Netflix touts open source, ignores Linux

If Netflix loves open source, where's the Linux client?

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Last week's post from Netflix on its use of open source has gotten a lot of coverage from the tech press. Too bad nobody's called the video giant out on its hypocrisy: They benefit greatly from open source, but really don't care to let their customers do the same.

What I'm referring to here, of course, is Netflix's famous lack of support for playback on the Linux desktop. You can watch Netflix movies on Windows, Mac OS X, iOS (iPad & iPhone), and Linux-based machines like the Roku — but if you're an Ubuntu (or Debian, Fedora, openSUSE, etc.) user? Better have a second machine handy to actually utilize Netflix streaming. As a Linux user, it grates on me a bit to see Netflix's Kevin McEntee singing the praises of using and contributing to open source — but doing nothing to promote the same benefits for desktop users of open source.

Don't get me wrong — I'm a big fan of Netflix, and a heavy user of Netflix's service since long before Big Red was streaming video. I understand all too well the realities of supporting the Linux desktop. It may not make business sense for Netflix to invest in a player for Linux, given the relatively small audience on the Linux desktop.

Still, it grates a bit to see Netflix talking about its use and contribution to open source, when the company clearly doesn't care to help users who really embrace open source. In particular, much of the open source that Netflix is crowing about is developed by users who make Linux their choice of desktop OS. Netflix has gotten a lot of mileage out of Linux — the company's servers are Linux-based, and many of the dedicated players that let people use Netflix with their home entertainment centers are also Linux-based.

But there's no love for users with Linux desktops, laptops, and so on. Maybe there's not an immediate, direct return on investment if Netflix provides a Linux client, but it would be nice if Netflix was willing to contribute to the "alternative choice" of millions of users who see the same benefits in using Linux on the desktop that Netflix sees on the server. I'm not even asking that Netflix provide a fully open source client — though that would be great if they did — merely saying that the company could be a real champion of open source by treating all of its users as first-class citizens rather than ignoring Linux users.

McEntee's post also misses the point of many FOSS projects. According to McEntee FOSS projects "often originate as a labor of love by software developers who are tired of seeing a shared problem solved over and over again in one off solutions, or perhaps they realize that they can offer a more simple and elegant alternative to a commercial product."

McEntee is overlooking the motives that drive Netflix to use open source in the first place. It's not just a labor of love, or pursuit of a more elegant solution — it's the drive to avoid being locked into a proprietary vendor. It's the desire to have flexibility, and to benefit from the "virtuous cycle" that makes Netflix successful as a user and contributor to FOSS. Maybe the open source solutions are labors of love, and maybe they're more elegant — but they absolutely afford the companies better flexibility and freedom over choosing proprietary solutions. Wouldn't it be nice if Netflix supported this by giving its customers the ability to enjoy the same freedoms on their desktops?

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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