Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Stallman on Steam on GNU/Linux

In July, Valve announced that they were in the process of porting Steam and a handful of games to GNU/Linux. Shortly after, Stallman put forward this statement on the benefits of porting Steam to GNU/Linux. In this delightful and surprising opinion statement, he argues that the gains of video game loving people switching their OS, the foundation of all of the their computation, to a Libre alternative displaces the damage done by Steam moving to GNU/Linux. Now, we should all note that while Stallman can give his opinion until he is blue in the face and it doesn't necessarily mean anything. GNU/Linux is Libre Software and, by the definition of Libre Software, has nothing to say about what software can or cannot be run on the system.1 Be that as it may, Stallman's opinion does hold some weight for some for the community.

What is interesting is that this is a huge departure from the opinions Stallman typically expresses. From what I've seen, Stallman has never been one for compromise when it comes to Libre Software, even when that compromise would almost certainly result in benefit to the Libre Software community. As an example, you can listen to Bryan Lunduke and Chris Fisher's conversation with Stallman on the "GNU/Linux Action Show." Lunduke, who dominated the discussion, was looking for tips on how he could transition from a proprietary software developer into a Libre Software developer. In particular, he was looking for information on how he could do this and still support his family. Now, I'm not claiming that Lunduke is a programming superstar, or that Lunduke's software is so great that having it released as open source is a clear and substantial benefit for the community. I don't really know what effect his software would have for anybody. I will say that having a guide of how to transition to Libre Software development, even if only partially, would be a great help to the community, and reiterating the message of the Free Software Movement to any captive audience is likewise a benefit. Stallman's response was implicitly that that an independent developer (i.e. someone that makes their living selling digital copies of their software) simply cannot currently support themselves with Libre Software development. What he actually said, however, was that Lunduke should seek a new career. Specifically, his point seemed to be that comparing the viability of "for profit" Libre Software development to proprietary software development was a futile exercise since proprietary development is unethical and akin to "burglary". It might or might not make you money, but it should not be done for ethical reasons. While I agree with the gist of the statement, arguing with extremes like comparing a relatively minor restriction of people's freedom to something like burglary is frowned upon by most people. More to the point, I feel that many more minds can be won over when an understanding and softer, but still firm, voice is used. I invite you to watch the whole interview, as infuriating as it is. By the way, if you come off thinking that this Lunduke fellow was treated unfairly and that Stallman is a d-bag, you might watch the following week's episode where Lunduke throws a multitude of ad hominem attacks against Stallman, which will probably make you reassess where the d-baggery lies.

I bring up all of this so that the context is clear of what Stallman's opinion of compromise has been in the past. This opinion on Steam seems nearly 180 degrees out of phase from the standard Stallman opinion. It is not that I see this as antithetical to the advancement of Libre Software, quite the contrary as I will argue, but I do see it as not keeping with Stallman's usual position on the mixing of Libre and proprietary software, much less DRM laden software. It should not be lost on us that Steam is perhaps the most visible DRM peddling marketplace in existence today. This is the software that Stallman is tacitly ok with.

I wonder if this is a change in Stallman's strategy for promoting Libre Software usage. I wonder if he now sees more benefit performing a bit of social engineering rather than just leading by example. At the very least, for people that say that Stallman is not able or not willing to compromise or see the bigger picture (which I have been guilty of a few times) this should demonstrate otherwise. Whatever the reason behind this change of opinion, tone, or otherwise, I think that this is a good thing that hopefully we will see more of.

A Libre Software ecosystem

I think that Stallman might be understating some of the indirect benefits of having Steam on GNU/Linux. Windows dominates the computing world because it has many users. It has those users because it has developers writing software. It of course has those developers writing software because it has all those users, who are willing to pay money. This self-sustaining ecosystem is something to be sought in the Libre Software world. Anything that can be used to bootstrap this, should be sought out. And yes, this means that people in the Libre Software world will need to get used to the idea of paying for what they want if the desire this kind of ecosystem.2 This is not difficult to work out. A developer only has so much time, some of this time needs to be used to make money to live, thus if they can make money developing free software there will be more free software. This is the reason I feel that the funding problem is the number one problem to tackle for the Free Software Movement.

The problem is, an ecosystem takes a long time to build up unless you are willing to pump vast amounts of money into it, and maybe it doesn't grow even if you do. It takes a long time to build, but what if you can have an already established ecosystem migrate to you? Valve has been relatively candid about their dislike of the direction that Microsoft is headed in, and who could blame them? There are some shaky decisions coming out of Microsoft and things are probably going to get much worse before they get better (if they do). I am expecting a pretty large exodus of users fairly soon.

The question becomes, where will these users go? Presumably, many will switch to OS X. However, as many have noted, Apple has some quite disturbing opinions (along with the track record to back it up) about what rights the users and developers of software for their iOS should have. When these limitations by Apple land on OS X, I expect that it will very likely discourage many Windows users from moving to that OS. This is made all the more troubling when you see Microsoft starting to tread down the same path Apple travelled as they seek to regain some of their lost market share and profits. These kinds of decisions by the major players in the field are a strong incentive for diversifying your product to a stable, yet non-restrictive OS.

Thus Valve decided to port Steam to GNU/Linux. I think the motivation of Valve's decision is just plain business sense. They want to buy some "Windows and Microsoft falls apart and not everybody likes Apple" insurance. This is a good way to hedge their bets on where their users will end up and ensure a longer life should Microsoft continue to make poor decisions. Further, they will have a substantive advantage over late comers to the GNU/Linux platform if it does indeed become popular amongst gamers. But the reasons for their decisions aren't what I am focusing on; I am interested in what effect we should expect for Libre Software.

The benefit and harm of Steam on GNU/Linux

In a recent post (see the last section), I made a particularly Raymond-esque argument that the importance of having something be Libre is directly proportional to how important that software is to your life and livelihood.3 I concluded that proprietary video games are "ok" so long as they don't come with even a hint of DRM. Because of this "no DRM" standard, I will most likely never pay any money for any software sold via Steam, nor do I think anybody should for that matter, though I know and accept that many will.

The point is, once you accept this argument for proprietary games and proprietary stops being your cut-off for completely unacceptable, you start seeing shades of gray and you will most likely come to the conclusion that proprietary may be bad, but DRM is worse. It is a matter of degree. DRM in software marks that extra step past software that is merely proprietary but non-abusive to something which is, in fact, abusive. DRM is in its very essence not in the users best interest, the epitome of an anti-feature. In addition, DRM is very often more abusive than the original authors intended it to be, hurting "legitimate users" as well as copyright infringers. DRM is almost by definition the act of abusing the proprietary nature of the application in order to actively restrict a user's freedom in a very overt and measurable way. DRM is the actual boogie man, or one of them, that the FSF has been warning about for all these years. Here he is, in the flesh, right where we can all see him.

This makes me wonder if this move by Stallman is a bit more diabolical than it initially seems. I suspect that if there is one place where proprietary software is unlikely to "teach users that the point is not freedom," video games are it. To the average user, a video game is a piece of software that is the epitome of luxury. From a practical point of view, a video game is only as good as the art that goes into it, and from Stallman's point of view, Libre art is of much lower priority than Libre Software (which I agree with). What I think might be the ultimate result of DRM video games in GNU/Linux is a better appreciation and understanding of the main goals of freedom in Libre Software rather than an erosion of these ideals.

By letting the boogie man run around your town and terrorize your citizens, it often has the result of people increasing their support for the white knights that have devoted their life to protecting users from that boogie man. What better way to ensure a boogie man that will be noticed but not cause too much damage than to let in DRM, which is today basically synonymous with proprietary software abuse, but only in video games, which are hugely popular but basically synonymous with luxury? We may even get a few new white knights out of it. When these new GNU/Linux users boot up and find a wealth of software, in fact an entire operating system, all of which is devoid of DRM, lock-in, and excessively high pricing, they might, just might, start to associate proprietary with restriction, DRM, and "annoying to use" while, at the same time, start to associate Libre/Free/Open Source with freedom and, gasp, "easy to use." In fact, if we continue to produce these pretty impressive Libre video games, people might start to wonder what they need Steam for at all.

And if Steam isn't overtly abusive? What if people accept it and like it? You don't get this effect I describe, true, but you still have Stallman's original point: more users of Libre Software means more freedom for users. You alse get more people familiar with developing for GNU/Linux and, arguably, increase the pool of developers that might write Libre Software in their free time. More or less, this is a win however you cut it, but it might be a bigger win than Stallman lets on.

The year of the GNU/Linux Desktop?

I know, this has been speculated about to death. But with MS actively imploding under user disappointment and Apple encroaching further and further on users' freedoms, there could very likely be a sizable of portion of the community that is just lost enough to jump to Ubuntu or similar.

The upshot of all this is that GNU/Linux is actually is a very good position to accomplish at least Torvald's initial dream, a sizable install base for Linux based systems on the desktop/laptop, and a large part of the FSF's goal, to get more people using more Libre Software. I know it has been said before, but right now I see a possible inflection point. If Microsoft continues to tank on their desktop/laptop software (which seems very likely), Apple continues to make their desktop/laptop computing environment more like the restrictive iOS, GNU/Linux gets Steam and game developers start to develop for GNU/Linux, and provided we find a good way to financially support Libre Software, there is a very good chance for a vast increase of the install and developer share. This increase will, at the very least, increase the number of users that have control over their own computers even if there will be a few, non-essential, pieces of software that will be out of their control due to DRM. Stallman is correct to encourage Valve's port of Steam to the GNU/Linux platform.

Footnotes:

1 It should also be noted that prior to fairly new positions by Apple in their iOS, this would be a silly thing to even bother to say. Before that it would be considered financial suicide to do so. Thank you, Apple…

2 That is not to say that I don't see the great benefit in having Libre Software also be gratis, but these ideas are not totally at odds with one another.

3 I actually have walked back my opinion a bit. I got to thinking about my sister, who sees video games as a social tool. As a social tool, this now becomes an important part of her life. I would wager that there are many people out there just like my sister. It would be arrogant of me to argue that just because I find something to be "purely a luxury" means that this is true for everyone. If I wish others to respect my opinions on what is important enough to be Libre Software, I should respect that others might find something I think of as non-essential as important enough as well.

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