Today is the birthday of a founding father of my field, and war hero of course, Alan Turing.
Archive for June, 2009
A recent radio broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (your grandmother’s favourite radio station) entitled “Inside the Anthill: Open Source Means Business” was advertised as “Gerry Northam goes behind the scenes to investigate ‘open source’ computer software“. (Spot the irony in going “behind the scenes” to investigate something that is done openly and transparently.) But let us immediately get one thing straight: the programme was mostly about the principles of openness and distributed collaborative projects in general, rather than exclusively about FLOSS. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but I sympathize with the purist who finds it grating when the two are conflated. It also will not help the purist that the host does not get it quite right on occasion, such as by describing Linux as the first major open source project.
But still, this is radio for the generation of grandmother not Grand Theft Auto. Perhaps we should forgive some over-simplification? After all, the programme is clearly aimed at those who know little more than the phrase “open source” and who know it has something to do with computers. When the host is interviewing FLOSS developers (which is also when the programme is at its most interesting), he restricts his questions to the basics. The guys at Mozilla get the “why get involved?“, “how do you co-ordinate it all?“, and “who makes the decisions?” questions, while Linux, which seems to be held up as the exemplary FLOSS project, gets “why is it not more popular?“, “are people paid?“, and “where does the money come from?” The host promptly follows the money to IBM, and listens as members of the Linux Technology Centre give glimpses of their modus operandi.
After this, the show leaves the techies behind, and talks to people who apply the principle of open source outside of the computer world. We are treated to people from organizations like Wikipedia and Goldcorp, and from other observers, who give their predictions about open collaboration. Here is where my interest began to wane, because the talk starts to become a little woolly as the interviewees leave aside the specifics, and predict how businesses and governments will take the open principle and the new technology to become more democratic, cheaper, faster, better etc.
Finally, the show links back to its title by breaking down the analogy it set up in the first place (an open source project as a colony of ants), stating that a true anthill needs no hierarchy or centralized decision-making, things which are seen in the examples examined. (Think Linus and his lieutenants, or the guys who decide that Firefox needs to go to 3.5.)
In summary, being only half an hour in length, the programme could not have hoped to go into any real depth, but it may stoke the fires of general interest in the uninitiated listener.
The next episode of Computer Floss, a YouTube series aimed at educating about FLOSS. This one attempts to clear up the naming issues and the so-called differences between Free/Libre/Open Source. Here’s a transcript:
So far in this series, the terms “free software” and “open source” have been used somewhat synonymously, and this has been a little naughty of me, because there are actual differences in the usage of these terms, even though the extent of the difference is arguable. Let’s take a closer look.
As explained in previous videos, if you’ve been following the plot, when the father-figure of the movement, Richard Stallman, put together his ideas for freely using, changing and distributing source code, he named it “free software”. He tackled the obvious ambiguity in this name by distinguishing between “free-as-in-speech” and “free-as-in-beer” to make it clear that making money from free software is certainly permitted.
But to Stallman the moral issues were of supreme importance. To him, denying other people the right to fix, adapt or improve software themselves, and to share these changes, was immoral and anathema to progress. He argued it was divisive of society, and hindered the ability of people to learn and help others. What a nice chap.
And so, the free software movement continued. In the late 1990s, the term “open source” was coined; this was the result of the coming together of a number of programmers and businessmen, among them Eric Raymond, whose essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, had kick-started the meeting and went on to become an important book about the theories behind open source. These were guys who agreed with the principles of Stallman’s Free Software Foundation, but didn’t like the name or the moralising attitudes behind it, so they set up the Open Source Initiative and infused it with a politically neutral and business-friendly image, like a marketing make-over.
Yes, there was a divergence. You might have in your mind an image of the old groups of radical left-wingers, who would form political groups, only to splinter predictably into warring factions even though they believed the same things.
Here we go again, you might think, another movement splintering. Just hurry up, collapse and let us get on with our lives. But there’s a curious difference in this case: whilst the radical left-wing hippies of yesteryear shared the same ideologies, but differed over the practicalities, free software and open source form the mirror image of this: it is their ideologies and motivations that differ, but in practice they do most things the same. The Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative both do things like approve licences, support communities and provide consultations; there’s considerable overlap where they do it and sometimes they even collaborate.
And that’s why the whole thing doesn’t collapse in on itself. Let’s say you want to get involved: You could join up with the free software lot and be motivated by promoting the user’s freedoms, or you can go over to the open source bunch and espouse the pragmatic and economic benefits. You can even give both of them the finger and just concentrate on developing stuff that others can use, change and redistribute, because even then, you’re still helping everyone in the community, regardless of their persuasion.
As if I’ve not bored or confused you enough, there’s even a third label that the Europeans have come up with. The chaps on the continent use different words to describe “free as in freedom” and “free as in price” — how cunning of them — the freedom sense being translated as “libre”. Libre software then, is an unambiguous name for free software.
So, to answer the question “What’s in a Name?” — it turns out, not much. Free, Libre, Open Source: they’re just labels, and by their definitions they pretty much describe the same thing. But they can be misused or misunderstood like any other label, so rather than rely on the name, just ask those three magic questions: can I see the source? can I change the source? can I distribute the source? If you get a yes to all three, you’ve got a piece of FLOSS.