A response to "free software major league or minor?": Unjustified dismissal?

A response to "free software major league or minor?": Unjustified dismissal?


I just read Terry Hancock's artilce on Is free software major league or minor?. Great article, and I'm very glad to see articulate discussion about these core subjects. Not enough is said about these matters.

However, I disagree strongly on several points that your article raises. I'll take it point by point in an effort to not misrepresent your views and keep focussed on the statements that you have made.

"What I hope is that there is a way to make a system that responds better to end user needs — probably by increasing the ways that end user values can be communicated"

I hope this too, but lets not forget that there is very likely already more voluminous, frequent, and high quality dialogue between Free Software end users and developers than in any large scale software project on earth. Your statement sounds like this communication problem is unique to FOSS, and that it is a particularly pernicious problem for the community. I don't believe that this is so, and in my view the current level of organisation of interaction in the most important projects is already an incredible achievement of technology and collaboration. Look at launchpad, for instance (now GPL) - every aspect of development of an application like Inkscape is public and interactive to users, from bugs to release schedules, to blueprints of features, to translations, to feature requests and more. This is a level of project management and user dialogue that I have never heard of in any non FOSS application, so lets not generalise the issue of communication to make it into a unique and crippling problem for FOSS - the situation is building upon existing achievements day by day and already exceeds what the commercial sector can match.

"If [FOSS can't match proprietary functionality], then eliminating proprietary software deprives users of fundamental functionality. You have no freedom in software that doesn’t exist"

"You can’t have an ethical discussion about free software and its impact on society unless you face the fundamental issues of production"

"It is no more ethical to promote a system of free software when doing so will result in no software being written than it would be to promote a free produce initiative when doing so would mean no crops get planted"

This is one of the most important points of your article, in my view. The statement that you make can, on the surface indeed seem true. For instance, if AutoCAD (for which there is currently no true FOSS alternative) cannot afford to continue development or switch to a free platform and goes under, then users will have lost functionality, they will have gained nothing, but no longer have the powerful tools that this application previously afforded. It doesn't matter why there's no FOSS alternative, but it could be because such a complicated application requires intensive paid development. What's the good in that? Useful software got killed by FOSS. So goes the argument.

I believe that this reasoning overlooks fundamental principles about free software that are key to its success and nature. I believe that your view is inaccurate.

Your argument assumes that FOSS is to some degree static, or at least that it will be in relation to the lost application of functionality. If AutoCAD ceased to exist, your argument implies, the niche that it served would remain forever unfilled, and those people affected would suffer. This is not so. FOSS is better placed than any other type of software to find the needs of people, put them in touch with each other, and enable them to create something that fills their needs quickly. If AutoCAD went under, it would be a great day for AutoCAD users in fact! This is because a new application, or set of applications would come to exist to meet the needs, but this application WOULD BE FREE. The application would be free and remain free, and thus CAD software would be liberated once and for all. Once the liberation process of a niche has been completed, history teaches us that it rarely reverts. The field would be opened up, and whatever replaced AutoCAD, which may well be basic and underdeveloped during its initial years and would likely not match previous AutoCAD functionality, would only be built upon, and in a way that was more tailored to user needs than ever before.

Free Software evolves and adapts. The greater the need, the greater the response of the community and the faster a solution is developed.

This idea may seem hard to swallow. Would I honestly thank you for destroying the commercial gaming industry by advocating FOSS, when Free games don't come close to matching what commercial companies previously offered? Would I thank you in my bored evenings in which I used to play grand commercial titles that had cost millions to make?

In light of the short term goal of expelling my boredom, no, I would not. Indeed you would have deprived me of something important and valuable to me. Long term however, a games development community would arise that would be Free of charge and restriction, that reflected my wants better than before, and which was overall better quality and more diverse. I would, for the first time, be a member of the community that was responsible for the games that I played, and I would be a contributor to my own happiness and satisfaction. For that I, and more importantly the world at large, would thank you, in time. The industry would have been freed, along with all game enthusiasts.

Thus FOSS is not static. It fills niches. It grows organically in amazing ways with untold creativity and diversity. It is a better way of meeting needs, and turns consumers into contributors. One scrap of free software functionality is therefore more valuable to the individual and the community of computer users at large, than a vast edifice of commercial software. One has the potential to grow, collaborate, give back, diversify, address needs in an honest and progressive way. The other does not.

This view I have expressed reflects a faith in FOSS that the article author may not share, and I am happy to discuss these in their own right and defend my standpoint if it is so desired.

"You can’t have “open source software” (in the sense that open source advocates mean the words) without also having “free software” (in the sense that free software advocates mean the words)"

"'Both are merely contractions of “free-licensed open source software'"

"'Free Software' and 'Open Source Software' is the exact same artifact [sic], no matter who is promoting it, nor on what advantages of it they promote"

This, in my view, is wholly incorrect. Richard Stallman, who has probably written and publicly said more about the philosophical and ethical nature of FOSS than anyone else, addresses this particular point in his article "Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software" (found here: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html).

Eric Raymond and the OSI chose the term open source for a reason - that it did not convey the moral, ethical or social aspects of Free Software. In this way it appealed to business players whose support was valuable in spreading the prevalence of FOSS. Open Source is something that big business can understand and on occasion even accept. It is a development model, and for thousands of companies a business model too. It means very little when compared to Free Software. Open Source projects abound with a mess of different licenses, restricting freedoms here and there, ensuring the control and commercialisation of the project in question. Open source is the hip new buzzword of marketing execs - its a get rich quick scheme for businessmen all over the world. There is no depth to the term, there is no responsibility implied or association with freedom. Some companies and individuals may assume a greater meaning to the term open source, but that is superimposed by them - it is not part of the meaning of the phrase. Open source is the sanitised, baggage free version of Free Software. All the business benefits, none of the responsibilities or inconvenient drawbacks.

As a user myself, Freedom means something to me. Whether I am able to read the proprietary code of an open source project has no impact whatsoever on how I use software however - how I obtain it or how much it costs. Being able to study the project is about the only discernible advantage of an open source app. 'Look, but don't touch, but give me credit like you could do both'. Free Software however is a totally different phenomenon. Free Software is revolutionary. It is participatory. It respects and welcomes the user, all users, all human beings in fact. Many business and individuals are united in their interest in open source in order to make more money more quickly. Free Software advocates are united by far more profound and important objectives. I think that this is a distinction worth preserving.

"even the most abstract idea has to work in the real world, not just sound pretty, in order to be valuable"

In a few paragraphs which encapsulate this quote you imply that FOSS is not as productive or effective at production of software as commercial software is. I strongly believe the contrary - Eric S. Raymond thoroughly establishes FOSS as a superior method of producing high quality code efficiently in his collection of essays "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", the details of which I shall not go into here. Whether or not FOSS can match commercial methods of software development is an important question that deserves continued study, but you don't bring any new evidence to the table here to discredit research already conducted, and therefore I don't feel that its reasonable that you call FOSS' productive efficacy into question in the quiet way that you do.

"if you can’t afford to make a thing, then it’s not going to matter how free you are to use it"

Eric S. Raymond also addresses the question of whether a world of FOSS developers equals a world of unemployed penniless developers. He clearly argues to the contrary and elucidates his belief that the contrary is far more likely - a world with more, higher skilled developers than ever (and in which they can afford to eat).

"Can we really make a free software system that is every bit as usable as the proprietary alternatives? Can we make them work for non-expert end-users the way that proprietary companies like Microsoft can?"

Why do you address this question to the future? We already have, and have had for several years the ability to offer end users a better product than Microsoft. Usability tests, conducted by Suse and others, have shown many times how KDE and GNOME are at least as intuitive and usable as commercial operating systems. With my own eyes I have seen user after user sit down at a GNU/Linux machine and 'simply know' how to most of what they want. What's more usability is constantly improving in response to forum discussions, polls, surveys (and the odd executive decision) - a fluidity of meeting need that is not matched elsewhere.

In terms of fundamental computing tasks, such as word processing, surfing the internet, emailing, playing media, I think many GNU/Linux distributions have offered the best experience for years. This is arguably a matter of opinion, but I am no means alone in my views on the matter. With more advanced users it becomes very much more tasks specific, and the quality of a particular application can make or break the possibility of a 100% FOSS solution. Even here however FOSS is pushing the boundaries.

Are we up for it? What a question! The quality and pace of development in applications like Inkscape, Gimp, Ardour, kdenlive, KDE, OpenOffice, Eclipse and others leaves you in any doubt?

"Microsoft’s strangle-hold on the computer hardware production market is actually a benefit to users! Since they use their massive economic power to control the marketplace, they create an enormous incentive for manufacturers to ensure their equipment works with Microsoft software"

Again, in my opinion this statement is totally fallacious. GNU/Linux relies on tens of thousands of reverse engineered drivers. The community has had to work in the most hostile territory imaginable when pursuing device compatibility! GNU/Linux now has better hardware compatibility than any other OS on earth - for in Linux compatibility only grows, there are no regressions, unlike windows which leaves thousands of devices in the dust with each new version. If FOSS can produce better compatibility than commercial competitors when it is given no information or support by manufacturers in most cases, where it not only faces technical but also legal antagonism (even when new drivers are written from scratch!), and where the variety of chipsets and devices number in millions (many wireless technology retailers change their chipset vendors every few months without any notification, documentation or announcement), then how can you say that Microsoft is responsible for a better environment for its users, an easier experience, a more reliable computer, better choice, or any other overarching advantage? As we can see - coercing manufacturers into ensuring compatibility with a monopoly results in neither compatible hardware or the best user experience! Think then what could be achieved if FOSS was actually supported rather than relentlessly attacked by hardware manufacturers.

"nearly every consumer device you pick up at the local discount store will work in Windows. You will have to be a lot pickier with GNU/Linux"

This maybe true, but you miss a crucial point here - most hardware in use today is not currently purchasable from your local discount store. Most hardware is 'old' by commercial software terms, unsupported by the latest commercial operating systems, and useless to end users with new computers. As I have already stated - GNU/Linux has the widest hardware compatibility in the market. Not only the widest, but in some cases Free drivers supersede those supplied by the manufacturer (my USB wireless dongle gets approx. 40% extra range with Free drivers than if it uses its windows driver using a compatibility wrapper).

Microsoft cannot therefore offer the user a better experience. Its often nightmarish upgrading to Windows 7 from XP and wrestling with your sound card, your old printer and scanner, your graphics tablet, and a whole host of other devices. And that's just hardware!

"That’s tough to beat. We need an answer for it. On this uneven playing field. Do we whine and cry foul? Do we try to find a way to bend things our way? Or maybe we accept the loss, acknowledge that we lack this advantage and then try to explain why it’s worth making that sacrifice"

It is hard to beat, it was hard to beat, but the community has already effectively beaten it. We have an answer for it - its called Free Software and it encompasses all technical problems in a unique and unmatched method all its own. Were this not the case, were GNU/Linux compatibility as bad as it was ten years ago (win modem hell, poorer printer compatibility etc.) then, as you say, it would be worth making the sacrifice. But today, for many users it is not a sacrifice, as they do not want to go and spend a thousand dollars to get all new peripherals, they want to use their perfectly good devices for which they have already paid their Microsoft taxes.

"Our specialty has to lie in lifting the veil and showing how things can work, and in making systems of software production and refinement that proprietary competitors can’t match"

I agree with your conclusion. However, as you have done throughout your article, you underestimate the value, power and achievement of what we already have. We are showing how things can work for FREE, we have been doing for a long time, and we are now at a stage of superseding commercial competitors in a variety of fields in terms of functionality, efficiency and ease of use.

This is my primary complaint with your article - in underestimating ground already consolidated by FOSS you undermine the whole phenomenon. Your stance is reminiscent of a Microsoft lackey, paid to pretend to know about FOSS and its advantages, but who presents a consistent vision of intrinsic inability and failings.

Your subtle insistence that FOSS is currently unsuitable for most environments and users stems, I believe from your fundamental lack of faith (or is that misunderstanding?) of the Free Software model. This comes across particularly clearly in your statements about killing commercial functionality without a replacement - how can you assume that superior alternatives will not spring up given the miraculous achievements of existing FOSS projects today?

Bashing FOSS is important where its due in order to rectify problems that can be identified. I feel however that your article seditiously undermines what FOSS has to offer, and does so in a space that ensures the trust of the reader. Telling FOSS advocates that Free Software is currently poor without a single comment of complaint - shame on the readers!

I am very thankful to the author for publishing this well written piece and sparking debate. As a consumer (or am I now a participant?) of your article I thank you for your time and hope that you see my extensive response as constructive, honest, and written with the best of intentions. I am sure that I have misrepresented you to some degree, so too am I sure that this being the case you will act on your responsibility to correct my words and analysis. With a response.

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sam_tuke's picture

Biography

I am an active fellow the Free Software Foundation Europe, and enjoy attending European Free Software conferences as much as possible.

In the past I had a long standing involvement with PCLinuxOS.

I'm a big fan of Free Culture, and regularly promote GNU/Linux amongst friends, acquaintances and in my local community.