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Jonathan Roberts [opinions]

Free software vs open source

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I heard that the open source software movement grew up when it was noticed that people reacted badly to the idealism that the phrase “free software” suggests. In an attempt to attract more people to free software they decided to move away from the ideas implicit in the term “free software” and use their own term “open source” which promotes the practical benefits of this style of development.

There’s definitely been benefits to this approach: the open source camp has attracted many new users to come and try free software such as GNU/Linux, OpenOffice, Firefox etc. The problem is that many of these new users never realise that it was someone refusing to give RMS a copy of a printer’s source code—failing to share as was the norm in the programming world at the time—that started this whole community; with Microsoft’s new DRM riddled operating system just around the corner and various media groups attempting to restrict our rights to use, enjoy and share content a belief that this sort of attitude is basically a good thing is more important than ever.

Free software is the other extreme: while providing us with the legal and moral basis to help us keep developing, enjoying and sharing brilliant software applications, I believe it’s also quite likely that it has put off its fair share of users. Free software, just like open source software, has weakened our ability to share our outlook with others—both now and in the future—by reducing the number of people who are going to really listen to us!

Idealism is for dreamers, what we have is reality!

Perhaps we need a middle ground. In a speech (or essay, I’m afraid I can’t remember which!) by Eben Moglen, which I read this week, it was suggested that idealism is no longer necessary: free software, and the culture that has developed around it, already exists; Idealism is for dreamers, what we have is reality! This fact allows people from across the whole spectrum of the community to stand up and say: “We did this...and that... and that... and that...”. And when people ask how we managed to do this we can point them in the direction of (and tell them about!) the GPL, all those other free software licenses, and the freedoms that they guarantee.

A new (well relative to 1998 or 1985) term seems to be emerging around the net: “FLOSS”—Free Libre Open Source Software. I like it, I think it gives us a chance to firmly plant our feet in reality—to point to all that we have achieved—whilst still celebrating the principles that founded the community; it’s just a shame it’s not recursive. Is it too bold of me to suggest we use this new acronym? Probably!

NB: I’m not sure how good a job I’ve done of expressing myself today. I’ve read a lot this week and it’s taking some time for it all to sink in and organise itself into a coherent set of thoughts! Also, I should point out that the challenge now, is to ensure that what is reality now is still a reality in 10 years.

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