Closed Source vs. Open Source in Desktop Linux

The Linux desktop quite commonly relies on closed source code to keep itself running. And if the code works, let it be.
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When most people in IT think of Linux, they picture an open source operating system kernel, along with other software, coming together to create the server and desktop OS based on Free software. That image is accurate – and there’s no question that it’s open source code (and community cooperation) that has helped Linux to become the powerhouse that it is today.

But at what point do we accept that – whether we like it or not – closed source applications will eventually have to be let in to this otherwise "open" world? After all, this has already been happening for years, despite the Linux purists kicking and screaming the entire time.

In fact, closed source code is used everyday within the Linux world. And here’s the funny thing: most of us never really think twice about it.

Closed source with Linux – it's not a new concept.

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.

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.

Besides, how would most notebooks initially built for Windows get their wireless connectivity without an NDISWrapper using proprietary wireless drivers designed for Windows? Closed source code was, is – and may very well always be – a major part of using Linux on the desktop.

If the code works, let it be.

One recent event that has again sparked hostility between open and closed source users was NVIDIA's failure to provide source code for their Linux-based graphics drivers. Yet unlike ATI, I personally have never had a single problem using the closed source NVIDIA drivers. Any issues that did arise were handled fairly quickly by NVIDIA itself.

So why is there a problem, again?

In the past, Linux developers have expressed concern over having to "work around" these NVIDIA provided drivers. To basically thinking ahead to how things will end up should a user opt to install these "binary blobs," as developers like to refer to them.

Despite their concern, I would point out that NVIDIA has a fairly decent track record with bug control and, mysteriously, Linux developers have been able to make things work on their end despite this issue with the licensing behind the current closed source NVIDIA driver.

Regardless of any one developer's frustration over NVIDIA driver licensing, the fact of the matter is that providing closed source drivers has worked rather well for everyone involved – for a number of years.

Don't get me wrong, I would love to see NVIDIA open up the drivers as much as the next guy. However, seeing Linux purists calling out for a boycott against a vendor who is indeed supporting the Linux platform is simply begging for future repercussions yet to surface.

Negative feelings expressed above will eventually present bigger problems for any closed source software companies looking to take a dip in the Linux development waters. Given that most software companies use closed source software and many hardware companies do the same, the reaction to NVIDIA's decision is going to heavily color how hardware vendors looking into Linux compatibility choose to go forward.

The pathetic thing is that many of them will hold out as long as possible, as Linux developers are largely considered to be a royal pain in the backside by the closed source world.

Application consistency, not source code politics.

Regardless of how people feel about the licensing choices of companies like NVIDIA, there are actually a number of closed source applications used with Linux today that for some mysterious reason, no one seems to be bad mouthing despite the fact that the software is quite restrictive with its code availability. Skype comes to mind as a prime example.

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Tags: open source, wireless, Linux desktop, nVidia, Wine

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