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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

By Josef Assad on January 19, 2008 (2:00:00 PM)

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We called it Free Software at first. It wasn't until we started calling it Open Source that the punditry line counts began creeping up higher than the code line counts. We had this baby and we were proud of it, and the deep rooted insecurity born of being the ridiculed and utterly misunderstood underdogs made us require the approval of business and Grandma Bessie before we could ourselves be satisfied.

Well, now we've got it, and in some ways Open Source is not better off because of it.

Thanks to the cavorting evangelists in the Ubuntu community who were converted on the strength of a cheaply-gotten sense of technical superiority over their peers who still use Windows 98, "Free" is now a dirty word since it stands so often in the way of converting more people, faster.

Free Software wasn't originally meant to be a cult with a membership statistics monkey on its back; the idea was, like, to be "Free."

And what happened when we celebrated the business adoption of Open Source? Many great things happened (just look at LKML), but something bad has also happened. We started thinking that we'd have to get around the notions of liberty and sovereignty to make our baby pretty for the Big Business IT Fashion Show.

We showed a willingness to sweep our sense of liberty under the carpet, and in return we got Sun's OpenOffice.org and Linux versions of Skype. We got binary blobs for video drivers -- crystal-clear memos from the video chipset companies that said they were so disinterested in Open Source that they didn't want to benefit from the most trivial advantage of Free Software: development cost savings.

When we nagged, it was for an updated Linux Flash plugin. We didn't lobby for a Free one.

I don't want to malign the term "Open Source," but rather use it as a portmanteau for what we have today versus what we built before. Open Source it is about the software, while Free Software is about people. And you can have good -- and open -- technology if you have a strong community, but you can't necessarily grow a healthy community if you have open technology.

Where did we go wrong?

Wasn't the magic of licensing going to preserve all that we held dear? The GPL was more than just a license; it embodied a philosophy, and it contained a statement of intent: "This is our software," it said, "and you're welcome to come in and play. Here are the rules which guarantee that other people can also come in and play."

The four basic freedoms of Open Source -- the right to view, modify, redistribute, and to use for any purpose -- go a long way toward inclusiveness. The idea of inclusiveness is to create an environment conducive to establishing and preserving a community.

And then something happened, and we got Open Source projects with characteristics which were to community what North Korea is to democratic government. They had corporate stewards who sat at their front doors, checking everyone going in; Sun Microsystems with its office suite being a canonical example, Canonical with its Launchpad system being a shining other. They had corporate sponsors who used the developer community as free (skilled) labor or, worse, as a testbed: "Let the rabble use it and let's see what breaks."

The Free Software community isn't there to build revenue or to have development models built around it. That wasn't the original idea. We wanted to control our own technology. Acme Solutions tries to control the development community around its system, and when this doesn't work, what does it do? It throws the HR department at the problem and ends up with an internal group of developers, which hardly qualifies by any standard as a community. And the point here is: "If there isn't a community, is this what we had in mind when we started out with Free Software?"

There are some projects out there which have changed the face of Free Software: the Netscape codebase certainly has, as has the StarOffice suite. In both cases though, the codebase is so broad, complex, and mired in "let's build a suite, we can't miss any features" development philosophy that these systems are not very approachable to begin with, which is why the larger projects are worked on mainly by people who are paid to do so. To each their own, of course, but we had our own way of doing things and it wasn't by building "suites" or leviathans of clumped capability.

The classical Unix concept of small and simple components in a conceptual tool chain, held together by stark and self-documenting interfaces, probably wouldn't have given us OpenOffice.org Calc. Or Firefox. Or Evolution. But what is interesting about these prime examples of Free Software with corporate-monolith-suite-itis is this: they end up sporting plugin systems. To be really honest, a plugin system is actually at a very high level a scream for help, a way of saying, "This codebase is too beastly! We need to export a simplified interface for developers to be able to contribute more easily!" Plugin interfaces are admissions of guilt. They are unconscious confessions that it was a mistake to discard the tool chain architecture.

What happened to Free Software when it courted the corporation -- apart from changing its name -- was that it bent over backwards to accommodate corporate IT characteristics. A business is more likely to develop ERP software than to develop a small application such as sed. Corporate-driven monster applications are less approachable, and therefore less likely to attract by any organic means a developer base, than simpler applications. "Small is beautiful" just isn't in the corporate DNA, at least without some sort of revolution.

We don't get very much "release early, release often" these days either, at least not as much as we used to. "We'll release it when it's ready" is now dirty: the more professional communities have release schedules. Eh, "professional"? As opposed to "amateur"? If the last 10 years of geekery and the Internet have taught us anything, it is that amateur culture is not another way of saying "this sucks." Remember, GNU didn't start with an IBM grant, and neither did the Linux kernel. And they came from somewhere.

The Free Software modus operandum and free culture are not antithetical to the corporate model, but I don't think the two have figured out how to mesh yet. That guy sitting in his mom's basement, getting a CRT tan and letting his beard grow, who wrote your IDE driver, and the dark-suited dude with the pointy hair and the Mont Blanc pen are joined at the hip -- but they could both be enjoying it a bit more.

Novell's people look like they have a pretty clear idea of what they are doing with their corporate Linux systems, but when it comes to openSUSE and the associated community, there's a certain sense of disconnect -- which is probably innocent; neither side has worked out how to speak to or make use of the other, and distro releases are like difficult births. The openSUSE/SLE model actually looks like a me-too of the Red Hat/Fedora divide: "Oh, look at what Red Hat is doing! Let's do it, too!"

IBM products that get open-sourced don't usually don't attract a traditional developer community. Sun Microsystems wants Free Software that, paradoxically, it can control. Is the Firebird RDBMS really any more accessible now that it is open? When an organization opens a product, it typically continues to invest in development instead of pouring effort into creating a genuine, sustainable organic community structure. Open Source becomes a marketing sound-bite, like an ISO Certified label on a can of sun-dried tomatoes. ISO certification used to mean something, but time dilutes.

If the idea of Open Source is to make IT cheaper for the bean counters, we've succeeded. Those who believe Free Software is supposed to change the way people think about ideas and information, not just save money, often feel frustrated about how their creation has been co-opted by people who don't share their desire to be "Free."

Political scientists learned the hard way that introducing democracy before improving education was a recipe for trouble, and I think one lesson we can take away in our field is similar. Our code is inextricably ideological. Free Software is a choice, an option, and also a movement. If we don't educate our users about the ideology behind Free Software, we not only cheapen Free Software, but lose everything that made it special in the first place.

Josef Assad got started with Free Software by co-founding the Egyptian Linux User Group. He helped to start up one of the first free software ICT4D companies in the Middle East, and has worked with the Grameen Foundation on open source microfinance information systems. Putting his money where his free culture mouth is, he released his first novel under a Creative Commons license.

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on The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 217.233.140.111] on January 19, 2008 03:12 PM
[[[ If we don't educate our users about the ideology behind Free Software, we not only cheapen Free Software, but lose everything that made it special in the first place. ]]]

I like that sentence. But the truth is, just like in politics, too, if you approach people with the ideology first people won't care at best. I tried it very often without any success at all. People just don't care and refuse to get ''converted''.

Thus, applications like the mentioned Firefox or OO.org, serve an important role for Free Software. They attract a new user base just by being as good as or better than their proprietary counter parts. People start using that software on their own, with noone preaching to them all day. This is very important. Becuase when people come by their own that is the moment when you can tell them, ''This is Free Software. It was written by people like you and me who believe in freedom.''

Dennis

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Re: The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.143.240.60] on January 21, 2008 10:28 PM
That's a very good point, Dennis. I just marked my 10th anniversary as a Linux user, but even back then, it was the software that attracted first, for many people. I didn't even know what the GPL was, prior to trying Linux. After learning about it, I became a believer in Free software, but an ideology-cart-before-the-software-horse approach might have been a lot less successful, especially because I was no then and am not now a programmer, so being able to view and modify the source is neither here nor there at any immediately practical level for me, because I do not have the skills to modify it myself. After learning about Free software, of course I "got" that at the abstractly practical level, since people who can do those things produce Linux distros and I use them. I think you're very right in saying that people need to first experience what Free software is and what it can do for them, then become educated about what Free software ideology is and how it is the ideology that makes the software available to them.

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Thanks for an insightful article

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.192.250.149] on January 19, 2008 04:16 PM
There's a lot to agree with here. But I think you're hoping for too much from the mass of "users": the ones who are satisfied with binary video drivers, etc. The sad reality is that the average human being is not very bright, and does not value freedom; he/she wants to be told what to do. But I think there are probably enough of us that Free Software will survive.

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 91.142.2.2] on January 19, 2008 05:22 PM
[Quote]Free Software wasn't originally meant to be a cult with a membership statistics monkey on its back; the idea was, like, to be Free.[end quote]
It is not a flaw! The freedom also provided freedom not to carry on the ideal.

About plug-ins, my guess is that in vim vs. emacs holy war you took the vim side.
Unix philosophy is great and such, but just because some piece of software doesn't confirm to it doesn't mean it is bad. At least try to prove it. There is software out there, which without plug-ins are nothing, like drupal. The analogy of tool chain - plug-ins are executables, base software is the glue.

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The Free Software hardliner, Linux.com, and the three page screed

Posted by: David A. Harding on January 19, 2008 08:08 PM
I haven't known Linux.com to publish screeds, and I'm surprised this one works. Mr. Assad: your rhetoric is as beautiful as it is potent. Thank you.

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.49.120.76] on January 19, 2008 09:01 PM
The classical Unix concept of small and simple components in a
conceptual tool chain, held together by stark and self-documenting
interfaces, probably wouldn't have given us OpenOffice.org Calc. Or
Firefox. Or Evolution. But what is interesting about these prime
examples of Free Software with corporate-monolith-suite-itis is this:
they end up sporting plugin systems. To be really honest, a plugin
system is actually at a very high level a scream for help, a way of
saying, "This codebase is too beastly! We need to export a simplified
interface for developers to be able to contribute more easily!" Plugin
interfaces are admissions of guilt. They are unconscious confessions
that it was a mistake to discard the tool chain architecture.
--------------------
Well said. It seems Firefox is the exemplar of 'not-Unix'. Apart from
the monolithic design it fails the 'stay out my way' test and the
'script with me' test. An example of the first case are
unsolicited and unnecessary pop-up screens on by default, specifically
for updates. You can turn these off but there is no way to
automatically and unobtrusively update extensions: you need to view 2
screens on start up: 'Update extensions?' and 'Update successful'. The
second requires a 'continue' from the user and is completely
unnecessary and obnoxious: If there is no error you don't need to tell
me anything just continue.

For the second case: Firefox has no good scripting ability, you need
to go with a full fledged plugin to program the browser's
behaviour. Throw away scripting and quick iterative development that
is ubiquitous on Unix is nigh impossible in Firefox (javascript shells
are so terrible to be not worth the trouble). I don't know how many
times I wished that I could just run mechanize + Hpricot in Firefox.


-----
(More articles of this quality please).

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Bourbaki on January 19, 2008 10:36 PM
Your target is well chosen, Josef, though the drive for mass adoption (so-called 'advocacy') at the cost of Free Software principles has been a part of Linux culture for as long as I can remember. Binary blobs and Non-Disclosure Agreements is the way Linux kernel development has been done ever since it started to take itself seriously as a server platform. The only place where the hacker ethic you discuss still survives is amongst the smaller BSD projects.
[Modified by: Bourbaki on January 20, 2008 09:01 PM]

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Only OpenBSD

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 81.96.206.228] on January 26, 2008 11:31 AM
I believe FreeBSD and NetBSD both have NDA'd drivers. However there's nothing stopping OpenBSD from taking the released GPL'd code and write a clean room BSD licenced driver from that that...

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 166.217.207.176] on January 20, 2008 09:26 AM
time & time again i am struck by how americans and others in the so-called 1st world have allowed themselves to be homogenized into "self interest advancement units" by the prevailing culture of corporatisim and how some residents of the so-called 2nd & 3rd world countries seem to be the only ones left that think ideals are useful for something beyond that self advancement.
HEY!
WAKE UP!!
what mr assad is trying to tell you people is that THERE IS A PRICE TO BE PAID for letting these things that we foolishly allow to have the same rights as individuals (corporations) to determine the fate of our software just as we have sleepily allowed them to run our lives and our governments--ie that the same lack of control we now have over those lives and governments is being duplicated in something else a lot of us hold dear--our information machines.

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.167.62.187] on January 20, 2008 03:34 PM
"Political scientists learned the hard way that introducing democracy before improving education was a recipe for trouble, and I think one lesson we can take away in our field is similar." - This statement contains within it something I would define as a universal truth. I realize this piece was regarding free software, but truly a lack of education and literacy are at the heart of all human society's ills. Thank you for a very well written article. - Roman

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.208.146.127] on January 20, 2008 10:49 PM
Wedding? Please! Pregnant bride? Are you high!

No matter how tightly coupled a codebase is to its developers, free software preserves yours and everyone's freedom to fork.

It doesn't matter who monopolizes the codebase, whether a for-profit corporation like IBM, an non-profit organization like FSF, or a benevolent dictator. When you disagree with the maintainer's choices, be thankful for your freedoms.

These corporations are producing software that everyone is free to use and create derivatives from. If what they did was easy, you would have no difficulty building communities to produce AssadOffice, AssadFox, AssadSQL.

Did you hear, Sun open sourced Java, ATI released specs needed for the radeon-hd driver? These companies do succumb to 'nagging,' even MicroSoft.

So, get off your choir-insulting soapbox and exercise your freedoms: patch, branch, and fork to your heart's content.

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.1.35.124] on January 20, 2008 11:58 PM
That view is about as far wrong as you can possibly get. The GPL was designed to be divisive and restrict distribution of any number of combinations of components from the start - and it has succeeded perfectly in keeping a free operating system from becoming a suitable replacement for an expensive one because all the necessary code can never be included.

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 147.62.42.119] on January 21, 2008 01:10 PM
[QUOTE]That view is about as far wrong as you can possibly get. The GPL was designed to be divisive and restrict distribution of any number of combinations of components from the start - and it has succeeded perfectly in keeping a free operating system from becoming a suitable replacement for an expensive one because all the necessary code can never be included.[/QUOTE]

Huh! Like the BSD license you mean? Which allows MicroSerfs to copy an entire TCP stack, "hack" it into Whinedoze, NOT return meagre improvements (bugs most likely, so it's probably a good thing anyway) and claim it's their own?

The GPL license is the single most potent copyright license that PREVENTS corporates from stealing code. It isn't divisive. It's protective. Not including binary blobs is a different matter - although not at all bad. Don't confuse your license with your Distribution's choice of components.

If you wish to include binary blobs, you can do it yourself. And please also keep it to yourself. And maintain it yourself.

Ah - maintain. If you were indeed to maintain a binary blob integration into any Free software, you would understand the practical reality of the situation.

What've you been drinking mate?

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Re: The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Bourbaki on January 21, 2008 03:48 PM
'Not including binary blobs is a different matter - although not at all bad. Don't confuse your license with your Distribution's choice of components. If you wish to include binary blobs, you can do it yourself.' ---- I only wish the Linux kernel maintainers agreed with you -- strange as it may seem, the vanilla Linux kernel already includes plenty of binary blobs -- hence the efforts of Gobuntu and gNewSense to remove them!

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 132.228.195.206] on January 21, 2008 03:04 PM
[Quote]The classical Unix concept of small and simple components in a conceptual tool chain, held together by stark and self-documenting interfaces, probably wouldn't have given us OpenOffice.org Calc. Or Firefox. Or Evolution. But what is interesting about these prime examples of Free Software with corporate-monolith-suite-itis is this: they end up sporting plugin systems. To be really honest, a plugin system is actually at a very high level a scream for help, a way of saying, "This codebase is too beastly! We need to export a simplified interface for developers to be able to contribute more easily!" Plugin interfaces are admissions of guilt. They are unconscious confessions that it was a mistake to discard the tool chain architecture.[/Quote]

You obviously fail to understand software architecture. One architecture does not fit all solutions. The "Unix concept of small and simple components" is not necessarily the best solution for all things, and indeed can be quite horrendous for many people - except the Unix "elite" - but even it is just really a "plugin system", just one of way of creating such a system. (So by your own argument, the Unix way is an "admission of guilt".) Similarly, the monolithics of Windows, Office, etc are not the best way for every program, nor is the plug-in system like with Eclipse, Firefox, and others. Yet, each of these methods can be used to leverage different strengths for different tasks. The plug-in system of Eclipse, Firefox, Thunderbird and others works wonders because it enables a core competency in a single program (e.g. web browsing) to be extended to handle other tasks (e.g. web development) easily and in a way that the traditional Unix method of various small programs does not work well, if at all, and be far more flexible than the monolith of programs like MS Front Page or Visual Studios. (Yes, Visual Studios is extensible to a degree, but it is still basically a monolithic program.) Likewise, the Unix method for command-line tools is best as it lets you do a number of tasks with programs that are designed to perform specific, unrelated tasks through a basic common interface (stdin, stdout) - the strength is system management and administration, with the ease of scripting that comes with it. Yet, again, that fails for tasks like WYSIWYG office productivity where the monothic programs like OpenOffice, MS Office, MS Works, Apple iWorks, IBM Lotus Suite, etc. have worked wonders. Honestly - you need to learn about using the best tool for the job - and that applies to software architectures too, just as it does to licensing, code design, computer language choice, and many other aspects of software and the world at large.

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.248.89.66] on January 21, 2008 03:29 PM
I would say the free software situation is getting better. The danger is losing developers, we need to keep developers invested in the concept.

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 10.161.33.49] on January 21, 2008 05:16 PM
I'm always surprised when companies like Netscape and Sun desperately want the advantages of the bazaar ... then run their projects as strict cathedrals.

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 194.121.162.194] on January 28, 2008 12:09 PM
I seem to be seeing more of these articles lately. Why is it that the Free as in Freedom is only what you say it is? Why can't I have the freedom to use proprietary drivers that actually make my graphics card work fully? Because YOU don't like it? Because I DO like it when I have things I paid for work the way they should.

As long as the manufacturers of hardware are unwilling to give away the information they worked to create you have to have proprietary drivers. Do you really think that a company that invests millions of dollars to develop a graphics system should just tell their competition how everything works? I wish we lived in a world where you could do that. But, we don't. I don't happen to want Nvidia to go out of business. I want their products.

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The Free Software hardliner, the corporation, and the shotgun wedding

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 146.96.243.254] on February 13, 2008 09:28 PM
best thing I read in a while. thanks, author.

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