Kevin Carmony: Walking The Line of a Divided Community

Posted by dcparris on May 9, 2006 7:56 AM EDT
Lxer; By DC Parris
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  LXer Feature: 9-May-06

Kevin Carmony has taken the heat from some in the FOSS community for offering non-free software in Linspire, and in particular, for attempting to lure the FOSS community into contributing to Linspire via Freespire. Don Parris spoke with Linspire's Kevin Carmony to learn more about his position. Are the community's accusations fair? What other options are there?


In the wake of Pamela Jones' venomous attack on Linspire's announcement of a community-based Freespire project, Carla Schroder responded via LXer. Subsequent discussion on Schroder's response led me to open the lines of communication with Linspire. I was introduced to Mr. Carmony, who was kind enough to respond to my questions directly.

On the surface, Linspire's announcement that it is launching Freespire would appear to be yet another community distribution announcement. After all, Red hat launched Fedora Core and Novell launched OpenSUSE. Heck, Yast was non-free until Novell released it as FOSS. One would think that the FOSS community would support Linspire's move. Not so fast. Groklaw's Jones characterized the Freespire announcement as Linspires "latest 'We'd like to make money from the community's free stuff without honoring community values' strategy." Given the diverse nature of our community - especially considering the growing division between the "Free Software" and the "Open Source Software" camps, is such an accusation fair?

Jones' comment is based on the fact that Linspire includes non-free software, essentially as a value-added proposition, thus undermining the emphasis on user freedom. Kevin Carmony maintains that Linspire is simply providing what current Windows users expect to have access to before even thinking about switching over to GNU/Linux. The goal is to build up the GNU/Linux user base, not as an end, but as a means to an end - a fact that is nearly lost in the scuffle. Jones points out a danger that Linspire already acknowledges on their website - that people may become comfortable with the binary offerings, and thus complacent about freedom. So, what did Carmony have to say about all this?

Carmony Responds

Essentially, Carmony's position is that, in ten years of holding out, the FOSS community has made relatively few gains, in terms of convincing vendors to release libre codecs and drivers. In other words, the strategy doesn't seem to be working. Additionally, while some will be patient, most users would prefer to have something - anything - that works in the meanwhile. One could argue that more people need to reject the non-free software and related hardware, and I agree that it takes a mass movement to convince vendors to change. The problem is, we would most likely need the vast audience of Windows users to join our cause - a rather unlikely scenario, if you ask me.

Carmony did reiterate the hybrid car anology with me. He also spoke of the Open Source "vegans". "Just because someone is a vegetarian, I don't think they should try to force everyone else to be that way (and those who do are incredibly annoying people to be around =). Some are what I call "open source vegans," meaning they refuse to use ANY proprietary code. Fine, I respect that, and I would never want to take that choice away from them. All I ask in return is don't try to take MY choices away either. If I want to toss some "junk food" (proprietary software) in with my fruits and vegetables (OSS), I should be allowed to do that.

I asked Carmony directly, if Linspire sees moving toward FOSS (away from non-free software) a goal. His Response? "Yes, and no. Yes, because we CLEARLY state on the Freespire website that we love OSS, and wish all software was OSS. No, because we believe in the freedom of individuals to choose whatever software they want." This fits the perspective of those who prefer non-copleft licenses, namely the Open Source camp. The freedom to choose whatever software you want (including non-free) is hardly in any danger of disappearing any time soon. To turn Carmony's diet analogy on him, I would suggest that we already have the freedom to choose to smoke cigarettes and drink whiskey. However, such behavior is likely to expose one to certain risks. Likewise, choosing to use non-free software exposes one to certain risks. The Windows OS exposes users to numerous security risks and stability issues that they cannot fix themselves.

The Need to Educate

At the Linux Desktop Summit, Carmony asked for a show of hands of those who were not using any proprietary software. He told me that not one single hand went up. All those GNU/Linux users had some amount of non-free software on their systems. Carmony seems to use this example to justify shipping Linspire with non-free codecs and drivers. Carmony probably realizes that not all of those people actually desire non-free codecs and drivers on their computers. Even Richard Stallman started off using a non-free system to develop hist first free program. This is a key issue for those aligned with the Free Software Movement - non-free software may be a starting point, but user freedom is the goal.

People are still free to choose Windows and non-free software. The problem is that many people are not even choosing Windows - they think that's the only thing available. Many people have no concept of Free/Open Source Software. Some people seem not to understand that Apple exists as a competing system. I have helped people who, all they understood, was that their computer ran "Microsoft". It didn't matter that some of the software they were talking about wasn't actually Microsoft's software. Everything was "Microsoft" to them. In other words, there seems to be a large portion of the population that "choose" Microsoft and non-free software, not because they are free to make that choice, but because they know of no other choice. The same can be said for non-free software - most people do not understand the freedom that FOSS offers.

Herein lies the rub. In order for businesses like Linspire to compete against Microsoft, they have to educate people about the advantages of the GNU/Linux (your platform here), system. They already know about the non-free "choices". FOSS technology is fantastic. People need to be informed about the FOSS choices, and why they are so fantastic. In explaining the advantages of a FOSS system, one of the overriding concerns must be - has to be - the fact that, without the freedom offered by a copyleft license, they would not be able to experience the phenomenal power of a GNU/Linux system, the freedom to share software, and the genuine freedom to learn new skills.

Theo De Raadt recently lamented that many developers take from the OpenBSD community without giving back. And while I assume he is still committed to the non-copyleft approach, I think it speaks volumes to Eric Raymond's claims that the GPL is no longer needed. The concern I have is that, while it is fine to defend a person's freedom to use non-free software - as Carmony suggests here - it is the responsibility of every member of the community to educate newcomers with respect to the importance of keeping software free. Ditto for creative works. The very real danger in not promoting the free software philosophy is that people will cease to care about freedom, and the tremendous gains we have made in the past twenty years will ebb, as the sea at low-tide. Would there be another high tide? Or will we have learned the lesson that free software doesn't really work?

Roll Our Own?

I would like to leave you with one last thought. I can agree with Carmony that the strategy of abstinence seems to have gained us very little so far. Such a strategy requires a great many people cooperating for freedom instead of compromising it. It might make more sense to start developing alternative hardware and multimedia software that use FOSS codecs and drivers. I like the Ogg audio/video formats, but we need a video card that embarrasses ATI and NVidia. Maybe that's an unrealistic idea. Still, so long as we compromise on our freedom, we will have to live with these non-free solutions. Besides, the freedom to solve our own problems is largely what all this is about to begin with.

I'm not independently wealthy, but if I were, I know where I would invest the largest portion of my resources. If I were a hacker - which I'm not - I know one real problem I would love to solve. If I knew as much about developing video hardware as I know about theology, I know my wife would have to drag me out of the toolshop to the dinner table. I would like to thank Kevin Carmony for his willingness to respond, and for helping me to see things in a different light. And thanks for helping me to realize that many of us are sitting around, waiting on some well-established vendor to support us, when we could be solving our own problems. I also think that Mr. Carmony and the folks at Linspire should put some serious effort into teaching the newcomers about freedom. What do you think? What other strategies do you see for solving these challenges?

» Read more about: Story Type: Editorial, LXer Features; Groups: Community, Linspire

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Having legal access to CODECs is a must tracyanne 68 2,455 Jan 4, 2007 3:08 AM
we need a video card jimf 19 4,916 May 12, 2006 7:33 PM
So the real issue is propaganda, not product TerryH 6 1,908 May 12, 2006 4:37 PM
head 'em off at the pass grouch 86 3,441 May 12, 2006 4:48 AM
View from a different perspective crazyarlo 21 2,822 May 11, 2006 2:54 AM
Freespire is not Free tuxchick2 15 3,076 May 10, 2006 7:05 PM
Carmody or Carmony? monkymind 1 1,946 May 10, 2006 8:02 AM
Untitled Inhibit 6 2,204 May 9, 2006 12:04 PM

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