It’s come to the point that I was asked to explain what I consider necessary prerequisites for an open, free, sustainable approach towards what is often called “The Cloud” or also “Software as a Service” (SaaS).
Clearly I’m sympathetic to the fundamental ideas behind Diaspora, ownCloud and so on. In fact, I myself am currently dedicating my life to the creation of a solution that should empower users to take control over some of their most central data – email, calendar, address books, tasks, see “The Kolab Story” – and thus to provide one puzzle piece to this picture.
So yes, I have developed an opinion by now and obviously I see attempts at “openwashing” such as “Open Surface” by Microsoft to be falling dramatically short on several accounts.
So what do I think constitutes a socially acceptable and sustainable approach to “Cloud Computing” or “SaaS”?
I think it may be simpler than what I initially thought. There are two primary points that now seem most relevant to me:
Right to restrict
Users must be able to restrict access to their own data, especially by their service provider. Participating in social networks, or enjoying the convenience of having your data available at all times should never have to come at the price of giving up privacy. So users must be given a choice to restrict access to their data as much as they consider necessary or desirable, from fellow users, and their provider. Similarly, they should never lose the right in their data simply because they use a certain service.
Freedom to leave, but not lose
Users must be able to switch between providers, or even to host their own data, if they so choose. And they must be able to do so without losing their network.
They should still enjoy the same level of interconnectivity and not be penalized for having switched providers in the form of having to convince all their contacts and friends to switch, as well.
Software such as StatusNet which is powering Identi.ca allows to set up your own instance – this is a step in the right direction.
From these follow a couple of necessary conclusions to get to this point:
Free Software necessary, but not sufficient
Free Software is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition. Without the software being Free Software, the Freedom to leave, but not lose is exceedingly hard to implement. So in my view the GNU Affero General Public License (AGPL) is strongly preferred, followed by the GNU General Public License (GPL) Version 3, but ultimately any Free Software license will do. Implicitly therefore I am also not adverse to allowing companies to differentiate themselves to some level on code, as long as that does not violate the principles above.
Decentralized & Federated
In order to allow switching without losing the network, any software in this context should be designed federated and decentralized, based on protocols that allow such interconnectivity as well as re-discovering users that have moved.
In order to facilitate the connection of services and providers, as well as allow for innovation and differentiation, a certain level of freedom to experiment is necessary. So software and services should provide truly Open Standards with ongoing interoperability work through plug-fests and automated test suites which give some indication on how well which services actually interoperate.
Transparent Privacy Policies
In order to have control over data, users first need to understand what they are (or are not) allowing the provider to do, which is typically not the case. Most users have never read the 20 page privacy statements which are written in ways that make telephone books seem an entertaining read. So we need a way to simplify this.
A set of standardized privacy policies, maybe with a simple visualization approach similar to what Creative Commons came up with, would be a very useful step forward here.
No change of policy without explicit consent
And naturally it should be illegal to change privacy policies on users without their explicit consent. They need to know what is changing, and how, and what will be the resulting level of privacy they enjoy – in the same clear, transparent and understandable manner.
Because much of this is fuzzy in the sense of being open to interpretation and evaluation, these will require monitoring, either through existing consumer protection bodies, through antitrust or standardisation groups, an existing or new NGO dedicated to this work, or something else. Off the top of my head I cannot think of a body that has both the mandate and competency to fulfil such a task.
So while I have some ideas, I obviously still don’t have all the answers.
So there I was. Having spent 10 minutes trying to work my way through one of the worst forms that usability demons have ever conceived of for some legal issues at a certain governmental body, I hit the final “submit” and get an error message that the submission had somehow failed. No idea why, of course, please contact technical support. The following is the actual conversation:
Support: “Can you try again after clearing your temporary internet folder?”
Me: “I am not sure what you want me to do, to be honest. I have a browser, which has a cache, although that should not matter because this was the first time I visited your site. I don’t believe there is a temporary folder for the internet.” (What I was actually thinking was: “You want me to go through that awful form AGAIN?”)
Support: “You could try restarting your machine and then try the process again with a brand new form. Do not use a saved form. If the problem persists, please provide the reference numbers you are working on.”
Me: “It was a brand new form, but I am not sure what restarting the machine is likely to achieve. Are you perhaps assuming I’m running Windows?”
Support: “We only know that restarting a computer or trying with a different computer sometimes clears this problem. Possibly, this will help even if you are using something other then windows.”
Note how they know that trying this sometimes clears the problem. So apparently people have been having issues before and not always did the tech support resolve the issue. Go figure.
In any case, I cannot believe I’ve just been HYTTIOAOA’d.
I’ve been woefully aware that while I did write about having chosen Kolab as my next challenge, I have consequently failed to communicate the most exciting part of why this became my challenge. So let me try to tell you the Kolab Story.
To understand the Kolab Story it is unfortunately essential to first understand what the situation is, and how others are seeking to address it. For the very largest part of this planet, Microsoft Windows is still the dominating desktop operating system.
While other systems, in particular GNU/Linux, have made huge improvements and are by now more or less the equal where usability is concerned, even the combination with the genuine advantages such as maintainability, efficiency, security, independence, control, investment security have not been enough to change that situation fundamentally, or at least not yet.
The reasons for this are widely known to most people in the field. There are of course all the practices that have been or should be subject to antitrust investigations, such as standards abuse, tying, or pressure on OEMs to favor Windows, which has led to effects such as the one where getting a computer without Windows license will be more expensive than getting the same hardware with Windows installed. So one of the primary reasons for the dominance of Windows, namely that when you buy a new computer, you get Windows, is still as strong as it was a decade ago. And Microsoft does not seem willing to let this one go either, on any platform, as this article demonstrates.
Due to decades of these practices, many software vendors have primarily focused on the Microsoft platform, fulfilling the strategy set by Microsoft around the late 80s/early 90s. The result are thousands of legacy applications around the world which are critical to a company’s success. Virtually all migration projects to Free Software on the desktop that I know of were struggling with that legacy. This is often combined with proprietary integration between server and client based upon undocumented and/or patented technologies not available to Free Software.
As a result, some migrations have their breaking points in the file server, which is why Samba 4 and the antitrust work that at least partially preceded it is so important; the office application, which is why it is important that OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice continue to flourish; or the groupware.
Groupware, or Personal Information Management (PIM), is a rather vague term. At its core it is usually understood to encompass email, calendar, address book and tasks. Its functionality was arguably the primary driver for the rise of smart phones and continues to be their primary function for many users. On the desktop or notebook it is typically Microsoft Outlook, with Microsoft Exchange on the server.
This is the primary offering of most competing groupware offerings, including those that market themselves as Free Software/Open Source, although rather often they turn out to be Open Core. But even where the label is justified, they primarily focus on the three core offerings of Microsoft Exchange: Microsoft Outlook on the client, web access, and synchronization to the mobile phone.
They typically deliver this cheaper than Microsoft Exchange, which is good for stained IT budgets. Microsoft is however known to dump its price whenever it is strategically useful. But there is another, bigger problem. Microsoft Oulook is focused on the Windows platform. And while the web clients give some level of platform independence even for Microsoft Exchange itself, there are many scenarios where web clients are just not good enough.
So the platform lock-in is in no way mitigated. It may even be increased, as there is yet another data source to migrate if the platform is to be replaced.
So if the goal is to regain some freedom of IT strategy and purchasing decisions, many of the alternatives are almost as unhelpful as remaining with Microsoft Exchange itself.
Five Platforms. One Groupware.
Imagine you had a client that you could deploy on Windows which gives you the same range of functionality as Microsoft Outlook, but which is also available on other platforms, such as Mac OS X or GNU/Linux. This is precisely what the Kolab Smart Client based on KDE Kontact provides.
As part of the KDE PIM community, many of the protagonists of the Kolab ecosystem have been working on this new client which became possible due to the re-licensing of the Qt Toolkit. It is fully Free Software, and the entire code base is made available through KDE, so all users will eventually get to benefit from this work. But because KDE is not primarily business focused, because most volunteers work on KDE because they no longer want to use Windows, and because KDE has its own release cycles and a focus on development rather than deployment, there are always delays in the availability of these components on Windows. But even on GNU/Linux some users provide the feedback that they do not consider this “business ready and stable” for their purposes.
That is why one of the reasons why the partner network of companies around Kolab Systems along with its development partners KDAB and Intevation exist. We have the people, the experience and the business background to decelerate the rapid pace of development for our customers towards more business friendly release cycles, occasionally catching up to the exciting developments within the KDE community.
Naturally there are many people for who the community packaged versions are all they want and need, and we do what we can to help extend that, but if you want warranties, dependable time lines, guaranteed and defined support levels and the proverbial “one throat to choke”, the Kolab Enterprise Community and Kolab Systems give you just that.
But those are just three platforms. With Kontact Touch (if you’re curious, check out the screenshots), Kolab can also truly go mobile as a native application. Available already for the N900, Meego and Windows Mobile 6.5, the Kolab Touch Client can go pretty much anywhere Qt goes. As of recently, that includes Android. It also includes the tablet PCs, sub-notebooks and other devices with touch screen. So five is actually something of an understatement.
And yes. If you want to deploy this kind of technology in your company, you can do that now. For reasons of scaling and initial stabilization branching, this option really only makes sense for entities of 1’000 users and above right now. But it will become more widely and generally available as more and more entities deploy this technology.
Meanwhile the stable version based on the previous technological generation but with some visual improvements to fit modern desktops remains available for GNU/Linux and can be deployed anywhere, and via terminal server can address some of the use cases with Windows on the client.
Although naturally sometimes you really need Outlook. In some scenarios it is inevitable. So you can of course get it via one of three connectors, of which one was recently certified against six different suites of Microsoft Windows and Outlook. As all data will then be stored on a Kolab server, migration of the client is much simplified in comparison to migrating from Microsoft Exchange directly.
And yes. All these clients have full offline capability, keeping the user fully productive even when the network is not. In a world where “always on” has been promised for a long time now, that may not sound like a big deal. In our experience, it is.
Because while the promise of “always on” may come true sometime, somewhere, the reality of users today involves flaky connections on trains, interrupted connections on airplanes, overpriced roaming charges and connections in hotels, and overloaded networks at conferences or public events. Infrastructure fails, and in our view your groupware should be able to compensate for that.
From this perspective, it is also not important whether the server actually goes down for a minute or two for productivity in your company. So in many scenarios your requirements towards high availability of the server are in fact reduced by the offline capabilities of the client.
This is obviously not the case for the web client itself, which typically runs on the Kolab Server itself, but can also be put on another server, potentially in a DMZ. The currently shipped client is based upon the Horde framework, other options are likely to become available within the year.
The web client is typically used as the backup option because the native clients are generally so much more powerful. And anyone who has ever browsed the Android store to see comments like “This just adds a short cut to the web page. Uninstall.” should be aware that we see a transformation of the web towards more data-centric protocols interpreted in the best way for the form factor at hand by local applications, whether they are deployed through HTML5 or otherwise.
That is why Over-The-Air (OTA) mobile synchronization is so important, it makes the data available on the smart phone without network delays and in the most useful way for the user. So thanks to the integration project we did with our development partner Libertech, version 2.3 of the Kolab Server comes with built-in ActiveSync support which is routinely tested against Meego, Android, iOS, Symbian, Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry (with connector).
…and much more
And this is only a part of what is routinely deployed with support, e.g. the client also comes with strong cryptography and signatures for email (both S/MIME or OpenPGP) on any of the platforms mentioned above. But trying to cover it all would be too much, so a second part to this article is probably in order one or the other days.
Because Kolab is so highly modular and built upon standard components we all know, it can be integrated into virtually any pre-existing environment and hooked up with a great number of other technologies. Over the years, our partners have developed and deployed customer solutions with a great number of different additional modules and components.
So while this is only part of the picture, maybe it helps you understand why all the great things Kolab can do and become for me is something I got truly passionate and excited about.
What the Free Software community has in the Kolab Groupware Solution is technology that can be a game changer on desktop and server. So I hope that at least some of you will participate and become part of this change – as a user, developer, contributor, advocate or otherwise.
Some weeks ago I received news that the embassy in Berne had unsuccessfully been trying to contact me under FSFE’s old office address in Zurich. This was a bit odd and unexpected. So you can probably understand my surprise to be told by the embassy upon contacting them that on 18. December 2009 I had been awarded the Cross of Merit on ribbon (“Verdienstkreuz am Bande”) by the Federal Republic of Germany. As you might expect, my first reaction was one of disbelief. I was, in fact, rather shaken. You could also say shocked.
Quick Wikipedia research revealed this to be part of the orders of knighthood, making this a Knight’s Cross. Can you hear the whinnying of the horses, the clinking of armour and the sound of steel on steel? So where does the tapping of keyboards and blinkenlights enter into this?
So this is the most important message: By awarding this Cross of Merit, the Federal Republic of Germany recognises the importance of both Free Software and Open Standards. After Matthias Ettrich was already awarded the Medal of Merit in November 2009 for his work on KDE, this sends another strong message of support for Free Software and Open Standards and for the importance of the work carried forward by associations such as the Free Software Foundation Europe. This work, by the way, is an ongoing process, and it needs your support. So if you can, please join the Fellowship right now.
But there is another, more intimate meaning to this for myself, and an inherent challenge.
A born Helgolandian, the German FAZ credited this background in a very kind article for my strong emotional ties to freedom, always keeping an eye on the horizon. Most of my childhood was however spent in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. And as a truly free hanseatic citizen, one does not accept any foreign masters, which established the tradition of the Hanseatic Refusal.
So, why did I choose to accept the Cross of Merit?
There is possibly enough of a Helgolandian in me to not accept the traditions of the Pfeffersäcke of the Hanse. As you might not be aware, Helgoland was one of the primary hideouts for the pirates that plundered the ships of the Hanse, heavily laden with pepper and other goods. These Likedeelers, the “equal dividers” as they called themselves, had a much more participatory society than essentially feudal cities such as Hamburg which ultimately caught up with Klaus Störtebeker, decapitating him in the Hamburg harbour. Naturally I do not expect to fare a similar fate for my little act of rebellion against hanseatic tradition.
Despite the above I would even maintain that my acceptance constitutes “Hanseatic Acceptance” because the city of Hamburg is – seemingly ignorant of its having acted as the cradle to the Open Document Format (ODF) – as heavily Microsoft dominated as few others. At the time of the great battle around MS-OOXML, an image that once more brings up associations of blood, gore, and treachery, it has pained me greatly to see the role Hamburg played in the subversion of Open Standards and standardisation process at the International Standards Organisation (ISO) and the German standardisation body (DIN).
Hamburg truly has allowed itself to become the “Proprietary and Locked-In City of Hamburg” when talking about matters of Information Technology, whereas cities like Munich have become champions for freedom. Sadly, at the current point in time, there is more freedom to be found outside of Hamburg than there is to be found within.
The award is based on values of freedom and independence, and originates with people in the government who have done more for these values than the government of Hamburg. So I shall kindly thank for the award, accept it in the name of everyone who has come before me on the path of Free Software and Open Standards, and remain my own master, as the city of Hamburg should have done.
Little more than a week ago we launched Kolab Systems AG, the new home of the Kolab Groupware Solution. Why Kolab? Because despite its being in production for several years, I am convinced its design is still well ahead of any other solution in the market. It is purely Free Software and unlike other solutions it already has a strong and vibrant ecosystem involving various of the best Free Software communities, not the least KDE and Kontact, the primary Kolab client. But Kolab also integrates with other clients, scales extremely well, and provides end-to-end security and privacy by design.
In short: Extremely interesting technology, fantastic people to work with, a strong community and many new and exciting business opportunities were what ultimately led me to take up this challenge over others that were offered.
So after spending the past decade working for the freedom of our community and society in general through software that enables society and economy, after helping multiple entrepreneurs over the years to set up their Free Software business in ways compatible with community principles, I will now myself join the ranks of those that walk the paths created and maintained by organisations such as Free Software Foundation Europe and make this freedom practice for our partners and customers.
There is no question in my mind this is once more going to be a huge amount of work, which is why I fully expect to find lasting happiness:
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
– Albert Camus
The downside is that we’ll see how much time I’ll find for writing. I promise I’ll try.
Those who know me will not be surprised that the somewhat prolonged silence following my last post was not only for purposes of an extended summer vacation. Indeed I found myself even more busy than before immediately after the handover at FSFE in order to facilitate the knowledge transfer with the new team while doing some strategic technical consultancy and discussing three different options for my next “major” challenge.
These discussions have meanwhile come to a conclusion, but I’ll continue owing that answer just a little bit longer because of something else that reached me by means of an unexpected phone call sometime in late August while I was still on vacation with my wife in Sozopol, Bulgaria.
Imagine a new kind of organization, one that would focus on facilitating technological development of Free Software in a specific area through pooling of resources. Imagine an organization that would seek to strengthen an ecosystem of vendors based on Free Software technologies to build upon the unique advantages of Free Software for cooperation, competition and customer choice, and an organization that would participate in the systematic approaches that shape the environment for these technologies through standardization, legislation and public awareness.
Now imagine an organization that addresses all three aspects.
It is an inevitable truth of organizational strategy that no organization can do everything and do everything equally well. So any good company or organization requires focus. Historically that focus has always been either horizontal by dealing with all Free Software related challenges on a certain subject or vertical by addressing the needs of a specific project.
In this image, the new organization would have a diagonal focus, by dealing with a specific set of issues for a set of related projects. Because of its diagonal focus this organization would be complementary to existing organizations. It would cooperate with both horizontal and vertical organizations where there is overlap, providing additional weight and resources to both, while preserving its particular perspective of an entire technology segment.
This is good from a technological perspective for two reasons: (a) because it supports dialogue and cooperation where possible for the benefit of the user and Free Software, KDE and GNOME set a good example here, and (b) as they reach maturity, all projects tend to hit a certain type of roadblock that I would describe as “the non-sexy technological issue that won’t bring immediate benefit if fixed but is essential to allow future development of the project.” These issues are typically not trivial to fix, customers typically do not want to bear the entire load of addressing this roadblock and developers are hesitant to spend resource on it as they are concerned about recouping this investment.
Pooling of resources between developers, vendors that provide commercial offerings on top of the projects and users would be the ideal way of addressing these challenges – everyone benefits, everyone pays a little – but until now this has always proven very difficult to coordinate.
And finally there is the issue of promoting commercial activity around a Free Software technology segment based on an equal footing where all companies have the same starting position and none is more equal than others. This is something that I’ve been thinking of for quite some time now, starting from some initial thoughts in 1999 towards the idea of the GNU Business Network, and so were many others such as Simon Phipps who recently brought this back on the agenda.
So when I heard of the idea of combining all these aspects into a new kind of Free Software organization, I was intrigued, then curious, and quickly convinced to help bring this about. What followed were several weeks of rather frantic but highly rewarding activity.
What we have now is a solid core of a house, providing an opportunity to fill it with life. Many of the components are still being shaped, such as: What kind of projects will the ODBA be running? Where to set priorities? Which forums will be important? What will be the ODBA patent policy? All these questions will be determined by those that decide to move into the house.
Since all these are the critical issues that end up giving such an organization its true shape it has been agreed that everyone moving in before the first General Assembly is going to be listed as a founding member. Right now is one of these unique moments and opportunities for our ecosystem, and I hope that many of you will seize it.
Being founder and president of FSFE has been a challenge in more than one way, and I have enjoyed it greatly. It would certainly have been possible to stay in this position for longer. But the time was right for a change, and as explained in my other posting, I believe this change was the best possible choice for the organisation. So it became clear that it was time to start looking for the next big challenge.
Naturally I began thinking about this for the past year that I knew the change was going to happen at this year’s General Assembly. Some time was spent talking to friends, some time on identifying opportunities, and even more time was spent on weeding out less interesting options. This process has narrowed down my choices to a group of four or five, between which the choice is likely to be made.
These discussions are still ongoing, so nothing I can talk about right now.
Meanwhile I will take some well-deserved vacation with my wife and do some consulting work. If you would like to work together, you can find my profile on FSFE’s page, which also contains a more verbose CV in PDF format.
Once the decision for my next big challenge has been made, I’ll let you know.
My sincere thanks to everyone I had the pleasure to encounter and get to know over the years.
A special notice goes to Bernhard, Matthias, and all the others who surprised me during the assembly with the good wishes from so many people I had the pleasure to work with more closely during my time as president of the Free Software Foundation Europe. I also guess that having the General Assembly and its guests sing “Oh, Freedom” was better than the alternative.
Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) was conceived in early 2000, pregnancy took about a year, and in early 2001 my decision to make the creation and success of Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) my first and foremost priority in life was clear. This was eight years, six months, and a couple of days ago, and the organisation has meanwhile survived birth, infancy, childhood and adolescence – in particular thanks to the great people that have been part of FSFE over the years.
The founding group consisted of people from Germany, France and Sweden, with Italy joining during the first General Assembly in 2001. There has been a healthy fluctuation of people and positions over the years. Of the seven initial founders four are still members in the association, and two have had four entire two-year terms in their positions. The other positions were typically held for 3-5 years, which is long enough to build up and pass on experience, but not so long that the organisation needs to be concerned about dictators for life.
This was a design principle for FSFE from the start. Our goal was to build an organisation that will survive every individual member. We wanted an organisation that was strong on principle and would be able to protect this set of principles for the future but at the same time incorporated the best of the European experience and culture, including the capability to translate these principles to a changing world.
That is why FSFE has always worked hard to redefine and improve itself. The culture in FSFE has evolved into one that embraces development and change, to give it our best shot, and then see what we could have done better. It has always been a privilege to work with so many people who are capable of carrying such an environment forward.
But in order for FSFE to truly embrace change on all levels, to experience it as something normal regardless of the person concerned, it was necessary to give the organisation practical experience with change on all positions, the President included.
That is why during the 2008 General Assembly in Zürich I informed my colleagues in the Assembly that for the upcoming election during the 2009 General Assembly I would no longer be available as President.
The choice of timing seemed logical, because FSFE will never be more prepared for this step. It is a grown up international organisation incorporating some of the best people I have ever had the pleasure to work with. The financial situation is sufficiently stable, internal process is working smoothly, the organisation has an excellent track record and built significant political capital and contacts over the years, and the waters in which FSFE is currently sailing are as smooth as they will ever be.
The last year was spent preparing this change, preparing the organisation, its volunteers, and finding the right people to take FSFE to the next level. Looking at the new team I do not believe that we could have found a better group of people.
Karsten Gerloff, FSFE’s new President, spent the past years at the UNU-MERIT, working with people such as Rishab Ghosh to provide the scientific basis for the political change around Free Software. Before that he was an intern at FSFE, working with me at the United Nations, specifically the World Intellectual property Organisation (WIPO), he is familiar with FSFE’s policy work and I have no doubt that he will be able to represent Free Software effectively on all levels.
Fernanda Weiden, FSFE’s new Vice-President, has been an active part of the Latin American and European Free Software community for many years. As a co-organiser of the Free Software Forum in Porto Alegre, organiser of the world’s first conference on women in Free Software and an active part of the Free Software Foundation Network for many years, she combines exceptional technical skills with a passion for Free Software and many years of coordinative experience.
Christian Holz, FSFE’s new Executive Director, is a Fellow turned Executive Director. His classic business background, among others with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), give him the skills and experience needed to manage FSFE’s daily operations. He had decided to become involved with Free Software and work with FSFE through the Fellowship when the Executive Director position was announced. We found him pragmatic, focussed and a good social fit for FSFE.
Adriaan de Groot, FSFE’s designated FTF Coordinator, is known to many people in the Free Software community from his work as a KDE e.V. and NLUUG board member, and has been involved in FSFE’s Freedom Task Force for some time now. His experience and skills make him uniquely skilled to be our next FTF Coordinator.
Matthias Kirschner, FSFE’s new Germany and Fellowship coordinator, has been with FSFE for several years now, starting his career as FSFE’s first-ever intern, contributing to the set-up of the Fellowship. Over time he has become a valued member of the General Assembly, and after his studies in politics and management are now finished, he is also taking over as FSFE’s German representative.
These five people were the group with which I worked intensively to prepare the 2009 General Assembly, define the strategic planning and milestones. Working together was a great pleasure and almost made me regret that I won’t get to be part of this new and powerful team for FSFE. But you should know that their plans are also my plans, and they have my fullest support.
So these are the changes in FSFE’s structure, but of course there is also plenty of continuity. Reinhard Müller has kindly agreed to stay on as FSFE’s Financial Officer, overseeing the work of the new Executive Team as a kind of “internal auditor.” Cristian Rigamonti will continue to work on FSFE’s systems, and Giacomo Poderi will continue to work on FSFE’s newsletter.
FSFE will continue to have my full commitment as a volunteer and member of the General Assembly to participate in the strategic planning of the organisation. So this change does not reduce the experience available within the organisation. It increases it by adding the impressive background of the new Executive Team.
As my parting request, I would like to ask all of you to give this new team your support.
There are a couple of “beginner’s mistakes” when thinking about Free Software in general and its commercial application, in particular. One is to believe there was a substantial difference in the software referred to by the terms “Free Software” and “Open Source.” There isn’t. As far as the actual software is concerned, both terms are as synonymous as things get in real life, with experts debating about details around the fringes. The differences between the terms lie in framing and brand.
From the perspective of brand management, Open Source is a failed re-branding effort over which its creators lost control, followed by brand degradation through abuse and over-extension into areas such as business and development models. This has become another beginner’s mistake in Free Software, as highlighted in “What makes a Free Software company?”.
In a recent article, Jeroen van Meeuwen raised the point of brand awareness, and the fact that a brand can never be strictly controlled or managed, because it ultimately refers to “anyone’s gut feeling” about something. But this does not mean that branding issues should be ignored, because it is possible to influence anyone’s gut feeling, as some corporations have demonstrated over the years. But there is no brand manager for Free Software, and there is no communication discipline on issues of brand among the many people, projects, organisations, companies and governmental bodies that make up the Free Software ecosystem.
This is the strategic weakness that companies like Microsoft and SAP are seeking to exploit when they do their own shaping of what anyone’s gut feeling about the terms “Open Source” and “Free Software” might be. Unsurprisingly, their idea of what people’s gut feeling should be revolves around dominance of “mixed models” of proprietary and Free Software. Besides noteworthy write-ups on the Free Software Economy, Carlo Daffara also published some good evidence on why the mixed models are not among the most important and on the decline. So there is very little data to back up the spin provided by SAP, in particular, but there is a very clear motivation. If it becomes anyone’s gut feeling that mixed models are indeed the norm, it would allow them to leverage the strategic benefits of Free Software for themselves, while withholding them from their customers in order to extract monopoly rent on their own products.
Another approach by which companies such as SAP and Microsoft seek to steer the brand is by escalating, aggravating and encouraging conflict between false enemies, and by seeking to harmonize the wider community with false friends.
False Enemies and False Friends
There are plenty of false enemies to go around. Ironically, the most common form of false enemy is found around the animosity that has built around branding and framing issues, more specifically in the area of “Free Software” vs “Open Source.” Name-calling and quarrelling on either side is not helpful, and serves to hide the common base and interest in having a strong brand and powerful message.
The historical facts around Free Software are well documented and available to anyone who wishes to look them up. But instead of focussing on past insults and wrongs, I believe our focus should be on the future. We should realise that what divides us pales in comparison to what we have in common and that division and exclusion are harmful to us all. So we should rein in the name-callers on either side, and empower those people who know how to build cooperation, corporations, and positive feedback loops.
The second form of false enemies use Free Software according to the parameters defined by the license chosen for a certain project, but do not contribute back. These companies make use of the freedoms that were explicitly granted, but often find themselves heavily criticised for falling into the gap between unwritten community rules and explicit legal regimes. This criticism conveys a rather unhelpful lesson: Use of Free Software gives rise to public criticism and risks the company’s public profile.
This is not the message the Free Software community should want to send. Active citizenship is an asset, and should be encouraged. But as long as companies meet their legal obligations, they should be at liberty to be hermits. Not only is it impossible to enforce willing pro-active participation, through public criticism and stigma public perception of these companies overlaps with those who break the explicit legal rules. This discourages legal discipline and weakens the brand by confusing “anyone’s gut feeling.”
The alternative is to welcome any party taking measures to be a good citizen and follow the explicit legal rules, and grant them liberty to choose their own path. The value of active participation and contribution has to be taught, not forced upon. Once such companies understand the strategic implications of forsaking the opportunity to co-shape the direction of the platform one’s business depends upon to competitors, it is likely that more active citizenship will follow as the logical consequence.
The Free Software community needs to allow for a learning curve, and distinguish between good citizens – be they active or not – and false friends, which seek to maximise their own benefit at the expense of others. There are two typical strategies these companies employ: license abuse and brand abuse.
Brand abuse is more subtle in comparison. At times accompanied by license abuse, the typical brand abuse takes the form of companies marketing their proprietary products as “Open Source.” The vector for this abuse is “anyone’s gut feeling” that Open Source translates to “visible source code.” This criterion is insufficient to meet the guidelines set by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) for what constitutes Open Source, but seems to dominate a significant part of the brand at the moment.
There is also brand abuse taking place for “Free Software”, but this abuse seems less profitable and thus less prevalent, as it plays on the mistaken gut feeling that Free Software is defined by zero price, although the definition by the FSF highlights the four freedoms as the defining set of criteria and the Debian Free Software Guidelines describe what was later used as the definition for the term Open Source.
Even if it weren’t for the common root of all definitions, combination of terms such as “FOSS” and “FLOSS” has firmly tied both brands together in public perception. Gut feeling about one has bearing on the other, people make the assumption that Open Source is always gratis, and that Free Software means that the source code is visible. So brand abuse and degradation is an issue that affects the entire Free Software ecosystem, regardless of preferred branding and framing.
That brand degradation is harmful for all companies and commercial endeavours in Free Software, as it weakens the ability to communicate an essential part of the unique sales proposition. This was also the guiding reason for FSFE‘s “We speak about Free Software” initiative and has been thematised in Mark Taylor’s article “What vendors really mean by ‘open source’”.
Since brand is about public perception, the only remedy is through public communication to re-focus the brand. This would necessarily include elements such as information about the true meaning of the brand, criticism of brand abuse by the entire community – commercial and non-commercial entities alike – and exclusion of brand abusive companies from formal or informal cooperation to avoid legitimising their redefinition of the common brand.
Control over a brand can never be absolute simply because one voice, no matter how powerful, will never be able to drown out the many individual voices of all the people whose gut feeling defines the brand. There may be an advantage in a single message for a single brand, as it is typically handled by any particular corporate entity for its own products and name. But when it comes to public perception, there may also be an advantage to a community of millions that has a common interest to keep its brand strong.
While the message of brand abusing companies often seems to align very well with the community, they live at its expense, putting actual Free Software companies at a competitive disadvantage. It is time this community of people, companies, organisations and governmental bodies understood the relevance of keeping its brand strong to empower itself and its own.
Because shaping anyone’s gut feeling ultimately is in anyone’s power, yours included.