Free operating systems differ from the proprietary variety in a number of
ways. One of the differences which is most evident to all users is in the
provision of device drivers. With free systems, device drivers are free
software, provided with the system itself. Proprietary systems tend to
provide relatively few drivers; instead, proprietary drivers are shipped
with the hardware itself and installed separately. Anybody who wonders
about which model works better would be well advised to look at the events of
March 28, when Creative Labs
an outside developer who had been working to improve Creative's
Creative is, of course, a long-time manufacturer of audio hardware.
Opinions vary on the quality of that hardware, but there can be no doubt
that Creative has been successful in this market. Creative's customers
have found, though, that moving to Vista has been an unusually painful
experience, even by the standards of that particular system. It seems that
Creative's drivers have failed to provide the same level of functionality
found in previous versions, leaving customers with crippled hardware.
Strangely enough, said customers have not been entirely pleased with this
state of affairs.
Enter a developer called "Daniel_K". Daniel took the time to figure out
how the hardware worked and to patch Creative's drivers to, once again,
provide access to the full capability of the hardware. He then made those
drivers available to others. Creative hardware owners were happy about
this: somebody had finally managed to solve the problems they had been
complaining about. One would have expected Creative to be happy too; happy
customers tend to be good for business.
That's not the way of it, though. Instead, Creative removed links to the
fixed drivers from its forums and posted a public cease-and-desist letter.
According to Creative's Phil O'Shaughnessy:
By enabling our technology and IP to run on sound cards for which
it was not originally offered or intended, you are in effect,
stealing our goods. When you solicit donations for providing
packages like this, you are profiting from something that you do
not own. If we choose to develop and provide host-based processing
features with certain sound cards and not others, that is a
business decision that only we have the right to make.
There can be little doubt that Creative is operating within its legal
rights here. It has retained proprietary rights to its driver software,
and it has imposed the usual sort of "thou shalt not reverse engineer" EULA
on its users. So, while Daniel_K may (or may not) have been able to
legally reverse engineer the driver (depending on his location), he almost
certainly did not have the right to redistribute modified versions of
Creative's drivers. Asking for donations to help him continue this
activity will not have made him any friends at Creative either. When
dealing with other peoples' proprietary software in this manner, one should
not be surprised to get shutdown notices.
Creative may be on solid ground legally, but it still makes sense to look
at what is going on here. One might have attributed the driver problems to
a lack of competence at Creative, or, perhaps, to the general sort of
misery that (your editor has heard) goes along with Vista. Instead,
Creative's crippled drivers were the result of a "business decision."
Rather than allow its customers to get the most out of the hardware they
thought they owned, Creative decided to restrict that functionality,
presumably as a way of motivating those customers to buy newer, shinier,
better-supported hardware. Daniel_K, by making Creative's customers
happier, was threatening Creative's chosen business strategy.
Now consider a company whose hardware is supported by free drivers. That
company lacks the ability to use crippled drivers as a tool to "encourage"
customers to replace their hardware. Instead, that company has every
incentive to provide the best hardware possible and to ensure that said
hardware works to its fullest capability. Such a company would welcome an
outsider who made their products work better; those outsiders would be more
likely to receive job offers than cease-and-desist letters. Rather than
calling out the lawyers, this company could focus on the business of being
a hardware company.
Your editor knows which sort of company he would (and does) choose to buy
hardware from. Free drivers are not just a path toward higher-quality
support, though that is typically the result. They are not just a way to
help ensure that the kernel as a whole remains stable and debuggable. And
free drivers are not just a way to help ensure that all can learn and benefit
from the work which was done to get the hardware working. They are also a
way to avoid the threat of manipulation by hardware vendors who have
decided that providing the best value for customers is no longer a winning
business strategy. That is a sort of freedom which is worth having.
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