Communicating freely

Archive for the ‘professionalism’ Category

Freedom is important (so is evolution)

Saturday, July 8th, 2006

I just read Paul Cooper’s blog post about the FSF and FSFE.  One line really struck me: “[FSF(E)] could become irrelevant because certain elements are living in the past confined by the way things were rather than the way things are.”

I don’t disagree but I don’t quite agree either.  It’s a very broad statement.  There is a lot of leeway for individual interpretations of what constitutes the ‘way things were’ and the ‘way things are now.’

What I think is true is that there is some tension between the traditional hacker community and the wider free software developer-base.  Free Software is no longer exclusively a hacker arena.  We are seeing Free Software deployed in very serious places and we’re seeing professional levels of support and development.  This includes the NSA with SELinux and Novell with SuSE.  It’s been happening for years but a certain critical mass is being reached.

The field is evolving.  The organisations that support it must evolve too.  

I think I was in London (speaking to GLLUG) when I started talking about how we’re seeing the rise of management layers in Free Software projects.  We’re seeing stuff like usability engineers, project managers and public relations people.  In short, we’re seeing the ‘businessification’ of Free Software projects that are regarded as mission critical.

There is a reason that we’re seeing this.  Programmers are programmers.  They are not managers or public relations people or usability engineers.  When you get to a certain size you really need to find experts.

Strap on a beard and wrinkled brow “but then you’re becoming the MAN…you’re like a company.”

Ah.  Herein lies the rub.  The traditional hacker culture was very much about being an independent person.  About hacking away and discovering stuff and playing with code because it was fun.  That’s fine.  That’s good.  It’s a noble aim.  However, when Free Software grew up and went into the real world it needed to fulfil the requirements of usability and reliability.  The Freedom bit of Free Software remains but the edgy technical hobby stuff falls away.  The government of Bhutan are not interested in cool new features; they want an empowering digital infrastructure for the future of their people.

Because Free Software is Free Software the guys who want to hack can do so.  But the big mainstream projects need to produce big mainstream products.  They need to be “the man.”  Well, the man without shareholders making technology to empower everyone.  A nice man.  The kind of man you would be happy to see your daughter marry.

I recently saw a flame-war appear on a mailing list because two people were having an argument about who was more free.  When there are five billion people in this world who lack basic infrastructure I find these arguments tiring and pointless.  

I think the four freedoms of software are important.  I think people should be able to use, modify, redistribute and improve their tools.  I think this is especially important in terms of getting this stuff out to developing nations.  It’s also important for me.  When I was fifteen I had no money for a new computer.  I got a DOS 3.3 computer from someone’s garage.  I wish I had known about GNU/Linux.  I wish I could have learned about the freedom of software at that juncture.

I think the FSFE is important.  It’s mission is to protect and promote the four freedoms of software in the European arena.  Patents and DRM challenge Free Software and the FSFE really engages on these issues.  It also educates people and has some great initiatives coming up to further strengthen Free Software in our area.

I think engagement with everyone is important.  I have nothing but admiration for the companies that are embracing openness and freedom (well done Sun and Novell).  I’m looking forward to the day that Microsoft start considering software freedom.  I’m looking forward to the day that Java is released under the GPL (hint hint).  I’m looking forward to the day that children learn at school.

I think that software freedom is relevant.  I think that promoting freedom is essential.  That’s why I’m out here talking to people, putting forward initiatives, and generally trying to do my little bit to provide digital infrastructure for everyone.