Daily Archives: March 5, 2011

When commercial interests seep into OpenSource: Good things can happen, but usually don’t.

The other day, Julia and I decided to install SimCity 4 Deluxe for Windows on one of our Linux boxes. Using Wine, the install went fine, but the program would not run. It would kind of start up but then die with no obvious explanation. With a bit of work I can probably find the reason and fix it, but first I went to the Wine site to see what it said there, and I found, do my disappointment, mostly Geeksnarkese blithering among the amateur IT experts who had been playing around getting the once-popular city-simulation game running with the Linux program that stands for Wine Is Not an Emulator (wine).

What I men by Geeksnarkese is a linguistic and cultural phenomenon that at one time prevailed in Linux circles on the Internet (and elsewhere, in Windows fora and in Meatland as well) but is now, thankfully, less common. I’ll write about that some other time but there is a good chance you know what I mean. Anyway, it was impossible to figure out from them what was needed to get SimCity4 Deluxe to install, run, or run properly (though they claimed it could be done) because in Geeksnarkese one ends potentially helpful paragraphs with things like “… and I’ll let you figure that part out on your own” and substitutes key instructions with phrases like “… just set up your media drive to emulate a file in the correct path and adjust the permissions accordingly…” In other words, an amateur IT person who speaks mainly Geeksnarkese is merely an amateur for a reason!

Anyway, frustrated with the inability of snot nosed kids working out of basements to communicate effectively, I downloaded Crossover Games. Crossover is the commercial implementation of Wine. The money they make selling Crossover is supposedly used to make Wine better. I am pretty sure that Crossover (the not-for-games version) is pretty good. At any given moment it lets you install and run a recent (but not necessarily the most recent) version of Microsoft Office on your computer with no problems. I got it a long time ago because I simply needed to run Endnote for a short while, and it worked flawlessly. It’s a nice product, and for a mere 30 bucks or so a year, it is an excellent option for transitions from Windows to Linux.

But the free version you download to try it out is, as one might expect, stupid and annoying, as least for the games version. It had a strange menu and interactive system that was not easily understood but obviously designed to be clear and useful (they would do better if they didn’t just imagine that it was a good design, but actually tried it out with people other than those who know the system inside out). Then, at critical moments in the install process, an obnoxious dialog box would pop up asking one of those questions that didn’t really have an appropriate answer (it turns out that when you want to click something like “I don’t want to pay now for the free trial version I downloaded nine seconds ago, but I do want to continue the current operation” you hit “Cancel.” Dummies.

Anyway, after all that mucking around, it turns out that Crossover for Games produced the same exact result wine produced: Nothing. However, I think that other than their dumbass dialog boxes it might be the case that installation with Crossover for Games was easier. The problem with installing Windows games on Linux is that Windows games are inherently unsafe little security monsters, and it is hard to run unsafe things off of a CD. There are ways around that and Crossover for Games might implement one of those ways (not sure).

In any event, this particular foray into commercial software land produced the following results:

  • 1) I was annoyed; and
  • 2) It didn’t work.

Now, turn to Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Red Hat Linux (and/or Fedora, depending) is an excellent form of Linux which seriously competes with Debian and other distributions, and is often used in commercial operations. It has been adapted to specialized uses. It is the basis for Scientific Linux, and I’m pretty sure there are real-time versions for real-time tasks, etc.

The big deal with RHEL (the “E” being the key letter here) is that you buy it. Well, you don’t really buy it. It is released under the same OpenSource licenses as other OS software. But normally, when you deploy RHEL on your computer(s), you also purchase support contracts. this way, instead of having to wade through snot stained going-nowhere Geeksnarkese on the Intertubes, you call or otherwise contact a highly trained professional who simply solves your problem. Or, your company arranges for training of personnel by RHEL. Or whatever.

But sine the L in RHEL is OpenSoruce, you or I or anyone else can provide that Operating System and then, because it’s a free country, provide the service. Not allowing that would be like Ford selling cars and not allowing anyone else to fix them but Ford. Or Apple selling iPods“>iPods and not letting anyone else … (…. wait, never mind that one …).

So, Oracle and Novell, which used to be one large evile company and one smaller not so evile company, now combined to produce the latest High Tech Monster trying to TOTW, is trying to sell RHEL support, competing directly with Red Hat. Is that good? Bad? Ethical? Evile? I dunno.

But RHEL‘s reaction is an example of how commercial interests can muck up the FOSS model. RHEL is now implementing “hidden patches” to its operating system which make anyone who does not know about the patches at risk of mucking up if they supply support. This would be like Ford adding design elements to their cars that break the car if you try to fix it without knowing about them, and not telling anyone about them.

This also means, and I think this is key, that there will be (or already are) patches that are implemented primarily or only to break the software and that otherwise have no purposed.

And thus, Linux creeps towards the Windows design philosophy: Break the software, blame the victim, charge more.

I would love to know what my friends who are professional trained RHEL engineers think about this.

Both cases are similar: The commercial model requires adding something that does not serve a purpose other than supporting the commercial model itself and that is annoying or destructive, and the final outcome is not improved software. Crossover for Games does not work any better than not using crossover for games (for SimCity4 … it probably works great for other games, so do try it) and RHEL, while probably still a top notch OS, now has code that is subject to all the negatives code is subject to (takes space, takes RAM, can have a bug, can be vulnerable, etc) that is not only unnecessary but also, because of the secret nature of it, not under the scrutiny of the FOSS community, and thus, more vulnerable to both bugs and security flaws.

Hat tip Virgal Samms for the RHEL story, which is here.