Platform Money is Key to Free Software Success

Post was drafted Feb 2nd, delayed for review but is published now without finale edits.

Platforms are everything these days. They drive users in specific, and well structures ways and can make or break different ways of production. Take for instance the World Wide Web, it’s a platform that allows anarchy and it fundamentally breaks the traditional media’s economic model of charging for content per user. The World Wide Web does this by delivering content not just more cheaply, but more quickly and more succinctly than ever before.

By comparison consider iTunes which came well after. A platform which like the World Wide Web is built upon the internet with similar technology. This platform provided a more cohesive and contained experience for getting access to content that users could have gotten through the World Wide Web. Even though it was more expensive to do so, users have bought music and other media through the iTunes platform because the platform is more effective at delivering content to users than the World Wide Web’s anarchy.

The iTunes platform could be credited with helping solve a key economic problem that was befalling the music industry. How to get users to pay for music and thus make music creation worth being in involved in.

We Have Failed Here

Knowing this about iTunes, I’m jealous. That platform has achieved something which we in the Free Software industry have failed to do. That is; meaningfully provide the platform necessary to get users engaged in software production. Economically speaking, we need users who do not make code, but who want to use our software. Socially speaking, if we wish to Free users, we must serve their needs and therefore be willing to be told what they need and deliver on their expectant demand.

This isn’t just about making money for developers so they can quit their proprietary jobs and sustain their lives on making Free Software. This is also about the incredible disservice we give to users. Our ignored users. Those people who we SHOULD be serving with every key press but who we don’t pay attention to unless they morph into helpful bug reporters or fellow programmers. Which plenty do, just so they can be a part of the process.

This is a problem that not only hurts people’s perceptions of Free Software projects, but it also makes our industry weaker than it needs to be. Projects exhibit fragility and an inability to grow. Users pick software on existing features and compatibility and not on future prospects. User involvement is suppressed.

Just Saying No

There are many programmers, project leaders, Free Software members, who ask that money never be involved in Free Software production. These people do not know what damage they are doing to their projects. Not knowing how to get user money into a project is a typical problem, but there is a mindset from the leadership in some projects that having users pay developers should not be allowed. I _do_ understand why money is stigmatised, but this is a symptom of a project’s lack of codified user focus which would provide strong definitions of self-serving, charitable and user bought developer attention. No programmer serving his own needs should be jealous of another getting paid by serving user’s needs. We all need to grow up a little here.

What we need in committed Free Software projects is a meaningful service ethos that makes the users of software the firm target of the project. It would supply direction and impetus to many projects that can’t understand why users don’t like their code and provide economic input to drive projects faster towards those user centric goals.

User Focused not Business Focused

“But Open Source is very economically successful” I hear you say. Well, yes, if your a business it’s been great. The bigger your business, the more meaningful relationship you can have with projects by hiring developers. Having developers (or being a developer) is a sure way to have input. Open Source and the OSI have focused hard on making sure the business to business open source industry works.

I always wondered why Open Source was doing so well and yet doing so badly and it’s this: Big business needs are being met, small business and user needs are not. This isn’t good enough. As a developer if you’re not taking money from users then you aren’t serving user’s needs. Follow the money, follow the demand.

Social Justice

And if your thinking that this economic problem isn’t important for Free Software, think instead of all the users who are disempowered. This is what Free Software social justice is all about. A user is a super important component to development and with continuous development strategies and increasing segregation between developers and non-developers; we need to have thought about getting all users in a position where they can truly be a part of our development practices. They’re the core and source, not the periphery to be ignored.

Demand Change

I’ve been involved with two projects where I see a problem. The first is Inkscape, a project with no economic steam and plenty of users who have no idea how the inkscape sausage is made. It has direction, but no growth. Programmers, but no self-serving power left. Users with needs, but no way to meet them.

The second is XBMC plugins. Here there are thousands of tiny self contained projects and they’re all organised into a forum. Go onto any plugin forum thread and the pattern will be the same: “The plugin stopped working”, “It doesn’t work here either, where’s the developer?”, “I hope the developer comes back to fix it”, “I hope someone else comes in to fix it”, “Has anyone got it working yet”. Again and again, users who are putting their time into begging developers for attention. It’s a depressing situation that must put users off and certainly doesn’t speak well of the stability of XBMC when it’s most useful features are plugins which fail all the time from patchy maintenance.

Demand is important and getting user demand focused in a meaningful way has been our failure. Focusing on support models and business to business open source processes has been our distraction. Harnessing the paradime shifting nature of the platform should be out solution!

A Platform Example

The Ubuntu Software Center is a platform. The way it’s been set up is as a clone of Apple’s iOS store and it’s incompatible with the Free Software industrial process. Instead of helping Free Software it’s driving economic sustainability to proprietary software development and away from Free Software. It’s got unintentional institutional bias which is rooted in the ideas of the developers and managers at Canonical. The suggestion that donations are somehow a meaningful way to drive money to Free Software projects is a sure sign that a person doesn’t ‘get it’, Free Software isn’t a charity case in need of a one off anonymous tip. It’s an industry and with a unique production process that requires careful cultivation and sustainable connections that focus latent user demands to developers and potential developers attention. The USC and it’s makers fail to see that.

Use the User Force

A platform like the Ubuntu Software Center should be made though. But made to specification for the Free Software industry instead of the Proprietary one.

Imagine it embed directly into every Free Software desktop and mobile distribution. The same user focused invitation to join a Free Software project, involving money and time without stigma. Think of a framework available to Fedora, Debian and Ubuntu at the same time, users able to come together and join us in the community by opening their wallets and telling us to get to work on their dreams.

Imagine the power, the vitality and yes, even the vibrancy of the ideas users demand we make for them; all developed into a platform that like iTunes could take a wild west and focus it with good design into a platform that delivers successful sustainability for creators and meaningful dialogue with users.

We need transparency in the accounts of projects to foster trust. Progress of bugs and roadmaps delivered to the desktop so users can see a future in our projects. Reviews and statuses of developers working and available to work. Users electing favourite developers as heros of their causes with monthly payments to kick their bugs before they ever get to the archive. Kickstarter style risk investments to push radical designs and brand new projects. Bug reports where money can be added to the heat to indicate demand for attention and the rewards for completion.

It’s all possible if we dare to make users the center of the Free Software universe and scale it big, VERY big.

We require the courage and vision of the leaders from Canonical, Red Hat, Debian, the FSF and every project leader out there to advocate for User focused Free Software and economic sustainability. With a willingness to embrace our industry’s unique software production method, good design of the frameworks and an invitation to users and paid developers we can make the Free Software industry a powerful and successful part of every user’s computer experience.

Are you with me? Let me know below in the comments.

Understanding Free and Open Source 2

Many years ago I produced a short visual guide, well after all the small changes I decided to update the guide from top to bottom. It’s now longer and follows a stronger narrative than before.

This is a long image, for the PDF download here. Repository for the svg files and scripts to build pdf and tiled images here: ~doctormo/understanding-foss/trunk, all Creative Commons, Attribution, Share Alike.

Concept Advert: Organic Software

Playing with concepts, words and tag lines with the keen Charlene from the Vancouver LoCo team. We’ve come up with this advert targeted specifically for Farmer’s Markets.

The brief asked to use some of the tag lines and terms which have been successful in the past as well as attempting to invoke questions in the reader so they are prompted to ask and become more interested in exactly what all this free and open source stuff is.

We reused some sembrandolibertad.org.ar graphics as well to give it a nice family feel. I wanted to match the similar styles found in earthy crunchy markets.

If this is successful as a target, then I could try using these at other earthy crunchy shops. You know the kind, with herbs, buckets of flour and great cheese.

Update: Updated evil computer to be more friendly, rounded and smiling and link to svg added. Licensed as Creative Commons, Attribution, Share Alike.

Thoughts or ideas? Comment below.

Come for the Price, stay for the Freedom?

It’s time for impossible to prove conjecture Tuesday! Today I’ll be looking at freedom and price. Those two great pillars of our movement from barbaric propriety and gouging monopolies into a bright future of open sharing and low-low prices.

I read about the Future of Open Source Survey and according to it’s findings most respondents value ‘open source’ and will be deploying it. But more intriguingly this time around instead of valuing ‘open source’ for costs reasons, the value is more firmly placed in Freedom.

This freedom can mean all sorts of things depending on what you do, and unlike what far too many commentators say about access to source code not being important to non-programmers; it isn’t actually about the source code at all.

So what happened to all that low-low price hype? I think that we’re reaching maturity. First FOSS is attractive to anyone who doesn’t quite understand it because of it’s apparent cost benefits. That is, what has already been written is free for anyone to use. Explaining the benefits of Free Software to someone who doesn’t see the problem of proprietary software is impossible.

Once you’re using an open source platform, of course it’s much easier to calculate the benefits of investing in the improvement of the code (hiring/contracting developers) against simply buying a replacement off the shelf product. This is what makes advocating FOSS so interesting, you never know if the person you’re convincing to use Ubuntu will turn around and spend money on helping it grow later.

So why is freedom now important to all these cost conscious businesses? I believe that the successful foss product in any market pretty much sets the commodity cost and any propriety software will have to either beat the cost or improve on features in orders of magnitude better. The problem of course is that a lot of these businesses have gotten a taste of what it’s like when you can take your internal tools and change them to do anything in any way your business requires. This is something that proprietary software vendors find hard and expensive to do well.

So, my conjecture today is: “People will be attracted by the price and with enough time, stay for the Freedom”

Your thoughts?

What to do about Moral Uncertainty

We human beings can be wrong; in fact we’re more likely to be wrong than right because we do not have the ability to know everything. The problems we have with this limited knowledge is that it leads us to think we’re mostly right almost all of the time. (go watch the video linked, it’s really good)

And as Kathryn explains in the video above, even when we’re wrong, it feels just like we are right until we have the realisation of being wrong and then the shame and emotional trauma begins… So what to do with morality? That most important of personal philosophies that helps us decide how to treat our fellow human beings. The very ether that bases interaction and decider of trust and reciprocation?

I attempt to accept the fallibility of the data I have available. I do my best with what I know so far and attempt in every way to be defensive about causing harm. This defensive stance requires that I trust a set of moral beliefs which I may not be able to thoroughly prove before I act on them.

For example I support Free Software. For me it’s a moral choice, to deny users ownership is morally bankrupt in my current world view. Of course I could be wrong; it may be that denying users ownership doesn’t actually harm them in any significant way. At which point my assumptions about the moral vanguard of Free Software would in and of itself be wrong and wasteful.

I have some data to guide me in making my decision though, it’s not all guesswork. Personally experiences have shaped how I see code, my socialist roots teach me that the working-class should politically resist further rents and propriety, whether from housing, tools or software. My views on liberty push me towards any system that breaks down large centralised organisation and authoritisation and towards distributism.

With those feelings I can make my conclusions, but of course these are not the kind of experiences that most people have to guide them. So what do I conclude? If you’ve watched the video you should see that assuming other people who come to different conclusions are ignorant, stupid or malevolent isn’t quite the best way to approach interaction with other human beings.

So talking more about Free and Open Source with most people really allows me to challenge my own conclusions as much s I try and educate and help other people further their understanding.

Your thoughts?

Ubuntu’s Non-Free Parabox

Our venerable friend Jono Bacon has posted an interesting blog post concerning the outcome of the bug to enable the nonfree installation of Flash on Ubuntu. It would have manifested itself in the installer, by having the nonfree checkbox switch on by default.

  1. The problem: We can not have what we want in the default install.
  2. The current solution: Provide a set of proxy packages which can install the functionality after the installation, moving the liability and problems from Canonical to the user.
  3. The problem with the current solution: It requires manual user interaction.
  4. Problem with checkbox solution: It’s against Ubuntu policy and the Technical Board Voted it down.

I’m a big proponent of “nonfree offsetting” (few people are, but I’m sticking to my guns); If Canonical wants to ship nonfree Flash instead of almost fully working GNU Gnash, then they should be willing to offset their balance with adequate investment into the free software alternative; i.e. they should be putting money into Gnash.

It’s funny because I was talking to Rob Savoye, winner of this year’s free software award, at LibrePlanet 2011. Overcoming the technical barriers to finishing Flash 10 support in Gnash, now that there is good documentation from Adobe, is so close. But the only businesses investing in Gnash are embedded systems; systems who need a Flash player to work on ARM and other architectures. Red Hat isn’t one of them, neither is Canonical, and I tire of not hearing from these companies on why they can’t invest more into solving these issues with an economic nudge.

Even if you don’t want to give the money to Rob, then send in your own engineers to get the job done!

Back to Jono: his position is that this issue is down to design. In his world view, installing nonfree Flash is required, it’s the only option and the one that we offer when you install Ubuntu; let’s assume that’s right for a moment. He’s asking designers to mull over how to achieve the right kind of communication to users to encourage them to click on the checkbox: This in itself is a policy paradox.

Anything we do to encourage users to install nonfree, nonessential components, is simply against the Ubuntu policy of shipping free software and encouraging its use. It’s hard to claim that this is a balance of free vs. nonfree with a straight face when your stated aim is to encourage users to install nonfree components.

In the comments to the blog post there are some very good responses from Alan Bell and ethana2, but there are also some comments from users who I think are more pro-compromise then they are pro-free-software. An example from Cleggton (I don’t mean to pick on you personally Cleggton, you’re just the easiest to quote):

If we take philosophy out of the argument for a second, then it seems clear that the users who care whether they are non-free, patent questionable etc are the ones that are most able and informed to uncheck a checkbox. And the ones that aren’t aware of the difference are our new users, who need YouTube just to work out of the box, lets make it work and then lets educate them later.

I hear this kind of appeasement argument an awful lot. Users don’t care (so we’re told) and free software is too hard to achieve. Not everyone of our users is going to care, especially when we so rarely tell them about free and open source software and it’s practical ramifications to them personally. But even that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Our users expect us to care about the things that will benefit them. In fact they expect us to care for them with careful policies. Even if polices get in the way of jam today; they’re there to make sure there’s jam tomorrow and users trust us to make those calls on their behalf.

Besides, you know what your mother always said about getting your own way without putting any work in: It trivialises the issues involved and waylays expectations and the reality of our situation. Then it’s much easier to ignore real solutions like spending the time creating free software and instead continue to make excuses on why we should keep the toxic workarounds like the nonfree Flash player in our ecosystem.

What are your thoughts?

Post-Open Source, Why Web and Mobile aren’t

I was just reading the interesting article by Glyn Moody about how Mobile apps and the Web are reducing the opportunity for Free and Open Source to take off, right at the time when it should have the biggest basis for doing so.

What’s interesting is that this is another stage in the tragic commons merry-go-round; where publicly minded, forward thinking people set about creating a new ecosystem where ideas can be shared. So impressively more efficient and free to all is the commons that some people come in who use the now free ecosystem to build upon it, by extension the next generation of proprietary garbage that has to be fought away by the next generation of publicly minded people.

We’ve seen it once before when the computer world, which became an open platform, suddenly developed a whole host of parasitic monopoly companies that based their entire closed platforms on top of the older system. And that wasn’t the first time this happened either.

So now we have open source taking the world by storm. Except of course that it’s now undergoing an interesting shift, instead of the cultural shift from passive consumers to active participants; we instead see a new layer of companies who take advantage of the free ecosystem provided to build a new propritary, closed and wholly controlled market for themselves.

Both the Web and Mobile ecosystems are built on open source. Mobile may have a couple of old world encrusted barnacles, but almost all of these platforms are only possible thanks to the ecosystems they’re built upon. Of course they’re also not interested in being a part of creating a new free ecosystem, just a new proprietary one.

Perhaps this is the way it goes, perhaps in 10 years time we’ll be digging ourselves out of this mess to be told that some company is investing a new proprietary system based on open source mobile and open source server code.

Your thoughts?

Video: Why Free Software Matters

This is my response to some very good comments on my last video entry which I felt should be addressed with another vlog entry.

I’ve attempted to explain why Free Software is politically important, as much as open source is important to creators; we must be supportive of Free Software for user reasons and not just consider our own hacker culture issues.

Video Problems: Go directly to the video on blip.tv here and download the source mp4 here.

Personal: The reason for begging your indulgence with the video blogs is that I’m inspired to practice my speaking skills in order to further eliminate my stammer. From a young age I was bullied and called names and I have gotten much better since, but seeing The Kings Speech really brought it all back for me.

Manage Your Code with Philosophy

I had this idea for a diagram from maco, we were talking about Religion and got to discussing this. I wanted to explain it and I was being casual. But take a look at my diagram and you’ll see there is a very strong pattern which is used for both resolving idealogical conflicts and resolving code/patch conflicts.

And just as we as programmers need access to lots of good and bad code to build our skills and patterns of how to program in the best way. We as human beings need to experience lots of thoughts, feelings, cultures and conflicts in order to build wisdom and insight in our human problem solving.

What are your thoughts?