Linux Format rant on Mono debate

The other day I bought the January 2010 edition of Linux Format, the UK’s best-known magazine for that platform. In the letters page, there is a letter from a guy called Nick Canupp, having a go at sections of the community for opposing the inclusion of Mono (a freeware implementation of .NET) and proprietary video drivers in Linux distributions. His point was that the “whining and infighting” over these issues could put people like his family and friends, who he’s introduced to Linux, off the system. The reaction was a decidedly ill-tempered rant from Paul Hudson, the editor:

The reason some folks want us to stop using Mono is simple: they want Fauxpen Source rather than Open Source. That is, they are happy for you to use open source, as long as it’s open source they approve of. Every time — every time — we publish an article about Mono, people write in telling us to stop using it. Well, here’s the news, folks: it’s not free software if you’re forcing your beliefs on other people. … If you want to use Adobe Flash rather than Gnash (an open-source implementation of Flash which isn’t complete), go for it. It’s free software — free as in freedom — and I’m not going to presume that my definition of freedom should stomp over yours.

For anyone who doesn’t know what these terms mean, free software is commonly used (usually capitalised) to mean software distributed as, or at least with access to, source code, so that it can be redistributed and modified, and that modified versions can be redistributed. Free as in freedom means free in that sense, rather than as a zero-cost download. Adobe Flash is not “free as in freedom”, it’s just free to download. Free Software is often called “open source” software, although the terms are associated with different philosophies.

I don’t have a particular bee in my bonnet about these issues, although I prefer good open-source software to good proprietary software, because the latter is less well-scrutinised and is more likely to be buggy. Compare the exasperating Windows update system, which interrupts you five minutes after you’re desktop has set itself up to tell you that it’s just finished installing updates and it really must reboot now, with the relatively smooth update manager in Debian and Ubuntu, for example. However, I fail to see how the editor of one of the world’s major Linux magazines can write such nonsense.

As for why people object to Mono, the reason is not just because it’s based on something originally developed by “Micro$haft”. The reason is that there have been concerns about “submarine patents”, in other words, hidden, patented technologies which Microsoft could use later to destabilise the Linux platform by making patent claims against important Linux applications. I heard this concern expressed on the old LUGRadio podcast back in 2005 (I think it may have been this show). Another reason is that some people regard time and energy spent in reimplementing Microsoft’s technology as a waste when Microsoft will always be one step ahead as they are the inventors of the software, while Linux has its own technologies both for network and desktop development.

It’s true, there are those who want everyone to use free software all the time and talk of the proprietary solutions as “temptations”, when in fact not everyone has the ability to go away and write their own replacement. I certainly don’t. This isn’t the only reason, however, why people object to Mono, and neither is blind anti-Microsoft sentiment, although this may be behind a lot of the emails Hudson receives. There are serious debates about the value of this software, although five years down the line from the first release of Mono, the patent issues that people were worried about have yet to materialise.

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