"Free software", "open source", "FOSS", or other?

"Free software", "open source", "FOSS", or other?

Fri, 2007-04-27 22:18 -- admin

Our stance on this is obvious given the name of our magazine, but what is yours? Some of our authors prefer FOSS, others prefer open source, but what do you think and why? We all know the above terms can lead to confusion, but which is the least confusing. Can we sway popular opinion or should we give in to it? Is there some so far undiscovered term which will settle the disputes and make everyone go "Ah... now why didn't we think of that?"? Let us know what you think we should call it and why?

alejandroz's picture
Submitted by alejandroz on

Open Source and Free Software are tags that you can apply to software packages. You could call them one way or the other according to circumstances: I use Free Software, because I'm an idealist. But what's wrong in calling it Open Source when promoting it to certain audiences? For example, I'm proposing legislation that'd force my city's government to switch to "Software Libre" (in Spanish, as I'm from Argentina). However, I frame the justification in Open Source speech, since I have to show that Libre is technically better regardless of my personal beliefs: I wouldn't force my religion on others, and it's the same with software... unless there are good reasons for someone else to use it (like the government's responsibility in producing its documents in an open format anybody can read without paying MS).

Terry Hancock's picture

I regard both as contractions of "Free-licensed open-source software". It's clear to me from the definitions offer for "free software" and "open source" software that they are conceptually the same thing. The emphasis of the terms are perhaps different, but both parties claim that the other term is implicit: for example, the FSD insists that code must be available for the software to be "free", while the OSD insists that without a free-license available source code is useless (perhaps even worse than useless as it may represent a legal hazard to have seen it!).

Thus there is no question in my mind that the choice of terminology for the product is irrelevant. I use one or the other depending on which matters more in the context of the sentence -- availability of code or the four freedoms. For example, if I'm talking about the particular benefits of being able to examine what you are using, I'll say "open source", but if I want to emphasize the lack of any limits on my use of it, I'll say "free software". I prefer to use the full expression "free-licensed open-source software" to remove all ambiguity when I am introducing the subject to a possibly unfamiliar audience.

As for the "movements", that may be a different matter. For one thing, it was a fiction created by Stallman and the FSF that there even exists a separate "open source movement" in the same sense as there is a "free software movement". From the beginning, "open source" was always identified with "free software", and was a marketing campaign and certification program, not a social movement.

Today, the term "open source movement" is informally applied to the much larger group of people advocating free-licensed open source software which the FSF expressly rejects as part of "their" "free software movement" on the basis that they do not all share their absolutist rejection of all other software as "unethical". This extremist position divides the community unnecessarily, and is an insult to the many supporters who the FSF ought to be thanking for their present much greater social prominence -- they would not have gotten this far on their own!

Basically, the "free software movement" is just the radical wing of the "open source movement" in this sense. Like many radicals and zealots, they give off the impression of hating their allies more than their enemies -- constantly railing against the "evils" of the "open source movement", while ignoring the need to work together in the face of much more serious common threats.

That's probably because the particular needs of a radical organization are served by polarization -- so the success of the open source movement, in the form of increasing mainstream acceptance of free licensing is actually threatening to them, because it dilutes the "purity" of their movement and removes the siege psychology that keeps them unified. Moderates therefore, are actually more of a threat to their continued existence than are actual enemies. But of course the public good is served more by the moderates who spread the ideas to many many more people.

So personally, I also like to make a point of using both terminologies more or less interchangeably in order to defeat the political impact of this false dichotomy.

An Anonymous Coward's picture
Submitted by An Anonymous Coward (not verified) on

Open source is more like a branchoff of the Free software movement. The Free software movement are the original guys.

Indeed Free software advocates like me are extermists(And I don't meant that in a bad way).

Indeed, the Free software movement give off the perceptions that they hate their allies more than their friends(which is not true).

Otherwise, who could explain that ESR and RMS are still good friends?

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Open source is more like a branchoff of the Free software movement. The Free software movement are the original guys.

I know you are talking about the origins of the two (and you are correct) but I have always viewed Free Software to be a "branch" of Open Source.

What I mean is that Open Source covers a whole bunch of licences - which include various freedoms. Free Software covers a specific subset of this with specific freedoms built in.

I think I've said this before but Open Source is akin to trees and Free Software is akin to oaks. All trees are not oaks but all oaks are trees.

For this reason I tend to use the two terms depending on what I want to describe. When speaking generically of - shall we say - non-proprietary licences, I use Open Source. When speaking specifically of Free Software I use - er - Free Software. Having said that I often use FOSS as a covering term because I find this helps the listener/reader understand that I am including both.

lcafiero's picture
Submitted by lcafiero on

Both Terry Hancock and alejandroz make good points -- especially Terry's "I like to make a point of using both terminologies interchangeably in order to defeat the political impact of this false dichotomy." I agree.

We had run into the same kind of political/philosopical hair-splitting when we finally ended up with the name Open Source Reporter for our publication (despite the fact that both principals in the endeavor -- developer Tod Landis and me, a journalist -- are both Free Software advocates and are both FSF associate members), especially since the name "Free Software Magazine" was already taken. While our first print version this fall may end up being called "Open Source and Free Software Reporter," our Web site is called "Open Source Reporter" (http://www.opensourcereporter.net) primarily and specifically because, to the public, "open source" defines much of what Free/Libre Open Source Software represents in the broadest terms, without forcing the nuances of what constitutes "free-as-in-freedom software" and "open-source-but-arguably-not-free software" to a public that may not care as much as FLOSS advocates do.

And, Terry, I don't think there's anything wrong with being "radical" in advocating free software, although I hope your point about railing against "open source" as opposed to working together is noted by others. This is a point that needs reinforcement, since many open-source folks are "not the enemy."

Larry Cafiero
Open Source Reporter

Danboy's picture
Submitted by Danboy on

I reckon FOSS is the way to go. It should make both camps happy. Why they fight over the name is beyond me. Surely the free software camp can agree that the term open source isn't incorrect (even if it's not correct enough); and the open source camp can certainly agree that it is indeed free software no matter what version of free you're talking about.

FOSS, as a one syllable acronym, is easy to say and it doesn't sound bad either. People are going to ask you what open source software is; they are going to ask you what free software is (or they are going to assume you mean free as in no cost); and they are going to ask you what FOSS means too. So, if you are going to have to explain it anyway, you may as well use the term that will beg the question "What is it?".

I don't think this magazine could possibly change its name at this point without suffering massively. And I think it probably benefits from the name free software because it would lure in google searchers who are searching for "[insert some software type] free software" and have no idea what open source is nor the full meaning of the term "free software". These people would then have the opportunity of being exposed to FOSS. I've noticed that while, FSM seems to only allow use of the term "open source" when comparing terms or explaining the different terms, they seem to let FOSS slip through. While FOSS sounds good as a word FOSS Magazine sounds very strange.

I don't think it's too late for us all to use a new term. FOSS is a collective term that covers both models, both names and both ideologies. Why not start making it the one term to cover all bases.

Andrew Min's picture
Submitted by Andrew Min on

I say open source. FOSS is too long. Free software gets people confused with freeware. But open source, they get.

Andrew Min

Raithlin's picture
Submitted by Raithlin on

My thoughts exactly. Free software should mean free as in beer, while open source means, well, open source. ;)

Case in point: "Free Software Magazine" gives me the (not entirely wrong) impression that the authors are focusing on "free as in beer" software as well as open source - most of which is "free" anyway.

All in all, people should stop worrying about names, and concentrate on the underlying concept.