Proprietary Linux software: A big dilemma for many Linux users

Jack Wallen re-visits a very touchy topic among Linux users - open vs. closed source. It's always been a hot debate and he wants to know the opinion of the TechRepublic community.

Recently something came up with one of the other sites I write for. I proposed an article about the Hamachi VPN client which had an outstanding version for Linux. The setup was incredibly simple, the software ran well, it was free, and it could save many a admin a lot of headaches in the setup of VPN servers. Problem was, the software was proprietary. Although there was no cost attached to the software, it wasn't possible to download the source and do with it what you will.

I understand the point and, after a bit of argument, I relented. Of course I understand that, when given the choice between an open source and non-open source solution, the open source solution will almost always be more appealing. But this stance has one major catch: It hinders companies trying to make a living by creating software for the Linux operating system from doing just that. Let me put it more simply:

You have the choice between using Software A or Software B. Software A is free of charge and open source, but requires a bit of work to get up and running. Software A also has no support (other than forums and community). Software B is also free of charge, not open source, but allows you to purchase a support plan and offers a paid version with more features. Software B is also much easier to get up and running.

Which software do you choose? Are you a purist and refuse to install anything that is not open source? Or are you willing to thrown down a few bones to purchase a piece of software knowing you will never see the source? Which is more important: Quality of service and ease of installation or seeing the source?

You see - after nearly fifteen years I am very torn on this issue. I want Linux companies to make a profit. I am more than willing to drop coin to help a company out. That's one of the reasons I do things like purchase extra space on my Ubuntu One account and purchase most of my music right out of Rhythmbox. I also buy T-shirts or make donations to projects like Elive. And I can openly confess there isn't a single piece of "paid software" on my system. But there is proprietary software. I use the proprietary NVidia drivers because I find the open source version not up to speed (yet).

But for many people out there - this is a big dilemma. Over the years I have noticed this issue rise up and never go away. Why? What's the solution? This black and white world open source has been living in could be a constant torment. It seems, however, no matter how hard you try, this issue is never going to go away. There have been so many possible solutions for the problems:

  1. Companies with proprietary software must focus on business and/or enterprise.
  2. Companies selling software can make the source available only for the paid versions, with a modification that the source can not be used to create a fork of the software.
  3. Companies can have two versions of their product: A free, open source version with fewer features and a paid, closed source version with more features and support.
  4. Companies can claim to be either one or the other and try to beat the odds.

It is my suspicion that solution 3 is the best option for a company trying to make a living at producing Linux software. But even that has problems. There are users out there who will refuse to use a piece of software on the Linux platform if 1) there is a price attached and/or 2) the source can not be had.

This reminds me of the mid 90s when a gaming company called Loki began creating Linux ports of famous games. The products they produced were outstanding (I still have all of the game CDs that I purchased from them). These games were quality and very much on par with their Windows counterparts. Problem was - no one was willing to, gasp, pay for Linux software! After all...Linux software is supposed to be all free right? Wrong. Had those users ponied up the cash for games, Loki might still be in business and the age-old war cry "Linux has no games" would be irrelevant. I remember speaking with the CEO of Loki before they went under and he mentioned how he couldn't figure out the Linux community and their unwavering inability to pay for something they desperately wanted.

Oh sure, Linux has a cornucopia of games that are free. Have you played them? For the most part these games look and feel like they are nothing but cast-offs from the late '80s to early '90s'. And it's a shame. But it's the way it is. And it is the way it is because Linux users have become so spoiled by free and open source software. I'll be honest, I'm not a developer, so it's only been very rare that I have needed or wanted to see the source for a piece of software. And I think I am in the majority - even with Linux users. Only developers really care to have access to the source of a product. I would like to think that developers make up the minority of Linux users across the planet.

From my vantage point there is no reason why both open and non-open source software can't survive and thrive on the Linux platform. If end users (and admins) are willing to open up there minds and wallets, more Linux companies will be able to create more and better software. With more and better software flooding the landscape, Linux will begin to enjoy more and more success. that end, I want to hear from you. I want to know why this has been such a thorn in the side of the Linux community for so long. Why are so many so unwilling to accept good software that has a price and closed source. Is it all just about the spirit of the community and what it was built upon? Or is it something far greater that that?

Personally, I just want to see Linux grow beyond what anyone ever dreamed it could be. I want to see the operating system I have used for the majority of my computing life rise above all of the doubt so the electronic world can be a safer more reliable one. And for this to happen more companies developing more Linux software must succeed.

What's your take?