A personal experience on why the FLOSS movement cripples itself

I have written recently about my standing on anti-corporate feelings and I have written a longer time ago speaking against ‘pirate’ software but today I feel like ranting a bit about the way the FLOSS people who still call proprietary software “illegitimate” are hurting the whole cause.

It so happens that a situation like the one I’m going to describe happened to me with more than a couple prospective clients. With one variation or another, but the basic situation is more or less the same.

I get called up by the prospective customer, that is looking for some kind of software solution, or mixed software-hardware solutions, they present me their need, and after a bit of thinking about it, I find there are two solutions: use Free Software, but usually requires fiddling with set-up, tweaking, and maintenance, or use a proprietary solution, with a high license cost but a smaller requirement for set-up or maintenance.

I usually present the pricing together with a pros/cons fact sheet, pointing out that whatever proprietary solution will rely solely and exclusively on the original vendor, and thus the first time that vendor does something that goes against your wishes or necessities, you’re left with paying for something you can’t make good use of. While this is usually something that is not easily forgotten, they are scared by the price.

I do my best to provide with options that are cheaper than the license of the proprietary software, so that there is a better chance for the Free alternative to be picked up. It’s not difficult given most of the problems I’ve been shown are solved by proprietary software that is very expensive. Also, it is in my personal interest to have them choose the Free Software solution: I get the money and I usually can release at least the fixes (or even better, the customisation) as Free Software, thanks to licenses such as GPL.

But here, most of the hopes get shattered: “You call it Free but we have to pay quite a bit of money for it… we can get the other cheaper, just use eMule”. At least here in Italy, honesty is a rare virtue, too rare a virtue for it to be “exploited” by Free Software. But why do I say that it’s a mistake of FLOSS developers of this is the case? Isn’t it just the doing of a business holder who cares not about legality and using unauthorized copies? Well, yes of course.

On the other hand, talking about illegitimacy and immorality of proprietary software, defending “piracy” (or unauthorized copies if you wish to call them that way), does not really help the cause, it actually gives them arguments such as “well, but even the guys developing that stuff defend using cracked copies of software, why should I pay you to create something anew when there is the program already?”.

As I said before, make sure the people around you understand why they should use Free Software, and that is not by telling them how bad copy-protection is, DRM is, and the “sins” of Windows. It’s by showing them that they have a price to pay to use that software both in direct monetary terms and in flexibility. And maybe more money would flow into the pockets of the Free Software developers that can make it not suck in the areas it currently sucks.

Fake outrage for Sony’s moves

March 2010 is likely to become famous in the Free Software, Open Source movements’ histories as the month of the “corporate betrayals”. From one side, we got Oracle eating away all of Sun, including the latest developments on the Solaris license (which now becomes a 90-days evaluation license) and the change regarding security support for Solaris itself. From the other, we have Sony’s announced 3.21 firmware upgrade that disables the “Other OS” support from PlayStation 3 “phat” that are still around.

Now, the fact that Sony could never be arsed to call it “Linux support” but always stuck with “Other OS” could probably be a good start to understand that they weren’t that fond of the hacking community to play in different ways with their stations, but this is something that probably struck a lot of people, especially after Sony’s own promise of keeping the support around for the “phat” model when “slim” was introduced. Coincidentally, I dissed Sony a bit in my previous post and that was even before 3.21 was announced.

But as you might have understood from the title of this post, I’m not among those who scream “enemy” to Sony for this particular move; while I do agree that it’s obnoxious, and I think that Sony made a very bad move, especially after their promise, I don’t think that some of the comments I read recently seem to have a clue of what Sony is trying to do, and end up looking very silly to me, as they add nothing to the Free advocacy. So I’ll take another page out of Bill Maher, and speak about the “fake outrage” that people seem to have regarding Sony right now.

So the first thing in favour of Sony’s move is… they haven’t tried to stealth this in the firmware update! Sure they are weaseling their way in with “security concerns” but they actually gave a fair warning to the users and organisations that are using PS3s for their tasks, and told them not to upgrade; which is mostly what you should do if you’re just using your PS3s with Linux to do whatever work, it does not hamper you in any way, as the only drawback is… you won’t have support for PlayStation Network or the newest published games. What a waste, for all those people using PS3s for security work! Or is it?

I’m quite sure that most of the people who are using PS3s for high-speed CPU work are not using them to play games with the Sony firmware anyway; I think we actually heard of PS3 clusters to process a huge amount of data like the one that was needed to find the MD5 SSL vulnerability. Also, thanks to Moore’s Law we start to have maybe even more powerful workstation at our disposal: the power provided by (older-model) PS3s is now getting less and less relevant, especially considering that their cost hasn’t really dented so much, maybe cut in half in the past three year. And it still has only 256MB of RAM, doesn’t it?

Of course, I would be a hypocrite if I said that there is no gain for a single geek to run Linux on his or her PlayStation 3. As our own Steve (beandog) shown some time ago, you can use PS3s to rip BluRay discs, thanks to the ability to access the (otherwise pretty expensive) BluRay drive embedded in the unit. But even accepting that fact, which is something I’d be ready to bet Sony is not interested in keeping around, it doesn’t give you such a fantastic use.

Again, I’m all for fiddling with hardware, and getting Linux to run anywhere it’s possible. OpenWRT, OpenBTS, all these projects started by poking around at hardware that wasn’t supposed to be usable with Linux and are providing us with lots and lots of good stuff to use. On the other hand, I don’t see anything like that to be happening here, I actually see something very different! I see self-named “Free Software Advocates” rooting for a “hacker” (which we should probably call a “cracker” instead) that promised a custom firmware… what was the reason again, for which we’d need a custom firmware?

I’m not asserting that we shouldn’t be rooting for “crackers” in general. I think we have lots and lots of examples out there that show us that only by cracking something open we can actually use it properly, even if it might open as well negative and illicit possibilities such as piracy (I don’t condone piracy: let’s agree that all licenses are valid, otherwise I should be condoning GPL violations as well). Cracking encryption and so-called “copy protections” such as CSS, BluRay’s AACS, Apple’s FairPlay, and all the other DRMs is a very important stepping stone to really have Free Software and Free Content. And cracking hardware to run different software and operating systems is just as important for Free Software to extend its influence.

But with these two ideas in mind (cracking DRM and breaking Free hardware), what would a “custom firmware” for the PS3 accomplish? If you were to run a custom firmware, Sony would very much like to keep you out of their store; while obnoxious is something you’d have to accept; the same would be true for games that would require the newer version of the firmware. And if you don’t care about these two things, you can just follow the advice Sony gave you in the first place: don’t update. The only reason why people would root for such a “custom firmware” is – obviously – piracy. It would be hypocrite to say that nobody is hoping to be able to get their games for free, in this crowd.

Again, I’m not happy with Sony’s decision, but as long as it’s possible to use Linux on the PS3, even with some limitations on what you can do with it on the other side of the fence, I don’t see any reason to root for the cracker.

Who Pays the Price of Pirated Programs

I have to say sorry before all, because most likely you’ll find typos and grammar mistakes in this post. Unfortunately I have yet to receive my new glasses so I’m typing basically blind.

Bad alliteration in the title, it should have been “pirated software“ but it didn’t sound as good.

I was thinking earlier today who is really paying the price of pirated software in the world of today; we all know that the main entity losing from pirated software is, of course, the software’s publisher and developer. And of course most of them, starting from Microsoft, try their best to reverse the game, saying that the cost is mostly on the user itself (remember Windows Genuine Advantage?). I know this is going to be a flamethrower, but I happen to agree with them nowadays.

Let me explain my point: when you use pirate software, you end up not updating the software at all (‘cause you either have no valid serial code, or you have a crack that would go away); and this include security vulnerabilities, that often enough, for Windows at least, lead to virus infecting the system. And of course, the same problem applies, recursively, to antivirus software. And this is without counting the way most of that software is procured (eMule, torrents, and so on… — note that I have ethical uses of torrent sites for which I’d like at least some sites to be kept alive), which is often the main highway for viruses to infect systems.

So there is already an use case for keep legit with all the software; there is one more reason why you, a Linux enthusiast, should also make sure that your friends and family don’t use pirate software: Windows (as well as Linux, but that’s another topic) botnets send spam to you as well!

Okay, so what’s the solution? Microsoft – obviously – wants everybody to spend money on their licenses (and in Italy they cost twice as much; I had to buy a Microsoft Office 2007 Professional license – don’t ask – in Italy it was at €622 plus VAT; from Amazon UK it was €314, with VAT reimbursed; and Office is multi-language enabled, so there is not even the problem of Italian vs. English). I don’t entirely agree with that; I think that those who really need to use proprietary software that costs, should probably be paying for it, this will give them one more reason to want a free alternative. All the rest, should be replaced with Free (or at least free) alternatives.

So for instance, when a friend/customer is using proprietary software, I tend to replace it along these lines: Nero can be replaced with InfraRecorder (I put this first because it’s the least known); Office with the well-known OpenOffice and Photoshop with Gimp (when there are no needs for professional editing at least).

The main issue here is that I find a lot of Free Software enthusiasts who seem to accept, and foster pirate software; sorry I’m not along those lines, at all. And this is because I loathe proprietary software, not because I like it! I just don’t like being taken for an hypocrite.

Why I’m upset by Mininova possible shutdown

I’ve been reading some worrisome news about Mininova being requested to filter down the torrent links (to the point that it’ll have no more sense to exist in the first place, I guess). This actually upsets me, even though not in the way most people seem to be upset.

First of all I have to say I don’t like copyright infringement (even though I dislike calling it piracy in the first place): Free Software licenses are based on the idea of respecting copyright and thus I don’t like being the kind of hypocrite who asks to abide to licenses and at the same time infringe on others’ copyright. On the other hand, I find myself thinking about double-standards pretty often. Mostly, when there is no real other option from doing something illicitly.

For instance, anime and, even more, Japanese drama are sometimes impossible to find without having to wait for years, or often have bad translation or some kind of “localization” that ruins the pretty much (usually watering them down with political-correctness, censuring and cutting down anything that might make them unsuitable for children — even when the original version was simply not aimed at children but rather at young adults, but I’m going down a different road now).

Now I don’t want to play saint, it happened to me, and sometime happens still, that I went to watch something that was illegally downloaded; on the other hand, I don’t do this systematically, and I spend a few hundreds euro each year in original content (DVDs, BluRay, games for PS3 and PSP, software — if I do count this year I guess I’m well over €1K thanks to software: between Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 and Microsoft Office 2007 I already reach €600), and these usually include more than a few things that I previously watched downloaded (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya I had seen fansubbed, but I bought the Italian original box set earlier this year, for instance).

But there is one thing I absolutely rely on Mininova for, nowadays, and I’d be pretty upset if it was shut down: Real Time with Bill Maher ! Yes I do like this show, I have seen a piece of this some time ago in relation to an article by Richard Dawkins and then went on to listen to it (in podcast form) and then watch it (when the audio podcast was obscured for a while, and had to work around the US-only limitation, and found the full-fledged video podcast), up to now that I actually watch it downloaded from torrents each weekend.

Now, I know this is illegal, but HBO does not really provide me any other mean to watch it. And mind you, I’d be happy to spend €5/month to subscribe to it; I could even live with downloading it with iTunes, and having it DRM’d (which would upset me a bit but would be bearable). It’s a friggin’ late night show, not a movie, and not some general show like Mythbusters, which actually gets translated, dubbed and aired in other places, like Italy, although an year after the original American airing (on a related note: finding DVDs in Italy is still impossible; and region 2 DVDs from Amazon UK are limited to the first season…).

So if this for some reason arrive on the screen of some HBO guy: please, think about us, Bill Maher fans on the other side of the pond, and give us the chance of legally follow the video episodes. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who’s going to pay for the subscription, if given the chance. Then we can stop illegally downloading this through Mininova…