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November 19, 2012
Here’s are words I never thought I’d write: Netflix works on Linux. Not officially, of course: Instead, it relies on sophisticated hacks to the Wine compatibility layer. Still, this could be a very big deal in the open source world, where for years users have vainly pleaded with Netflix for a Linux client, while also trying to implement their own solutions with little success.
As many longtime Linux users now, Netflix streaming — which depends on Microsoft Silverlight technology that (unsurprisingly) is supported only on Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) Windows and Apple ( NASDAQ: AAPL) Mac OS X — has never worked natively on open source operating systems. Netflix has periodically dangled promises of native Linux support before the open source community, but it has never delivered on them. Worse, reports of the company’s explicit disavowal of support for Linux circulated earlier this fall.
Meanwhile, independent attempts by Linux users to get Netflix working on their operating system of choice consistently came up short. Efforts to solve the issue using the Wine emulator (I know — technically speaking, Wine is not an emulator, but please pardon the shorthand), which makes it possible to run some Windows applications on Linux, were hampered by bugs. Other methods proved even less productive.
The one reliable solution was to use a Windows virtual machine, but that was less than ideal for a variety of reasons. In particular, it wasted system resources, wouldn’t work on slower hardware and, last but not least, required a copy of Windows.
This all changed late last week, when an open source developer named Erich Hoover finally solved the long standing Netflix dilemma for Linux users. His solution, which uses Wine in conjunction with particular versions of Mozilla Firefox and Silverlight, has so far been proven only on 32-bit Ubuntu, but there is no reason to believe it won’t apply to other Linux distributions.
For now, getting Netflix working on Linux involves patching and compiling source code, which is beyond the scope of what most normal, non-geeky computer users will be able or willing to do. But a PPA repository is reportedly in the works that will allow anyone to configure Netflix software on Linux in a few simple clicks.
This news could have major implications for the open source channel and its relationship with the proprietary software world. For one, Netflix now may finally get around to offering official Linux support. After all, since Hoover and the Wine hackers have done the hard work, it only makes (selfish) sense for Netflix to release a Linux client based on their solution to ensure its control over the market that was just created.
More broadly, the success of Hoover in making Netflix work on Linux underlines the ability of the open source community to work stubbornly around the barriers placed in its way by uncooperative partners from the proprietary software channel. In this case, a solution was very long in coming, and there’s no certainty it will continue to work if Netflix changes its technology. Still, after a lot of hard work, open source hackers have achieved for themselves what the proprietary software community refused to do for them.
The point? Proprietary developers should support Linux on their own, rather than waiting for irreverent independent hackers to do it for them.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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