Opinion: Regarding Stallman’s Vision

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Open Source movement because while my feelings suggest that this is surely a great innovation in software development, there are other (many) things that I don’t agree with. Nevertheless, I’ve been contributing to free software (or open source) since 1996 and I’m still doing it. Nothing famous or that you might have heard of, though. But enough that I feel I have some insight on the subject.
Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of osnews.com

(Please excuse my English as that’s not my mother language.)

From time to time I get the feeling I should express my opinion about the whole Open Source / Free Software movement — Linux and all that stuff — and I’ve finally got around to doing that. The spark was yet another Richard Stallman interview you can read here. I have mixed feelings about Stallman too, though I don’t know everything he has said or written. I’m mostly conflicted because of a few interviews I have read. What it comes down to is that though I don’t agree with many things he has said, since he has contributed to start and make this movement grow, I’m reluctant to say unequivocally that he was (or is) wrong.

The first thing I don’t understand about Stallman’s ideology (or philosophy) is the very concept of free software he expresses (you can read about it in that interview). Now, I can say I’m truly against any Intellectual Property concept (though I think a wise use of IP can contribute to destroy IP itself) but I really don’t understand why Stallman keeps on talking about freedom about software only. I could argue that removing that barrier from pharmaceutical drugs and medicines could let people innovate in that field too yet I didn’t read (and I mean read) anything about the whole IP concept. The only thing which deserves to have relaxed IP application is software, according to what I read. He calls for freedom about using / distributing / modifying software where the word freedom sells the concept to the masses but after 10 years of application a summary of achievements should be done. As he states “our work is establishing freedom, not selling”.

Yet many questions still wait for answers. A decade of GPL can be analyzed for results it brought and I think the GPL itself (which is the weapon of free software concept) is harming the whole open source / free software movement, not to mention that GPL is helping big companies (the ones we all hate) to become more powerful and to wipe out small companies. Worst fact is those small companies aren’t getting killed, they’re just committing suicide. Yet, advocates of free software are deliberately ignoring all this and staying silent on (I don’t want to say “hiding”) certain facts about this movement and that cannot be considered a good will practice.

How you will promote a widespread use of a system for which “home” is different than “hOmE” is still an open question no one is talking about. When a few users getting excited about all the noise we heard tried to install Linux, first question they ask me is “But why is there this case-sensitive thing?”. This is just crazy but, to be nice, I use to reply is “Because it is this way”. Nevertheless, it is just crazy, even if people are standardizing about clicking on a file rather than on typing its name. This is just a little example of weird things surrounding the whole happy picture.

Second thing is killing this platform is so called freedom to modify and redistribute (or even sell!) software. This is another crazy thing I can’t really understand and it causing at least two big damages:

1) it is spreading confusion, favoring splitting of user groups and lowering innovation possibilities;
2) it is helping big companies.

Just think about Linux itself. Great software, you would argue. But even if most companies are selling the word Linux, it isn’t so easy to cope with all those “distributions”, as they call it. While they claim to be Linux, most of them are quote compatible with each other and, even if it is not a complete incompatibility, there’s enough to require a novice user to give up and ask for help. Not to mention that your favorite hardware might work with a “Linux” and might not work with another “Linux”. Most “Linuxes” have their own way to install software, patches and so on. And list could go on and on. Not to mention the fact that many “Linuxes” get sold or you have to pay for applications, or you have to pay for patches or you have to pay for something else you might need. Why should someone pay for a “free Linux” just a few bucks less than he or she would do for Windows, but with Windows would have software for free, patches for free, help for free and so on?

And let’s not forget the many “clones” of same product there are around. We have tens of products whose developers split from evening to dawn and a new product was born. Though it might differ just for a few lines from its parent, that’s enough to make it incompatible with the other version. Then we have tens of products that do the same thing but they just do enough different not to be compatible with each other. And splitting, as we know, tends to produce “horizontal” improvements, with tens of people doing the same thing, sometimes the same way, instead of having “vertical” improvements where products get more and more features. So the same number of people work on the same problem but not in a way to help each other but rather in a way which rarely can be plugged into each other’s products. You’re just losing innovation possibilities. Sometimes, developers try to adapt others’ ideas to their own product and waste their time in converting software which could have been unified if they hadn’t been split in the first place. The possibility of getting some software, modifying a few lines and then being able to distribute that incompatible version (or even sell it, under cover of distribution costs) is just crazy. And I don’t say that because I love profits.

Moreover, that is helping big companies to smash small ones. The concept of being able to use others’ software as long as you don’t sell it (and hide a few profits under cover of distribution costs…) is just a killer for small companies. In fact, IBM, Red Hat, Sun and other major players simply switched to this way of doing business because they have hundreds of (non-employee) people who actually work for them, creating software they could simply patch and sell to their customers. And of course, we’re complying with GPL! Plus, if you want to decide where that development group should head to, simply drop a few bucks in their pockets and they will comply with your requests (yet, IBM or Red Hat or Sun don’t need to turn them into employees and can drop them whenever they want…). And that’s what’s happening: IBM, Red Hat, Sun sell (ooops… distribute…) slightly or deeply patched version of Linux to their customers and make real money while developers who created that very useful feature will be awarded as being part of the great Linux community (a.k.a. an unknown anonymous Linux contributor with no money to pay his/her bills). We cannot even enumerate how many small companies created good software, maybe not a killer application, but anyway, good software and then waited for people to hire them to make “customized versions” of their free product but no-one asked them and they just closed their offices or turned their product into a non-free software to pay their bills and then they discovered that some other group was offering a modified version of their software for free so they had no chances to sell theirs. And if you’re asking “but how can that other group be profitable?” the answer is it can’t or maybe IBM gave them a few bucks to keep developing that software…

Let’s face it: what would be the free software / open source movement if, all of sudden, IBM, Sun, Red Hat and Novell stopped pumping money into it? Could that movement keep living on its own? Before answering, also think: what would the Linux platform be if you stripped Java and OpenOffice? Did the community develop them? The answer is no, even if thousands of developers had worked for many years on the same project, a workforce that Microsoft hasn’t, I guess. So before being happy to escape Great Evil Microsoft using Linux, just think if there would be any advantage to escape Scylla just to fall into Charybdis’ hands. Where Charybdis is other big companies like IBM, Sun, Red Hat, Novell, HP which could stop pumping money the very moment they don’t need Linux anymore. By chance, open source sponsors are those companies who lost battle to Microsoft on the ground of users market. By chance, many of them are hardware manufacturers…

The lack of coordination which has been caused by the ability to “go on my own if I don’t like what others do…” is pursuing weird decisions and effects. For example, no one cares to delve into Linux’s quite old device drivers yet everyone claims that Linux is best choice for rather old PCs. A few weeks ago I installed Windows2000 on a rather old machine and two days ago I installed WindowsXP and even Windows2003 on a 2-year-old machine and all of these systems recognized my hardware with no problems and they worked like a charm. I’m not sure, according to what I see from friends using Linux, that it would have been the same for that system. I could even update those old drivers using Windows Update service.

The lack of coordination and a real, non-foggy, project is producing weird results. Developers do what they want, what they have time to do, what’s easier for them to do. So we have I don’t know how many people losing sleep to gain a few nanoseconds from their kernel routines while no-one cares to give Linux a free DirectX-compatible framework to port games to. But hey! I’m a kernel developer and I don’t play games! I’m not a kid! And who cares if video games market is first World market, bigger than music or cinema market, and that one of key reason why dad bought a Windows PC is because he can use Word and Excel on the very same machine his kids will play their favorite Fifa2004 game on.

The world deserves open source software from what programmers can learn to develop, it deserves free software to use and a free OS to be the foundation of every system. There are two key concepts behind that :

1) It’s a lie that you will be able to build a business around free software. Free software can partly be foundation of your business but everything which gets free is lost for a business and its now part of human knowledge and human experience. Which is good. Just don’t think you can get any money from it unless you’re a multi-billion dollar company which you have created your project for by allowing them to modify and sell (ooops, distribute…);

2) The world deserves having only one OS to be the foundation of its everyday life, which would enhance productivity and innovation. That OS should be free as it will be part of human knowledge and experience. That OS won’t be Linux or whatever, but a free Windows version because it has no meaning to replace what already resides on 90% of all PCs out there and change the way 90% people do things.

If the same hard work which has been pumped into Linux, had been pumped into a free Windows version, we would have had it now and different stories could have been told. In the end, IP should be banned. Just my .02.

The Bitland Prince
([email protected])

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