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Is Netflix a Friend or Foe to FOSS?

By Katherine Noyes
Jan 3, 2011 5:00 AM PT

Well it's 2011 at last, and those of us here in the FOSS community have a great deal to look forward to this year.

Is Netflix a Friend or Foe to FOSS?

Android is going nowhere but up, Ubuntu is gearing up to capture the hearts and minds of the masses, and Linux-friendly ARM is poised for even more great things. It's going to be a great year!

Not that there won't be anything to grumble about, of course. As long as there's Microsoft and Oracle, for example, we'll always have that.

But what about Netflix?

'Why We Use Open Source'

Netflix made a bit of a splash in the FOSS community late last year, of course, when it proudly proclaimed its wide and varied involvement in the world of open source.

"Why we use and contribute to open source software" was the title of the post on the Netflix blog, and -- at first glance, anyway -- it seemed like encouraging news.

Hudson, Hadoop, Hive, Honu, Apache, Tomcat, Ant, Ivy, Cassandra and HBase are all among the open source projects named in the post as evidence of Netflix's open source commitment.

It wasn't long, however, before a few glaring omissions were pointed out.

'I'm Still Sitting Here, Without Netflix'

"We both know that if you can support Android and iPhone, you can support desktop Linux and Chrome OS," wrote sumasmreq in the very first comment on Netflix's post, for example. "There is a revolution going on to decouple users from their OS. All I ask is that you join in."

Similarly: "When will I be able to stream Netflix on my multiple Ubuntu computers (like I already do with Hulu)?" asked Douglas Ward.

And again: "One year ago, I was really excited about signing up for Netflix," began gareim. "Then I was disappointed to learn that I couldn't since I use Linux.

"One year later, I'm still sitting here, without Netflix," gareim added. "I want to pay for the content, and I'll be one of your first customers once you bring it to Linux."

'I Find It a Bit Absurd'

The topic was similarly picked up on Slashdot and the Thoughts on Technology blog, where blogger Jeff Hoogland called Neflix hypocritical.

"Personally, I find it a bit absurd that they can find the time to support Windows, OSX, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360, iOS, and now even the Linux based Android and still not provide a general streaming solution that would work across all PC platforms," Hoogland wrote.

"In my opinion, Netflix loves FOSS just about as much as Microsoft does," he added. "They see it as something that can help their bottom line and nothing more."

Is Netflix a new member of the anti-FOSS club, despite its proclamations? Linux Girl strapped on her snowshoes and headed to the Linux blogosphere's main downtown to find out.

'A Poor Business Plan'

"Who is Netflix? I guess they don't get much business from me, and they will not in future if they don't accept GNU/Linux on the clients," blogger Robert Pogson asserted.

"They must also be living in the past if more than a browser is required," Pogson added. "They are limiting their customers to those willing to install crapware on their computers. That's a poor business plan."

Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack saw it similarly.

"Yes, Netflix are a bunch of selfish jerks, but they have a right to be," Mack told Linux Girl.

"What I suggest is that we all simply don't use Netflix," he advised. "Personally, I won't install that Silverlight-ridden trash even if I were running Windows."

'It Seems a Shame'

Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza could see both sides.

"On one hand, it seems a shame not to be able to play Netflix on my Linux desktop," Espinoza explained.

"On the other, Netflix has to obey the wishes of the copyright holders," he added. "It's hard to justify offending them in order to serve the minority that will not run windows or buy some other compatible device."

A Careful Balance

Similarly, "I wouldn't call Netflix a hypocrite," agreed Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

"Like most businesses, they have to struggle with the balance between contributing to open platforms and protecting their business models from upstart competition," Travers explained. "Doing this in an all-FOSS manner is rather difficult, but it's not impossible."

Of course, "remarkably few mainstream businesses go this route," Travers conceded.

As with Microsoft, "one should not assume they buy into the FOSS mentality," he added. "Indeed, that any business that is primarily based on distributing non-open, copyrighted content (in this case movies) would not buy into the Free/Open mentality should really not be surprising."

In any case, Netflix, "like Microsoft, should be complimented on the things they support, and encouraged to support more," Travers concluded.

'Come Up With an H.264 Solution'

Working with video is "not that easy, and not just because of the licensing issues, though that doesn't help," opined Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site.

"My suggestion? If you're not happy, come up with an h.264 solution that Netflix can distribute that won't buy them a lawsuit or three," Hudson advised.

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet had other ideas.

"It is frankly the fault of the Linux 'Free as in freedom man!' faction, nobody else," hairyfeet told Linux Girl.

Most users "don't know that Netflix uses 'Janus' WMV DRM, which IIRC is supported at the kernel level in both Windows (XP since SP2, Vista and Windows 7 OOTB) and OSX," hairyfeet explained. "So to allow that level of DRM they would either have to offer a 'TiVo'ed' kernel and distro, or an equally locked-down VM."

'Any DRM Would Be Hacked Within a Day'

Meanwhile, "there is a faction on Linux that HATES proprietary software, and the only thing they hate worse is DRM," hairyfeet added. "So any DRM that Netflix tried to release for Linux would be hacked within a day, if it lasted that long."

The future is streaming, "and I'm betting nearly all of it will be locked behind either flash or WMV DRM," he predicted. "So this is just one more area where the consumer will be the one screwed thanks to those in Linux with a political agenda."

Too many in the Linux world "believe more in the philosophy than in actually having things that... ohh what is the word?... oh yeah WORK," hairyfeet concluded. "The ONLY way you are gonna have a free system is to build your own by your own specs, a la Apple and the Mac. Any other way is doomed to fail."

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