Mike Schaeffer's Blog

November 18, 2006

It's been about two months since I've installed Ubuntu Linux on my Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop. The initial impression was highly positive, but two months later the reality is starting to wear a little thin. After switching to Ubuntu Linux my laptop is slower, less media-savvy, uglier, and less compatible than it was before. The thing that is sad about this is that as much as Linux has improved, it feels like it is lagging behind Windows more than it did ten years ago (the last time I used Linux full-time).

In a way, this relative lag is not too suprising; It is caused by the convergance of two sets of industry trends over the last ten years. Ten years ago, the commonplace Windows was Windows 95, based on the old 16-bit Windows 3.x kernel; In 2006 the commonplace Windows is Windows XP, based on the much more robust Windows NT kernel. Ten years ago, 3D graphics, video playback, and the Internet were only beginning to emerge in the mainstream; In 2006, these applications define the mainstream. Linux's kernel might still be better than Windows, but it's less better now than it was ten years ago, eroding its relative advantage. At the same time Linux's advantage in kernel technology has been eroded, computers are increasingly used for things that essentially require access to propriatary content and technolgy. The Microsoft windows license fee pays for things like high quality fonts, licences for MP3 and DVD CODEC's, and sophisiticated 3D hardware support. It is either difficult or impossible to replace these things in an open source model, so, to the extent they are becoming more important, Linux increasingly suffers in contrast to its closed course, license-for-fee competition.

One example of how this might directly impact people is MP3 playback. MP3 playback is built into Windows: the Windows licence fee enables Microsoft to pay the Fraunhofer institute's license fee for the MP3 patent. in contrast, MP3 playback is deliberately excluded from Ubuntu Linux because it's patented and, despite the fact that Fluendo has paid for a patent licence and written a GStreamer CODEC, the CODEC is not open source and doesn't match Ubuntu's licensing model. Thus, while it is possible to add MP3 support to Ubuntu Linux, it takes the extra step of downloading and installing a CODEC. The same is true for DVD and MPEG video, not to mention that it will be true for Blu-Ray and HD-DVD (assuming the protection mechanisms on those two are ever broken, which has its own ironies).

What is key to realize about this situation is that it is as intrinsic to the open source model as it is to the closed source model. Open source software precludes payment of license fees, closed source requires it; Open source software precludes enforcement of trade secrets, closed source enables it. Neither of these models is necessarily 'wrong', but as our computational lives become more dependant on technology that requires license fees or technolgy protected by trade secrecy, open source will comparatively suffer more and more. No amount of prosletyzing on the benefits of Open source software will change either this fact or the moral right of those who invest their blood, sweat, and tears into propriatary technology to demand payment for their efforts. The best that advocates of openness can do is to act as revolutionaries by living the cause, advocating its values, and hoping that enough people follow their lead to build a critical mass.

However, like other 'revolutions', the Linux/Open source software cause isn't necessarily an easy cause to live. As I've been finding out once more, the switch to Linux is a sometimes painful struggle through mediocre software, bad asthetics, poor integration, and steep learning curves. The question I'm struggling with right now is is it even worth it? The older I get and the more external responsibilities I have, computers seem more and more like a tool for life and less and less like a way of life. The 5-10 hours a week I spent maintaining and integrating my Linux machines back in college is a much higher price to pay now than it was then. No matter how much I might like for my son to live in a world of free, open information and powerful free software, it would be very difficult to justify taking enough time away from him and my wife to make a useful contribution to the fight to make it happen. This is particulaly true if fighting the open source fight somehow comprimises my actual paying job, which is definately possible. I work for a Windows shop, and my management could give a rat's ass about the theoretical benefits of open source if it compromises my ability to serve our clients. One flubbed presentation due to a flaky Linux installation could do just that, and it would be very hard to use the benefits of Linux to explain it away to the folks to whom I sell my time. Maybe the upshot of this is that Linux is, like other revolutions, a young person's battle. However, unlike other revolutions, Linux requires direct participation to reap the benefits; If you aren't using open software, you're still at the mercy of closed software vendors. If this is really the case, and Linux really is for the 'young', then when will it ever become relevant to the broader audience of Windows and Mac OS X users? I just don't know. I will keep up the struggle for a while longer, January 2007 seems like a good time to reassess.