Give Us Your Codecs or Prepare to Lose the 20-Something Not-Yet-Switched-to-Linux Market for Good!

August 28th, 2006  |  Published in etc  |  2 Comments

Having read this Red Herring item (Open-Source Guru: Time for ‘Compromises’), I’ll confess to being even more perplexed about just what it is Raymond is talking about.

I mean … it was fun to think he’d just finally become so hung up on being an A-list blogger that he’d completely forgotten Linux can handle USB mass storage devices, and I’ll confess to IM’ing Ed with some malicious glee, fully expecting that the court of Slashdot opinion might finally vote to convict.

But now we get this:

Q: And at LinuxWorld, you said, that we need to make some compromises to do full multimedia capabilities like running on iPod so that non-technical users don’t dismiss this out of hand.

A: Right.

Q: What kind of compromises did you mean?

A: I mean that we need to be prepared to go to the rights holders for these proprietary codecs and say, we’ll give you money, give us a license. This is something that the Linux community has a huge antipathy to doing because we’ve got all this idealism about open source. And in the long run, I think that’s true. I view comprising with the proprietary codec vendors as a tactical move designed to get us larger end user market shares, so that in the end we can push more things to the open.

O.k. So a little earlier in the interview he said “Reverse engineering these codecs is not really difficult; the real problem is that if you distribute them, you get sued.”

So since he brought up the iPod, let’s use that to work this out.

Say I’m Joe Linux user, and I want a sound player that will let me purchase music from the iTunes Music Store, or at least play back tracks I downloaded from it. What do I need?

Well, I need iTunes, or some other audio player, I guess. I also need iTunes (or some other audio player) to read and play back the same files it does on Mac and Windows, so I need it to grok Apple’s AAC format and its layer of DRM over the top to keep me from making more than n copies of the same playlist or playing it on more than five different computers.

Would the Linux kernel need to supply any part of that? No. The guts for playing those files are coming from Apple, bundled in with iTunes (or, theoretically, just plopped in some plugin directory). Like he said, we could reverse engineer the hell out of the codec, probably crack the DRM even, but no one would sell or distribute it because that’d be illegal, and you’d be left with a collection of hacks you could download on ever-shifting servers operating somewhere in Scandinavia.

So as near as I can tell, the open source community and the Linux development team and all the rest aren’t in a position to “compromise” because they have nothing to give away except their principles about not running closed-source software. And that’s nothing they haven’t given away already, plenty of times in the past six or seven years: Proprietary games, proprietary office software, proprietary management tools, etc. etc. etc. One of my first writing assignments at Linux Planet involved reviewing proprietary office software, and interest was high enough that the promise of a few screenshots got the hell slashdotted out of it. How much are they willing to compromise? Badly enough that they shell out plenty for the privilege of buying software that will let them run non-native proprietary software poorly if it means not having to boot into Windows to play Unreal or StarCraft, or run Microsoft Office even though the biggest zealots among them will go to their graves swearing OpenOffice is just as good.

So, when he says “we need to be prepared to go to the rights holders for these proprietary codecs and say, we’ll give you money, give us a license,” using our iPod example (only fair … he brought it up first), I don’t know who “we” is except iPod-using Linux people who are stuck in the same spot anyone is when it comes to wanting software ported to their preferred platform. Or maybe a company, since he drops Linspire’s name further down in the interview. Either way, they have to show a market worth supporting, since Apple isn’t apparently licensing anything to anyone. It’s just compiling big blobs of software it drops on target systems, which then run it.

Distilled even further, it’s as if he wants a delegation composed of RMS, Eben Moglen, and maybe a handful of Debian developers who have been particularly zealous in their license policing to be taken to Cupertino in a donkey cart where they can kneel before Emperor Steve with a briefcase of money, beg for iTunes to be ported to Linux because they were wrong all along, then hope Steve agrees before, I dunno, feeding them to carnivorous donkeys for sport. And if Steve says “No,” the next step in esr’s master plan is to yell out really loudly that Steve’ll be sorry, because without iPod support, Linux is not going to survive the leap to 64-bit computing in two years and will be a moot market to pursue anyhow.


What’s that? You wonder what it all means?

Try this: The Linux World outburst was a cheap poke in the eye, like it always is.

p.s. My fondest hope is that the IP I note in the logs searching for “rms/esr slash fiction” is the same one that leaves a comment calling me a moron. Dream a little dream.


  1. Chris Cunningham says:

    August 29th, 2006 at 6:11 pm (#)

    Fluendo have already bought licences which allow them to release MPEG-2, WMA and MP3 gstreamer plugins, fully-legally, with source, for linux. (there are conditions on use, but only as prohibitive as disallowing redistribution by those who don’t have a licence themselves.) MPEG-4 is doubtless next. That this has slipped under the radar of people who are berating (EL) Eric Raymond for being ignorant of the current linux multimedia situation is not a good thing.

    • Chris
  2. dot unplanned » Ya Don’t Say says:

    September 28th, 2006 at 6:45 am (#)

    […] Like I didn’t get to last time, the underlying message of these articles, and the narrative Raymond and his acolytes have promulgated, is that you’ve got “realists” who’d love to run whatever the best software is, even if it’s proprietary; and you’ve got the “purists” who are trying to keep the realists down. […]

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