Mixing free and proprietary software: not a rosy future

Short URL: http://fsmsh.com/3048


A recent article caught my eye and turned it a nice shade of red. It discussed the -- hardly new -- idea that the future of software usage must involve a mixture of free and proprietary products -- something the writer refers to as "mixed source". The piece was entitled "Mixed source - the best of both worlds" which may give you a clue as to where I disagree with it.

The article was an opinion piece by Steve Harris, senior director for open source products at Novell in issue 78 of Linux User & Developer magazine. Sadly it's not yet available on-line and I don't honestly know if it will be. If it is I'll post a comment with a link here so you can read it for yourself.

Nothing new under the sun

As I said, the idea that software stacks will become a mixture of free and proprietary products is nothing new. Indeed lots of people are already using such stacks. Personally I believe that once freedom is introduced into a "market place" it will become harder to suppress until eventually it becomes the dominant licencing strategy. This is evident in the fact that a company like Novell not only bought a free software company (SuSE), but bought into the free software philosophy -- well partly anyway. So while proprietary software may not entirely die out (more's the pity) I feel (and hope) it will become the de-facto NON-standard way of licencing software.

"Mixed source" is a bad name for this -- er -- mix though. The source or openness of it is largely irrelevant if you ask me. When you mix free and proprietary systems in one application stack -- like it or not -- the entire stack has a proprietary effect. Obviously the degree of that proprietary effect will depend on how vital the proprietary software is to the stack. Use a free software database back-end with a proprietary front-end and your stack is largely subject to the whim of front-end's vendor.

The best of one world, the worst of the other

What particularly bugged me was a comment about where the split in this twin-licenced software stack would come. I quote:

"A mixed source approach enables customers to keep costs low with open source software while also minimising threats, protecting key corporate data, reducing network administration costs and complying with regulations with the help of steadfast proprietary solutions."

If you'll pardon the pun, that implies that open source/free software has one value -- cost. It also implies that issues like security, networking and regulatory compliance are only really met by proprietary software. Both of these implications are wrong, plain wrong. The (in)security of proprietary products is dependant upon secrets kept not by you but by your supplier. If you "protect" your corporate data with proprietary systems (and by implication proprietary protocols) your data belongs to your supplier, not you. By contrast if you use free software in your security, network administration and data protection you are as (if not more) secure as proprietary offerings but you are not reliant upon your supplier's ability to keep their product secure. He goes on...

"when adding additional security functionality to their open systems, many customers are actually reverting to a mixed Linux/proprietary solution."

This is the problem with the word "open": it mean openness and open windows

Again the implication here is that "open" means less secure. See this is the problem with the duality of the word "open": it can mean openness (in terms of sharing) and open windows (in terms of unwanted access).

Square plugs in round gaps

Elsewhere Mr Harris speaks about addressing the "gaps in the capabilities of open source" by further open source development or proprietary solutions. Yet again the message is that FOSS has gaps which can only really be plugged by proprietary software. Yes, he does mention further FOSS development, but the thrust of the piece is essentially that free software can't cut it and requires bailing out by proprietary systems.

What good does it do you to free your legs from the shackles of proprietary software only to voluntary tie one hand behind your back with a proprietary plug?

It's true that free software probably can't cut it in every fields (yet) but you know what? Neither can proprietary software; implying that an average business could not equip itself entirely with free software is misleading. The solution to any gaps in the free software stack is not to develop proprietary plugs. If the base software is free and the customer is enjoying the benefits of that, then why should they then rely upon a closed piece of glue? Would that plug grow with the main software? What if the base software went in a direction which was counter to the proprietary vendors aims? If the customer is going to be spending money on these plugs would they not be wiser to spend it getting free plugs, created so the whole community benefits. Perhaps they could jointly fund develop with other customers, making the whole thing more cost-effective for all. Honestly, what advantage is there is having a small piece of glue technology created just for you when the underlying system is free? What good does it do you to free your legs from the shackles of proprietary software only to voluntary tie one hand behind your back with a proprietary plug?

I'm speak from experience here. When we wanted some custom modules added on top of our free software CMS (ExponentCMS) I deliberately had the code written under a free licence by my third-party developers. We've not yet deployed the new features; however, once we're sure they're good to go we'll release the modules to the ExponentCMS community. Had we got it done it in a proprietary licence, the modules would have remained static -- we probably won't have the resources to fund future development other than in-house stuff. By freeing them up they can be further developed, learned from and built upon in a way that proprietary modules could not.

Not so hidden agendas

I should acknowledge that the real and, given the position Mr Harris holds, somewhat understandable goal of the piece seemed to be promoting the fact that if this "mixed source" world grows then end-users will "need support from vendors and service providers who understand how to connected(sic) open source and proprietary technologies". Hmm I can't think who he might have in mind there, can you?

The closing argument of the piece is:

"Vendors who are well-connected with the open source community yet also able to provide and support proprietary solutions are the ones who are most likely to prevail."

Time will tell if that happens but I very much doubt it will, especially if those vendors promote the idea that you can't have the former without the latter.



masci's picture
Submitted by masci on


The piece above seems to be the one you read on "Linux User & Developer" but the author is Rheinhardt Esau, not Steve Harris...

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Certainly it is very similar, my cursory reading through both shoped up only a couple of words that were different. The article I refer to is definitely "written by" Steve Harris and was in the latest issues of Linux User & Developer which dropped on my mat about a week ago. That means it would have been submitted some months ago to LUD.

It doesn't really matter though. The pieces are almost identical and it looks like this is either a company line for Novell - which makes sense - or one of these two "authors" has been a little bit lazy.

thanks for finding it though.

larkguit's picture
Submitted by larkguit on

Until they make an open source printer I think proprietary drivers will be needed. Oops! They don't make drivers for Linux, since you want to do it yourself when it comes to drivers. And since you want to do it yourself, they let (or should I say make) your do their work for them. Unfortunately, since I'm not about to spend my money on a more compatible printer, nor will I waste time playing around with barely working foss drivers, my Edubuntu is just is just a toy, not a viable option.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Who is the "they" you refer to? And what do you mean by "open source printer"? Do you mean open hardware or just the drivers? I for one would welcome open hardware specs in a printer but I'm not holding my breath for it. However don't make the mistake of thinking that closed hardware requires closed drivers.

Free drivers are available and work well for a large number of printers. There are printer manufacturers who develop open source drivers. HP's hardware is by no means "open" yet their drivers are. The fact that high quality free software printer drivers exist for so many printers (see openprinting.org) undoes your argument that proprietary hardware requires proprietary drivers. I've personally used printers -- from inkjet to colour lasers -- from HP, Canon, Epson and Kyocera with free drivers and they worked beautifully, first time.

On a side note: I don't buy this argument that we should not have to choose our printer based on our choice of OS. If that were the case then printers would not come with Windows and Mac stickers on them. Yes, there should be better support out of the box and yes, I'd like to see "Works with Linux" on the box as well but right now I'd say printers enjoy one of the stronger levels of peripheral support within GNU/Linux (and by nature other free OS).


Terry Hancock's picture

As far as I can tell, LinuxUser & Developer is pretty much nothing but "corporate mouthpiece" articles nowadays.

That's probably because they have exhausted the supply of good writers who are gullible enough to be taken in by their fraudulent business practices.

LU&D has been staying afloat for years by exploiting a loophole in British bankruptcy law which allows them to back out of practically all of their obligations to pay writers and editors, while continuing to operate. The managing editor is meanwhile making a tidy profit off of this arrangement, despite her history of purposely driving companies into the ground.

The trick essentially is that "LinuxUser & Developer" itself is just a licensed trade name -- the licensor is always kept intact, while the official business entity has some nondescript name. That entity is driven bankrupt, avoiding all responsibilities to suppliers and employees, but the trade name, the advertisers, the managing editor, and all of the goodwill and income goes with the name.

Then, after the bankruptcy, they just pick up again, form a new shill company, and keep doing business -- with a new staff of gullible employees and free-lancers ready to be duped and fleeced.

This has gone through at least three cycles, according to my sources -- apparently right from the magazine's inception.

And yes, I know this, because I was among the duped myself. I lost something like four months full-time labor, accounting for approximately half of my expected annual income in 2005. Some others were hit harder than I was.

One would expect this sort of behavior to be criminal, as it is so blatantly unethical.

However, it's apparently not strictly illegal under British law, so they get away with it. This does not give me a very good impression of the British justice system, I can tell you!

In any case, though, the suppliers are apparently getting wise to the situation, which accounts for the reliance on freely-provided corporate shilling as a substitute for content. As a result, you aren't going to find many balanced articles in LU&D these days.

It's a very sad story, and an appalling example of exploitation.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Whilst that may be true, the fact that this appeared in LU & D was not a concern for me. My concern was simply adjusting the balance somewhat -- or at least putting another view up against it.

My personal view is that the reliability of any article is down to the author and not the publication it appears in. True if I have not encountered the author then my experience of the publication will count for something. In the case of LU & D that dwindled some time back -- mostly through boredom. In this case I just wanted to address this fallacy that "mixed" licencing is the future.


Author information

Ryan Cartwright's picture


Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.