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FOSS Debates, Part 3: Mission Control

FOSS Debates, Part 3: Mission Control

Whether you think free software is about what you can get without paying, or the more philosophical concept of freedom doesn't really matter, Linux author Linus Torvalds told LinuxInsider. The software will continue gaining ground no matter how people feel about it.

By Katherine Noyes
03/20/09 4:00 AM PT

This is the third installment in a three-part series. Part 1 outlines the discussions that surround the evolution of the Linux kernel. Part 2 centers on the current state of opinions on the standardization process. Part 3 presents a detailed look at the current state of opinions on the mission of free and open source software.

If the FOSS community is united by its love of passionate debate, it is arguably divided in equal measure by diverging views on the purpose of free and open source software.

To some, FOSS means simply software that is intended to be free, or without financial cost; to others, the open availability of its source code is what matters. Then there are those -- perhaps most notably GNU founder Richard Stallman -- who argue vehemently that Freedom with a capital "F" is what FOSS is all about, with implications that extend beyond the technology and into the political, philosophical and ethical realms.

Differences in opinion are many, but there's little doubt that while advocates of one position or another are busy arguing their respective points, the software itself is quietly gaining ground. Whatever its mission may be -- if, indeed, there even is one -- FOSS is clearly serving many needs, and serving them well.

FOSS is succeeding, in other words, and not just in the eyes of the growing numbers of those who use it. But is it fulfilling its mission? That, once again, depends on what you believe its mission is.

Viva Variety

"I don't think there is one," Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel, told LinuxInsider.

"In fact, the reason I like open source is that I find it exciting to see how _different_ the things people want to do are, and how that constant pulling in different directions actually ends up taking people somewhere -- and how the end result is not necessarily what any of the participants really were aiming for from the beginning, but actually likely _better_ for it," Torvalds explained.

"Linux itself is an example of that," he added. "When I started out, I had no big goals, anything like the current kernel. Almost all of the motivation and impetus for everything fancy that we do today came from outside, from people who had different needs and views of how things needed to work than I do."

Torvalds compares open source "to a more organic development model," he said. "To me, it's a lot like 'life' -- after all, what's the overriding purpose of life? I dunno, and I really don't think such a thing should matter or even necessarily exists. We live and do our best, and pass on our genes and knowledge, and change our environment -- hopefully for the better."

Same thing with open source, Torvalds said: "The point about being open source is that you _can_ do exactly that -- 'change the environment' and 'pass on your genes.'"

'In So Many Ways, It's Succeeded'

The question of purpose is a "baffling" one, Elbert Hannah, coauthor of the O'Reilly book, Learning the vi and Vim Editors, told LinuxInsider. "Ask 10 people and you get 10 different answers, but the central theme usually harkens back to Richard Stallman."

In general, "the intent is to create software and release it for free with source code," Hannah explained. "It's a kind of 'pay it forward' in that if you use the free software and modify it, if you release it as a product, you must do so with your source code."

Philosophically, the aim is to "generate wealth with support and services, but I've always wondered, what if someone espouses 'free service and/or support?'" Hannah noted. "Is it the same argument?"

The world is a "much better place with free software, and it's almost a miracle we can have a quality OS like GNU-Linux for free!" Hannah said. "And in so many ways, it's succeeded. I just wonder if it would sustain itself in a larger market and economy.

"I contribute to free software, and that's its own reward," he added. "But I also expect to make a living, and there are some applications I've created that I consider mine -- I haven't decided if I want to release them to the wild for free. I'd like to know I have something I can sell, too."

Free vs. Open Source

FOSS's primary purpose is "to fulfill as many needs of computer users as possible," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. "I'm positive it will succeed at one point because I barely use any closed source software at this point."

It's important to draw a distinction between free and open source software, Slashdot blogger Martin Espinoza pointed out.

"Contrary to what the OSI would like you to believe, 'open source' means only that you can see the source code, and it's strictly about interoperability being a good thing," he told LinuxInsider. "'Free Software,' on the other hand, ensures some basic freedoms to all recipients of the software, some of which are basic rights that service-based software publishing models are trying to eliminate -- like Fair Use and First Sale law -- and some of which are potentially a little more difficult to understand and appreciate, like the rights to make modifications and redistribute them."

While Free Software is all open source, not all open source is free software, he added.

"Open source is essentially a half-measure; it helps to ensure interoperability," Espinoza explained. "If you believe in competing on the basis of merit, then you have to believe in interoperability. All users should be looking for Free Software and supporting it if they don't want to be taken advantage of."

'I Do Not See Any Dispute'

Not everyone saw grounds for debate on the topic.

"I do not see any dispute about FLOSS," educator and blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider. "The world needs IT. The world needs software. The world has plenty of talent to create and share software. FLOSS is a cooperative software product of the world, for the world, and made by the world.

"If anyone does not like how FLOSS operates, they can make their own software at great expense and re-invent the wheel," he asserted. "Sharing is just a more efficient way to make software."

Above all, however, "FLOSS is free as in freedom," Pogson said. "It gives us flexibility to solve any problem."

Almost as important is that "FLOSS is a great value," he added. "Instead of spending billions on software licenses, we can employ ourselves contributing/installing/tweaking it and be part of a vibrant ecosystem instead of robotic consumers taking what we are given."

'An Erroneous Abstraction'

Like Torvalds, Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean believes that there is no overriding purpose to free and open source software. "In that sense, I think FOSS is an erroneous abstraction," he charged. "There isn't a single goal, aim, objective or movement."

In fact, "asking what FOSS's goal or purpose is, is like asking, 'which way does a forest grow?'," he explained. "It doesn't: The trees in the forest each grow their own way, at their own pace, and 'the forest' only exists in the minds of human onlookers, and looking at the forest teaches very little of the nature of trees."

Of course, "that's what makes FOSS so awesome, and forests so nifty," he added. "Can you imagine fall foliage if all the trees in a forest had a single 'color objective?'"

Hopes and Dreams

If there is no overriding mission for FOSS, what might be the next best thing for judging its success in the coming years? Perhaps nothing more than fulfilling the hopes of its supporters -- and of those, there are many.

"Oh, I accomplished everything I really expected from Linux back in '91 or perhaps early '92," Torvalds said. "Ever since, to me the challenge and the fun has been the development itself.

"I don't have a 'goal' except just wanting to continue to push the technology in interesting and useful directions," he added. "That's what I think is interesting and fun."

'Free and free'

On the other hand, "I personally hope that all software which appeals to the masses will eventually become Free and free, which is to say, Free Software available at zero cost," Espinoza said.

"There will always be a limited market for commercial niche software, but we are seeing open source software gradually surpassing basically every closed-source program because they just keep improving," he added. "Why should the user be at the mercy of corporations? I believe that the world can only be a remotely fair place when the opposite is true.

"Linux can't solve all the world's problems, but the world would be a better place with more Openness and more Freedom," he concluded.

'I Love Free Software'

"More than anything I hope Free Software strikes a balance in a fiercely competitive (and still out-of-whack) technology market," Hannah said. "To that end, Linux and GNU software has been great. Imagine something for free that is such a thorn in Microsoft's paw."

Free Software can also serve as infrastructure for research and technological advancement, Hannah added. "If there were no Free Software, research would have to start from square one over and over just to begin their experiments. I see Free Software as a key to solving some of civilization's most daunting puzzles."

In short, "I love Free Software, I contribute, I use," he concluded. "I don't completely understand it, but then again, I don't really understand the money market -- and apparently, based on the last six months, not many others do either. That's good enough for me."

'Copyright Itself Is the Problem'

And Dean? "I hope that FOSS supporters eventually come to the realization that it's impossible to own implementations of a created work without smashing the property rights of those who receive it later," he said. "In short, I hope FOSS supporters realize that copyright ITSELF is the problem, and not what any one party or group of people decided to do with it."

Microsoft once wielded copyright law "like a cudgel to force people to use 'their' code in the way that they see fit; unfortunately, it's just as sick when GNU or the FSF use copyright law to do the same thing," he explained.

"If GNU 'owns all implementations of that code' then it would be just and ethical for them to put stipulations on how it is used," he added. "But admitting that means that Microsoft's same stipulations are just and ethical. As long as people say 'Do what I say with the thing I just gave you or I'll hurt you,' FOSS hasn't reached the logical conclusion I hope it will."

However things turn out, and however the technology evolves, one thing is clear: There are those who will always love free and open source software.

"All the trolls in the world who would divide us and find fault cannot touch the pristine beauty of FLOSS," Pogson said. "It is a gem to be admired, polished and used proudly."

FOSS Debates, Part 1: Kernel Truths

FOSS Debates, Part 2: Standard Deviations


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