch to an alternative," Mhall119 said.

A Personal Decision

"The problem I have is that when the underlying drivers are closed source, that makes one part that just doesn't integrate with the rest as well as it otherwise could," Gerhard Mack, a Montreal-based consultant and Slashdot blogger, told LinuxInsider. "Downloading it and then having to make sure it works with your kernel and distro is just plain annoying."

Regardless of such issues, however, "what apps someone runs is their own business, whether closed or open," Mack added.

Indeed, that laissez-faire attitude appears to be a common one.

'Self-Righteous' Insistence

"If someone wants for whatever reason to have a pure environment, let them -- I find the hand-wringing annoying and distracting from the open source movement," Slashdot blogger yagu told LinuxInsider.

"There are many reasons to buy software," yagu added. "There are many reasons to offer free products. The world of products is complex, and arbitrarily insisting Linux be all one 'thing' and nothing else is self-righteous."

Sometimes, for something to become free, it must first be not free, yagu asserted, citing the example of Netscape, the packaged browser that was a precursor of Firefox. "I don't know if Netscape and its subsequent work would have gotten off the ground without that initial cycle and infusion of cash to spawn the open source Firefox," he explained.

Free Beer!

Looking ahead, "If purists want it pure, let them knock themselves out, but frankly I'm more than happy to have some proprietary code in my Linux box if it means when I turn it on, its wireless connectivity 'just works' -- one of the biggest speed bumps in Linux driver-land."

Eventually, most common-purpose applications will move towards an open source model simply because there will be so many viable, open source alternatives that a closed source option "just won't be attractive -- even if it's free as in beer," Mhall119 predicted.

And on that highly appealing note -- free beer -- best of luck staying cool, dear readers. Until next week!


How do you feel about government regulation of the U.S. tech industry?
Big tech companies are abusing their monopoly power and must be reined in.
Stronger regulations to protect consumer data definitely are needed.
Regulations stifle innovation and should be kept to the barest minimum.
Over-regulation could give China and other nations an unfair advantage.
Outdated antitrust laws should be updated prior to serious regulatory efforts.
Tech companies should regulate themselves to avoid government intervention.