Free And/Or Open, 25 Years On - InformationWeek

InformationWeek is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

IoT
IoT
Government // Enterprise Architecture
Commentary
9/2/2008
04:22 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
Commentary
Connect Directly
Google+
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Free And/Or Open, 25 Years On

This September marks the 25th anniversary of the Free Software Foundation, and no discussion of open source is complete without them. They've given a philosophy to the computing world -- and to the world as a whole, let's face it -- but like any philosophy or movement, it's not a static thing. The minute the words leave your mouth, they're not yours anymore.

This September marks the 25th anniversary of the Free Software Foundation, and no discussion of open source is complete without them. They've given a philosophy to the computing world -- and to the world as a whole, let's face it -- but like any philosophy or movement, it's not a static thing. The minute the words leave your mouth, they're not yours anymore.

As important as the FSF is and continues to be, they remain a political organization in a field where, for many people, stances are far less important than tangible results. It's laudable that they stick to their guns and talk about why freedom is important -- pace the Stephen Fry happy-birthday message -- but too much of what the FSF has to say is cast in terms that are as rigid and dogmatic as the things they are opposing.

The FSF Web site sports an essay, "Why 'open source' misses the point":

Most people involved with free software say little about freedom -- usually because they seek to be "more acceptable to business." Software distributors especially show this pattern. Nearly all GNU/Linux operating system distributions add proprietary packages to the basic free system, and they invite users to consider this an advantage, rather than a step backwards from freedom.

Proprietary add-on software and partially non-free GNU/Linux distributions find fertile ground because most of our community does not insist on freedom with its software. This is no coincidence. Most GNU/Linux users were introduced to the system by "open source" discussion which doesn't say that freedom is a goal.

Statements like this are deeply puzzling -- not because they are wrong, exactly, but because they also seem to be missing the point. For one, it's disingenuous to argue that most people involved with free software don't talk about freedom. The minute people talk about free software, discussions of freedom are virtually impossible to keep out of the room. I have yet to hear a single person who spoke (credibly) about "open source" without also talking in some sense about the freedom to use, adapt, and rework the software. And the FSF is largely to thank for all that in the first place.

The comment about adding proprietary packages to a Linux distro also had me scratching my head. For many people, not just the makers of a given distro, adding proprietary packages to a free base is an advantage -- provided those packages are clearly marked as "nonfree", which just about every distribution I've seen breaks its neck to make clear.

The reason proprietary stuff finds fertile ground is not because the community doesn't "insist on freedom", it's because there are some people who need those closed / proprietary components to get certain kinds of work done with minimal hassle. And I don't think that's ever going to completely vanish, either -- not as long as closed / proprietary development models of any kind continue to have a market.

Honestly, I don't like to speak ill of the very people who've made possible so much of what I write about in this column. The FSF started something incredibly important, revolutionary, remarkable -- you pick the adjective; it would be hard to overstate their importance and impact.

But the FSF also needs to accept that other people have taken their ideas and gone in different directions -- directions that to them are every bit as fruitful -- and that not everyone can spare the energy to be a politician.

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
News
The State of Chatbots: Pandemic Edition
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor, Enterprise Apps,  9/10/2020
Commentary
Deloitte on Cloud, the Edge, and Enterprise Expectations
Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer,  9/14/2020
Slideshows
Data Science: How the Pandemic Has Affected 10 Popular Jobs
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek,  9/9/2020
White Papers
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
Video
Current Issue
IT Automation Transforms Network Management
In this special report we will examine the layers of automation and orchestration in IT operations, and how they can provide high availability and greater scale for modern applications and business demands.
Slideshows
Flash Poll