The meaning of FREE

A recent blog post by Mark Shuttleworth has sparked quite a bit of debate. His assertion:
We have to work together to keep free software freely available. It will be a failure if the world moves from paying for shrink-wrapped Windows to paying for shrink-wrapped Linux.
As free software becomes more successful and more pervasive there will be an increasing desire on the part of companies to make it more proprietary. We've already seen that with Red Hat and Novell, which essentially offer free software on proprietary terms – their “really free” editions are not certified, carry no support and receive no systematic security patching. In other words – they’re beta or test versions. If you want the best that free software can deliver, a rock solid, widely certified, secure platform, from either of those companies then you have to pay, and you pay the same price whether you are Goldman Sachs or a startup in Rio de Janeiro.
That’s not the vision we all share of what free software can achieve.
With Ubuntu, our vision is to make the very best of free software freely available, globally. To the extent we make short-term compromises, for drivers or firmware along the way, we see those as bugs, and ones that will be closed over time.

Basically, he's calling the two main Enterprise Linux distributors proprietary companies. Greg DeKoenigsberg, the Community Development Manager for Red Hat (aka quite active in the Fedora community) fires back:
You can call Red Hat “proprietary” all you want. That doesn't make it true.
The difference between Red Hat Enterprise Linux bits and CentOS bits is virtually nil; we make all of our source RPMs available to anyone who wants them. (Ask Novell if they do the same. I'll save you the time: they don't.) What is “proprietary” is the brand, and the quality of service you are entitled to receive by being a paying customer. Oh, and the notion that “the price is the same whether you're Goldman Sachs or a startup in Rio de Janeiro” is ludicrous.
If you want to duplicate that quality of service for Ubuntu users, that's noble and admirable. That's competition. But leave the FUD at the door, dude. You're better than that. Aren't you?

The discussion gets going from there. My opinion lies somewhere between the two, although that's not surprising considering they're basically diametrically opposed. I think calling Red Hat a proprietary company is a bit disingenuous. The bits are 100% freely available and Red Hat is extremely active in contributing code back upstream. I don't think there is any danger of there becoming a shrink-wrapped only Linux situation. Matt seems to think that Mark doesn't “get” enterprise Linux. I think it might be something else though, and that's that Canonical has an entirely different business model. The Red Hat business model has turned into something along the lines of (yes, these are *gross* oversimplification meant to illustrate a point) “If you want Linux for free, we have a release that is primarily aimed at developers that you are free (in every sense of the word) to do what you please with. The maintenance window is really short and we make no guarantees, but here it is – enjoy. If you'd like a solid and stable version of Linux that comes with support, ISV certifications and long term maintenance, we also have RHEL but it costs”. I've express my desire to have a maintenance without support version of RHEL (for a fee mind you, just a low one) in the past, but that may never happen. If you start with Fedora now and end up wanting official Red Hat support, you basically have to start 100% from scratch with RHEL. The Canonical version seems to be more along the lines of “Feel free to download any version of the product we have, be it LTS or not. If you'd like support, we'd be happy to provide it for a price.” For those not familiar with Ubuntu, LTS is “(Long Term Support”. This does give companies the added advantage of being able to try the official product while maintaining the ability to easily move to the supported product. That is nice, but if you want anything in the line of ISV certification at this time, Ubuntu doesn't have much to offer you (and that is important).
The one great thing that stands out to me here is that, due to the way that Linux is licensed both companies get a chance to prove their models. What's even better, they are doing so with essentially the same bits. Everyone in the community has the potential to win! No vendor lock-in on either side, so comparisons to “Microsoft of Linux” are non sequitur. See how great choice really is? The one final comment I'll add is that Red Hat has done a good job of proving their model works. Can Canonical do the same? Will they?
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2 Responses to The meaning of FREE

  1. Anonymous says:

    To add an additional ray of light to your closing comment, I just read in the Linspire Letter, that CnR will be opened and made available to other distros, with hooks to the existing package managers. If this is technically achievable then this is another valuable contribution to the Linux world. This development will make possible an easy graphical, one step package manager for whatever distro you use, which a lot of people want and need (not me, but you know…).
    Do you think that this spatting is necessary to move each respective point of view forward?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Not sure it's necessary, but it will be interesting to watch and see if anything comes out of it in the end.

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