One of the core problems for open source has always been that as a radical force outside the mainstream it is hard for its supporters to influence conventional players there. In part, this was what made Dell's Ideastorm so important: it gave a voice to those hitherto unable to communicate usefully with the company. The effects have been dramatic, with Dell now promising to sell systems with pre-installed GNU/Linux. The question then must be, how can we build on that success to achieve maximum impact?
This matters – assuming Dell's announcement turns out to be a serious move to embrace open source. If Dell makes only a token gesture to meet the pent-up demand for such solutions, clearly the free software community needs to make its displeasure felt. Fortunately, in the age of blogs, it is easier to whip up storms of bad publicity for companies that use and abuse its customers in this way – tempests that can easily spill over into the mainstream media with all that this implies for sales and share prices.
Equally, if Dell turns out to be sincere in its desire to put free software offerings on a more equal footing with Windows-based solutions, it is crucial that the open source world do more than just make vaguely-satisfied noises. If and when Dell-branded GNU/Linux systems go on sale, it will be one of the first opportunities for the open source world to influence directly the development of the mainstream PC marketplace.
The way to do this is simple: we must vote with our wallets. Assuming the Dell GNU/Linux systems are not hopelessly flawed in some way, we must all try to buy as many of them as we can (within reason, of course). This might mean delaying a purchase now until the systems are available, or bringing forward plans to buy more hardware. It might mean replacing an ageing PC with a new Dell machine rather than upgrading the motherboard and adding more memory.
However we achieve it, we need to send a strong signal to Dell that backing open source is profitable. Doing so will have two important consequences. The first is that Dell will be likely to expand its offerings, and to take the sector seriously. Even more importantly, its rivals will be forced to take notice of GNU/Linux systems, and will probably start offering them too. This is why we cannot afford to let the Dell experiment fail. It represents a great chance to open up the PC market and to create a level playing field for operating systems, once and for all.
Exactly the same approach needs to be taken in the field of open content, specifically that of music. EMI's announcement yesterday that it would be making its entire catalogue available without DRM is another major shift, like Dell's GNU/Linux offerings, that must be supported in a highly visible way. If backers of DRM-free music start buying tracks and encouraging their friends to do the same, a signal will be sent to both EMI and the other music companies that DRM-less music makes business sense.
As well as freeing the music, such a campaign will have the secondary benefit of weakening Microsoft's WMA format, since the only reason many music providers have opted for it is because of a perceived need for the associated DRM. Once DRM is defeated, semi-open formats like MP3 (and maybe even Ogg) will flourish, and the proprietary approaches will gradually fade away, with obvious knock-on benefits for the free software world.
Now, then, is the time to buy open like never before – so that the companies making these exploratory moves, as well as their more sceptical rivals, really start to buy into openness.
Glyn Moody writes about all kinds of openness at opendotdotdot.
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