Fellowship Interviews

Fellowship interview with Mirko Boehm

Mirko Boehm

Mirko Boehm has been involved with KDE since 1997 and was a board member of KDE e.V. from 1999 to 2006. He joined KDAB in 2005 as a Qt software developer, becoming managing director there before he left in June this year. He is currently a researcher at the Technical University of Berlin, on the subject of Free Software and “intellectual property”. He is also the owner of Agile Workers Software, a consultancy that gives advice to businesses on how to collaborate with Free Software communities, and make the transition to it. He is married, has two children and lives in Berlin, Germany.

Chris Woolfrey: In your role at KDAB, you’ve seen how Free Software can fit into a “corporate” framework. How easily does it fit?

Mirko Boehm: From what I see, it is a very natural fit. There are companies who only use Free Software, and others who actively contribute to it. It would be a tough task to find any company today that does not use Free Software to some extent. But especially in software development companies, Free Software has become a staple, whether they’re producing Free or proprietary software. So while for most, Free Software is an extension of the arsenal of IT to get the job done, in the software industry itself it is innovating on a process level, and therefore has an enormous influence on the future of the industry. Think about how Git, for example, has changed the way software is developed by large teams.

Free Software has arrived in the corporate world, even though it is mostly consumed or used by the majority of companies. An important next step is to get companies to fully embrace the ideals of it as well; use it, adapt it, change it as they like, and contribute to the projects. Helping in this learning process is one of the central roles of FSFE. This includes bridging between the myriad of Free Software communities and the corporate world.

“It is quite natural that such conflicts exist. I don’t think it can be avoided completely”

CW: Have you found tensions between the corporations and grassroots movements, where many Free Software projects start?

MB: Yes, there are controversies and tensions between communities and companies. Just recently, there was the Banshee vs. Canonical case, for example. There are also repeated arguments over companies commercializing Free Software products and breaking up the communities; maybe Hudson vs. Jenkins is a good example of that.

What is important to understand is that it is quite natural that such conflicts exist. I don’t think it can be avoided completely. The wider Free Software communities are very diverse groups, with very different backgrounds, from students to working professionals. Dealing with and resolving such conflicts is, and will probably continue to be, a central task for the various Free Software communities and their leaders, and again for organizations like FSFE.

CW: Proprietary software doesn’t really have the same conflict, does it?

MB: Well, there could be internal conflicts. For example, if an employee is developing a proprietary solution at work, and contributes to a competing Free Software project as a hobby. But those are individual cases that need to be resolved between the person and the employer. Companies investing in Free Software like Canonical or Nokia are of course under more intense scrutiny. Their work is out in the open for everybody to see. But similar conflicts exist in other places as well, as gpl-violations.org proves on a regular basis. These cases are just less visible and harder to find out about.

The most audible argument between grassroots movements and companies at the moment is the “please adhere to the GPL” argument. It is a rather drastic one. That such cases exist is a sign that we (the Free Software communities and the companies using Free Software) still have a lot of work to do in building that relationship. I wrote on this recently.

Another repeated argument is the one about “playing nice” with the community. To me, there is one important point here: companies are part of the community. Free Software communities are inclusive, everybody who is willing to contribute in some way is (or should be) welcome to join as a peer among equals. If we keep this in mind, we should be able to resolve most of the conflicts, or even avoid them before they come up.

KDE is a good example; every individual developer can become a member of KDE e.V., and companies can become supporting members. The structure is explicitly and purposefully set up to integrate both individuals and companies, while at the same time making ensuring the independence of the community in deciding the future of KDE.

CW: Is Free Software the ultimate example of compassionate capitalism in that regard?

MB: That’s a tough question. Free Software fosters collaborative innovation; it partly enables everybody – individuals and companies – in the first place, to work together on fundamental technologies that are influencing our everyday lives. Corporations have cooperated with each other and universities in areas of basic research in the past as well. I think that Free Software has taken such cooperation to a new level, involving individuals and embracing a meritocracy. Free Software also makes markets work better by providing strong competition where one or a few proprietary vendors previously locked in users to their disadvantage. So yes, Free Software is making capitalism a better place and helps align individual and common interests.

“Free Software is making capitalism a better place”

CW: Having worked in consultancy, do you think it’s good that Free Software has widened it’s appeal so that non-technical people now make up a large section of its user-base?

MB: While the majority of end-users still use proprietary operating systems for their daily work, I think Free Software applications are much more present to regular users today then a couple of years ago. This is a wonderful development. In the end, we are making Free Software because we are passionate about it, and seeing it used is about the biggest reward the creator of a program can get.

I think that especially through the front-page campaign of Mozilla (“Know your rights”) and through the Wikipedia community work, we have reached a very broad spectrum of users, introducing them to the idea of freedom and self-determination in computing. We have to be aware though that most Free Software first-timers are trying out and using Free Software on non-free platforms. This is not ideal, but a good way nevertheless to create awareness and end-user demand for Free Software.

Generally, our desktop, tools and applications benefit a lot from getting feedback from a less and less technical audience. The times when Free Software was made by programmers for programmers are hopefully over to a large extent. Again, we need to emphasize that those users who want to provide feedback are a welcome part of our communities.

CW: A growing non-technical audience is a sign of improvement?

MB: Sure! And it is a sign of success. This is what we made this software for.

I am involved in KDE. The Plasma desktop is an environment full of eye candy and features focused on getting computing work done more efficiently. It was made for geeks and end-users alike. It would be quite sad if it would only be used by a small group of coders. Free Software enables users to use their computers in a self-determined way, so reaching a broad end-user audience is of course part of the goal.

CW: Do you believe that users of Free Software should be encouraged develop a technical understanding, or do you see it as a good thing that many people do not progress beyond being ‘users’?

MB: Enabling users to fully understand what their computers are doing and how they operate is a very central function of Free Software. Not everybody might want to, but those who do will be able to learn their way from being a user to becoming a pro-coder. So there is an education side, and when it comes to teaching students basics about their computers or later computer science, there is a very strong argument for relying on Free Software for that. So while in my personal opinion I am lenient with people using Free Software applications but not operating systems, our demand to education systems should be that we only teach Free Software. For proprietary software, a new user is a future customer. For Free Software, a new user is a future black belt.

“For Free Software, a new user is a future black belt”

CW: To what extent do you see Free Software as a political issue?

MB: It is both apolitical, and very political at the same time. Some Free Software developers have political motives, but most of them do not. Most contributors are motivated by peer recognition, and by user feedback. In that regard, Free Software is individual, non-political; a very rewarding hobby. We should be aware that this positive energy of creating something is just as important as the flip-side of the coin, the high level political arguments.

Free Software is very political in that it influences society. It influences individuals, businesses, municipalities and whole economies in various areas like education, public procurement, IT strategy, and protection of civil liberties like privacy, etc.. Policy makers need to develop an understanding of what beneficial effects Free Software and the whole wider idea of openness (like in Open Data) will have on society, and then apply that knowledge to protect Free Software. This involves the dispute around software patents as well; do the benefits of Free Software outweigh assumed positive effects of patenting? I think they do by a huge margin, but it is an important role of Free Software advocates to provide well-researched information to politicians and assist them. We have to be our own lobby group, one of the few that actually have the common good in mind.

CW: Do you have a political aim for your research at the academy?

MB: Yes, I do, if only indirectly. The discussion around software patents so far has mostly been led between industry lobby groups and policy makers. But patents are only a means provided by the legal system to foster innovation, aimed at raising the standard of living through increased efficiency of production. Whether patents make sense for software remains to be seen.

A few interesting questions come to mind. One is if software patents are really fostering innovation, or if their negative effects outweigh their utility. For example, in the software world we increasingly see patents being used offensively, to prevent competitors from developing or introducing new products; to prevent innovation, not foster it. Why does this happen especially in the software industry? I will be researching this and related topics and hope to be able to develop theoretical answers.

“We have to be our own lobby group, one of the few that actually have the common good in mind”

But since I am an active Free Software advocate, just theorizing will not suffice. The political aim is to deliver these answers as a part of the dispute around Free Software and software patents, helping to base it on facts. Today, it seems to mostly be based on FUD. That is why I am a fellow of FSFE.

CW: As a researcher, have you found that higher education institutions are ignorant of Free Software?

MB: Absolutely not. After all, publishing your findings openly for your peer scientists to extend review are concepts the Free Software communities derived from academia. I would go so far as to say that Free Software as we know it today is largely based on the results of scientific computing of the old days. Look at who wrote BSD, or X11.

While in the past most contributors were computer scientists, other disciplines seem to be picking up interest as well. For example, where I work, lectures on Free Software are being presented as part of a course for economists about “intellectual property” management. These are future corporate managers and directors, and they are being introduced to the ideals of Free Software now. This is great!

Photo by Gaurav Chaturvedi, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

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