posted by Robert C. Dowdy on Tue 8th Oct 2002 02:36 UTC

"Red Hat Ambition, Modified KDE"
At the beginning of this article, I stated that my purpose in this writing wasn't political. The real meat of this article is everything above this point, and if that's all you're interested in you can safely stop reading now. There are no more tips or how-to's beyond this point. That being said, I do have an opinion on the controversy surrounding this release. Again, this is my opinion as a simple user of Red Hat and other Linux distributions. Am I wrong? Maybe so, but consider this: instead of flaming me, try to see where I'm coming from. Figure out why I feel this way, work back to the source of my assumptions, and focus your efforts at that point. If my views are both flawed and shared by many others, it stands to reason the information on which those views are based is flawed and that only by providing a logical alternate foundation for such beliefs can those views be altered, presumably for the better. I'm not a Red Hat supporter or a KDE supporter in the sense that being one precludes the other: I refuse to accept that, in the wake of Psyche, it's an either-or proposition. Read on and you'll see why.

Free software, its supporters are often eager to point out, is about choice. This might be the choice to use KDE or GNOME, KWord or AbiWord, vi or emacs; but that is only the tip of the iceberg. The choice isn't merely to use one tool in favor of another, but to choose to modify that tool to whatever degree you deem necessary to meet your needs. Red Hat has exercised this freedom with Psyche in accordance with the licensing schemes of the affected projects. If this seems particularly onerous to you, respond by exercising your power of choice: do not bolster Red Hat's activities by supporting their product, and present your reasoning for this decision to others in a reasonable, logical manner. Flaming others in support of a certain viewpoint often does more damage than good to the cause, after all. What kind of message do we as a community send when we shout about freedom of choice from one side of our collective mouth while condemning Red Hat (or anyone else) out the other side for exercising that very freedom in a manner we find personally objectionable?

Mandrake, SuSE and many other distributions ship more or less unmodified KDE packages. ELX, Lycoris, Lindows, and Xandros (and probably others) ship versions of KDE with modifications ranging from slight to sweeping depending on the distribution. Often, these "enhancements" are marketed near the top of the list of "unique, must-have" features. How many awful things have you heard about Lindows? How many of those awful things centered specifically on the heavily modified KDE that is the heart of Lindows' desktop? How many times have you heard Xandros criticized for continually letting shipping dates slip? How many times have you heard it criticized for shipping a modified KDE?

Red Hat, of all the distribution producers, is seen by and large as "more corporate" than the others (with the notable exception of the much maligned Lindows). As such, Red Hat is often seen as somehow more threatening than the others, leading to the obligatory shouting by certain members of the community of: "Red Hat wants to be the Microsoft of Linux! Resist! Resist before it's too late!" This is not the closed source world, where Microsoft (or any other entity, such as Apple in the Macintosh world or Sun in the high-end server arena) reigns from on high and does whatever it wants, safe in the knowledge that users will fall in line simply because they have no other choice. Apple's legendary stability and ease of use stems from its tight control of its products, for which it is generally lauded by its users. Microsoft, by virtue of being orders of magnitude larger (and subsequently more threatening) than Apple, is widely condemned for attempting to exercise such control over every aspect of the end user experience (such as driver signing, and software and hardware certification). Arguably, this is why in a very real sense the Macintosh user experience may be superior to the Windows user experience: Microsoft is placed in the unenviable position of having to support a nearly limitless array of PC configurations, often using low-quality hardware, while Apple is not. There's a lesson in that, to be sure, but in the end it just doesn't matter when the topic at hand is Linux: the rules that govern the closed source computing world simply do not apply to open source projects such as Linux. There can be no monopoly in such a system. The open source software model was carefully crafted from the ground up specifically to prevent such an eventuality.

Red Hat literally cannot become the "Microsoft of Linux". Microsoft's source code is jealously guarded and fiercely protected, Red Hat's is available to anyone who wants it, not just for viewing but for modification and reuse by anyone. Red Hat, should it misbehave badly enough to anger a large enough faction, could be undone with its own code. It bears repeating: the open source world is not structured to tolerate a monopoly. Red Hat is a service company, and as such its primary interest is in supporting its Linux distribution. Any changes Red Hat makes to its distribution must be viewed in this light. Suggesting that Red Hat is intentionally including software in the form of a modified KDE just to harm an open source project is suggesting that the (allegedly) fearfully ambitious corporation that is Red Hat is run by a gaggle of fools eager to commit financial suicide. Red Hat's primary interest is in supporting its distribution, remember. One finds it hard to believe the company would ship an intentionally broken or inferior product which would only serve the dual purpose of increasing the burden of providing support and of alienating the company's paying customers -- not you and I, but Red Hat's real customers, corporates with volume buying power and millions to spend on software support contracts. Whatever the end result and eventual outcome of these changes, you can rest assured that Red Hat did not intentionally set out to ship bad software. Working within the confines of the GPL, Red Hat set out to minimize support needs and associated costs and to maximize user experience as they see it for their target user base.

Open source projects which chafe at Red Hat's (or any other entity's) handling of their code within the legal -- if not moral or ethical, unquantifiable as such things are -- confines of the project's licensing might wish to take a closer look at their choice of licensing. Is it acceptable to claim a project is "free" in all senses of the word -- but only so long as:

1) The exercise of those freedoms are "acceptable" (whatever the consensus on that might be at any given time among the project's many developers) and

2) so long as the entity making the changes is "friendly" with the free software project in question (again, how does one quantify this?)

Let me point out here that I am not aiming criticism at the KDE project or its developers, but at the large number of various people who have condemned Red Hat (often based on wildly incorrect data and vague rumors) for modifying KDE. The vast majority of these people aren't affiliated with KDE at all, except maybe as simple users. To these people, I say this: A project is either free or it is not. The GPL does not provide for the arbitrary picking and choosing of entities "worthy" to participate in those freedoms. That is just one among many of the checks and balances the elegant simplicity of the GPL provides to prevent development stagnation (anyone can fork a project and try to do a better job than those handling the original) and to stop cold the ability of any one entity to summarily take over a project (for the very same reason). The GPL, love it or hate it, is the cornerstone of Linux development. So long as the GPL remains effective neither Red Hat nor any other distributor will be capable of -- or sanely interested in -- "taking over" Linux in whole or in part. It seems that former Windows users, accustomed to Microsoft's (and others') business tactics, are wary perhaps to the point of paranoia about such things and immediately suspect the worst whenever what appears to be purely corporate interests are involved with their computing experience. The idea of a takeover and the subsequent destruction of choice that would follow is a legitimate fear in the closed source world, but attempting to supply a rationale for it in the open source world depends on a logical fallacy. Any entity attempting such a thing would be met with failure and rejection. Odd that the most successful of all Linux distributors should be accused of charting just such a course for disaster on a such a regular basis, don't you think?

Table of contents
  1. "Introduction"
  2. "Nvidia Drivers"
  3. "Fonts"
  4. "APT, Mp3 and DVD Playback - Part I"
  5. "APT, Mp3 and DVD Playback - Part II"
  6. "Yes, it is still KDE - Part I"
  7. "Yes, it is still KDE - Part II"
  8. "Red Hat Ambition, Modified KDE"
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