Monday, 21 June 2010 14:26

The FSF is needed now - more than ever


When would one expect an organisation like the Free Software Foundation to be really relevant to the world of computing at large - when there is a limited threat to freedom in computing or when the threat is increasing exponentially?

One would think that in the latter case, the need for an organisation like the FSF would be that much greater. But some people think differently. People like Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier, for example.

Last week, Brockmeier put forward his views - the FSF should not just say no to the use of non-free software, things like SaaS (software as a service) and devices like the iPad, it should provide alternatives, was his take.

(As blogger Jason Melton points out, the FSF is developing alternatives like GNU Social and LibrePlanet, but Brockmeier apparently does not know about these.)

A man who has worked for numerous technology publications and also put in a stint as community manager for Novell, Brockmeier makes some rather sweeping claims in his article.

First, he says that the FSF should, in a rather poor attempt at humour, stop being what he calls the "party of Gno"; he then asserts that negative campaigns - like the FSF's Defective by Design and Windows 7 Sins - are not working. However, he offers no proof of this - when Brockmeier speaks, one is apparently supposed to accept it like one did when stuff was handed down from Mount Sinai.

(I may add here that Brockmeier does not look kindly on people who contradict his views - I had firsthand experience of this at Australia's national Linux conference in 2009. A man who supports open source software does not, apparently, support freedom of thought.)

Brockmeier then asserts that he agrees with the FSF's basic mission and philosophy and links to a document which proclaims that "free software is a matter of liberty, not price". He wants to see free software succeed, he says, while adding that open source software has already succeeded.

I'm not sure what his measure of success is. He doesn't say so specifically either, but given that, in the same paragraph, he mentions that open source is widely used by companies and that even Microsoft is contributing to open source to some degree, one can only surmise that for him success is gauged by the extent to which businesses take up, or are involved in, a particular genre of software.

I guess he really didn't read the document he linked to.

Brockmeier then asserts that the free software movement is shrinking. In support of this rather expansive statement, he points to the increasing use of MacBooks at Linux conferences, the acceptance by most contributors he knows of proprietary services like DropBox and UbuntuOne, and the fact that, with very few exceptions, companies in the community settle for a mix of open and closed technologies for revenue generation.

The FSF has never measured its success or otherwise by the extent to which it can come up with a sustainable business model. It is an advocacy organisation and that is what it does. The GNU Project has contributed a huge amount of software that is part and parcel of GNU/Linux distributions and, where possible, does try to provide free alternatives to software that it proscribes.

But given its finances and personnel numbers, it can only do so much. Its cause is certainly not helped when people like Brockmeier, who, as I pointed out, claims to believe in the organisation's basic mission and philosophy, go off and work for companies like Novell which sold out the entire FOSS community by signing a patent-licensing deal with Microsoft in November 2006.

The deal did not go down well with people in the community - senior Samba guru Jeremy Allison walked out in protest. The deal has not done Novell much good either; the company is now hunting for a buyer. What Novell tried to paint as pragmatism has turned out to be anything but.

That apart, the use of MacBooks by those who attend Linux conferences says nothing apart from the fact that if these folk are GNU/Linux users, then they probably were not attuned to the idea of free software in the first place.

If Brockmeier was interested in helping the FSF become what he thinks could make it more relevant to the needs of today's computer users, then I think he would have offered the organisation his suggestions, rather than lambast them in public.

But no, Joe knows how to fix it. And he's not reluctant to tell the world at large how it should be done.

When Brockmeier rather patronisingly acknowledges the contribution that Richard Stallman, the founder of the FSF, has made to this genre of software, one can only laugh. Coming from one who was pushing Novell's cause not so long ago and making baseless claims about Software Freedom Law Centre founder Eben Moglen, it is indeed rich.

There is one thing that can be said with certainty - many of today's open source people find Stallman inconvenient. They find his adherence to free software, to the principles that drove him to start the movement, and his occasional pointed statements annoying. They find that it gets in the way of making a quick buck.

Of course, Stallman is not right at every turn. He can be annoying at times with his insistence on minor details. But it is an inescapable fact that the massive ecospace which FOSS occupies today is due in no small way to the idealism of one man who walked out of a very highly-paid job one day because he wanted to produce a free (as in speech, not beer) operating system.

As Brockmeier, for once, rightly points out there are business problems that need to be solved in order to make free software more widely used. But people like him are not part of the solution; they are part of the problem.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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