Software Freedom Society

I’ve been mulling over a new idea and I’ve come to my blog to draft my thoughts on it. I’m probably wrong, but I really want you to comment your thoughts below.

We have a Free Software world which is dominated by schools of thought, each focusing on a particular piece of the Free Software problem. Some of them know that they have a limited scope such as the Freedom Software Law Center and Software Freedom Conservancy (legal and sub-incorporation respectively) and then there are groups which try to be all things to all people like the grand daddy of them all, the Free Software Foundation.

I think the FSF itself wants to have a very limited scope, but it just can’t shake the fact that it’s political protests have implications outside of what it wants to do. Things like economics, interpersonal relationships, community culture and creative rights and remuneration to name a short few examples. I think perhaps that people who believe in the FSF’s political campaign, want it to be more. I know I’m frustrated with it’s lack of “do anything productive at all”, that seems to defined the last nine years. Many people who I know here in Boston voice similar low level grumblings think it’s lost focus a great deal because of what users want it to be.

Then there’s another organisation, the Canonical Ltd hype machine that is the Ubuntu community. It’s a pretty good force in the Free Software world (some people will disagree) but again, it’s members want it to be more than a corporate cheer-leading squad. They desire an authority that can standardise, set example, lead. But let’s be honest, Canonical can’t possibly do anything right in a lot of eyes outside of the Ubuntu community itself (even if it empirically did so). So the route to using the boundless capacity of enthusiasm and good ideas about community management and treating non-coders with respect has been watered down or rejected, ever tied to a company that is desperate to make money and over eager for your attention about it’s latest announcement that it drowns it’s own community out.

Now imagine a community that’s dedicated to Software Freedom like the FSF, as respectful and energetic as the Ubuntu Community, as transparent as Debian and as well defined as the Law Center. It’s goals would be to host an open membership, be an arena for debate about community structure, a place to document and explore social standards in both projects and the user communities surrounding them and to invite all to participate in projects as non-coding members.

We could take charge of the areas that the FSF struggles to host, help generalise existing community wisdom that might be tainted by the Canonical brand and provide valuable guides and education on the best ways to run projects and all the pieces needed to make them work.

We could do this by beating a drum and collecting together everyone until we get a critical mass that the social project works. But there is another more useful way too. Many coding projects suffer from a lack of infrastructure for their community operations, not just a lack of know-how. So we’d also start providing the-best-we-know-how pieces of community infrastructure such as mailing lists, forums, chat servers and social media mechanisms. The idea would be to share a lot of the technical burdens and let smaller projects have all the things they need to run a fun, inclusive and accessible community.

This project would of course ask other organisations to dismantle some of their existing structure. We’d have to gain trust and try and close down duplication as much as creating new spaces. This is after all about standardisation of social and community tools and practices and like the xkcd comic states, making new generic standards often leads to more standards. So making our infrastructure fast, pretty and reliable would also be important goals.

So, given that I’ve just rambled on about a passionate but off the top of my head idea (thanks for reading it!), what do you think? Please do comment below, comment in the social media link you might have used or you can email me at doctormo áŧ with your thoughts. I really do want to hear from people as this idea could be important to the whole Free and Open Source Software universe.

A Compliment for the Linux Adoption Curve!

My readers have been telling me that they’ve missed my blog entries where I look into some of the ideas around why Free and Open Source systems fail to gain traction. Today I’ll be conjuring that almost trope, the ‘Chasm’ adoption curve.

Basically the curve describes how any new technology must cross a barren dessert called the chasm from 10% to 20% of market share in order to gain enough share for the adoption to have enough momentum to go on and conquer the whole market.1 Often in the FreeDesktop ecosystem we see our adoption curve being really, painfully unable to push adoption past 10% of any slice of the market.

The problem we have, I think, is that we fail to create enough compatibility with our “compliments”; also known as all those requirements for tasks we want to do with our computers. I wish to use this to illustrate on one hand a rationale for why pushes into the mainstream fail and why I think peripheral hardware compliments should be a priority for all FreeDesktop programmers.

Every advocate knows that it’s easier to get people who are determined to adopt a Linux based FreeDesktop system than it is to get a windows expert to adopt one. For simple reasons, a self determined user will either make the sacrifices or make the investments to get his compliments compatible. This determination can take the form of either programming upstream new drivers, creating new applications or even just using toxic workarounds to fix an issue that causes things to not work on a fresh install.

Advocates will also often tell you about how successful they’ve been in getting their grandmothers using their FreeDesktop distribution. In fact many of us suspect that Ubuntu and similar distributions are very ready for typical technological Laggards, more than we are ready for early adopters. I think this has much to do with Laggard’s low investment in compliments and subsequent low exceptions about what computers can do for them.

This illustration (right) attempts to show the people to whom our software can be used as an acceptable replacement. In order to improve this, we’d need to either a) improve the attractiveness of the platform to encourage sacrifice of compliments or b) systematically increase compatibility of compliments.

The job of Unity in the new Ubuntu system is to improve attractiveness. An important attribute for sure. But many cycles has gone with a failure to improve compatibility with hardware compliments and this has shown that the gamble for Canonical is that they can improve the attractiveness to such a degree that the sustained investment into compatibility will come from the hardware vendors themselves.

I believe this is a mis-calculation. The hardware vendors will only invest in our ecosystem, when we are attractive compliments to their products. But they aren’t going to invest in their old discontinued products, but only into their new products. This leaves the old products without support and it just so happens that a great number of our main-stream users have made investments into hardware and are not willing to simply buy new hardware just yet. in conclusion, I think we can count on hardware makers providing us with drivers eventually; but for as long as they are not, we should be investing in all their old product lines and making sure they work with our desktop distributions.

This is why I believe it is important that Red Hat and Canonical stop playing around and put money directly into hardware peripheral device support. Printers, scanners, drawing tablets and even phone syncing. Everything that would improve our ability to attract new users over the chasm, by removing the things they would have to sacrifice in order to join us.

What do you think?

1 For a given sense of market, markets can be sliced and diced into different metrics and general purpose computers can be diced quite a fair few ways. For instance the programmers market is fairly healthy.

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 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.

Open Source Cargo Cult

Have you ever wondered if the people who claim to want to use “open source” don’t really understand what it is?

I get this feeling a lot, mostly from the media, government politicians and organisational administrators. Very few people understand Free and Open Source Software enough to be able to understand the difference between that and proprietary software. So is it any wonder so few people are able to grasp the importance of it in their organisation?

At times I feel it’s as if they’ve heard about some mystic buzz word that can solve technical problems they never knew existed and all they have to do is observe some religious behaviours and the wonderful results of doing science properly (i.e. publishing results and peer review) will magically be yours without any requirement to understand what it is your actually doing.

I’m also cynically wondering if this same process of belief is how a lot of well to do people understand economics. Perform XYZ and get godly justified rewards! Magic until it all falls to bits as a giant pyramid scheme.

Perhaps I’m just frustrated at the lack of understanding, the promiscuity of misinformation and bad explanations that seem to grind the clear message down into an indecipherable mess.

Your thoughts?

FSF is Asking for Money Again

As many of you know, I’m considered to be both pro and anti Free Software and Open Source, depending on your side. Although I consider myself to be pro free and open source software and this entry is highly critical of the FSF, be warned.

Basically the Free Software Foundation is a poor provider of grass roots energy for it’s cause. In fact its obstinate, angry views combined with it’s anti-community culture, serve to suck the life out of the movement. In fact if Free Software philosophies are to become successful, I think it’ll be despite the actions of the FSF. It seems to want to serve as a top-down father figure, and very much not a bottom-up grass roots organisation, like all political movements it’s falling for it’s own inability to work with people on the ground to effect change.

Today they’ve sent me another email asking me to become an FSF Member. So concerned are they will increasing their membership money that I can’t remember when I last got an email asking me for my ideas, my concerns, my involvement. What is also sad is the wording, it’s very obvious that the organisation has become the worst kind of charity, empty of compassion but big on quotering it’s money making membership. Part of the email:

If you believe that the technology we use should be free from
arbitrary restrictions, the best way to put that belief into action
is by becoming an FSF member.

That’s such a poor argument, it doesn’t even bother to say what they want the money for, or be honest enough to say that’s what they want, Parody: “If you like puppies, rainbows and bank holiday mondays, then the best way to put your joy into action is to become an FSF member”. What I want to be asked is “We need some money to support this cause, we reckon we’ll need this amount of money, can you share some of money to help us push this forwards”.

I know I must seem like I’m unfairly digging into the FSF a bit, and I am. But that’s only because I really believe in the Free Software ideology and believe that this officious front end combined with Richard’s vicious front end is hurting what it claims to want to support. Take the “Powerful new video message from Jeremy Allison” they sent last month.

It made me want to claw my eyes out in shame, this guys is probably a great programmer, but he shouldn’t be allowed on camera, never mind promoted as a powerful speaker. I haven’t seen someone that condescending since Blue Peter. It illustrated to me just how out of touch from other people and a feeling for the common man the FSF is. What is it that makes these people believe that everyone else is merely too stupid to understand Free Software? For me it’s disrespectful to confuse ignorance with stupidity.

Your Thoughts?

Making Money with FOSS Part 3

Greetings everyone interested in FOSS economics, ok so this week NickFox has written another great blog entry with some arguments against and for my last blog entry about making money with FOSS.

And now for my reply, as requested, to continue this interesting debate (your interest may vary), so lets get stuck in:

This is indeed true. The community itself and it’s development of software has no use for software it cannot touch. However, that said, closed source software does have its uses.

I wouldn’t deny that proprietary software has it’s uses, to the individual. It’s easy to see how it’s useful for the immediate task. What it doesn’t have though is a future. The cost to the community of maintaining compatibility, of supporting these closed offerings is not zero. Very often the companies who put these things out do not bare those costs and instead it’s the community serving the community that pays the integration price.

My point is that we must be careful, account for all costs.

I also think there will require a bridge between the two business models, a stop gap if you will. That stop gap is in-fact the FOSS community semi-adopting and supporting closed source applications.

Mr Fox may be right that supporting some commercial apps will make us more attractive in the immediate short term, but in the long haul it will discourage users from investing in and developers from making compatible or comparative software.

For instance, if flash for linux was not available, the community would have already have developed gnash to a much more advanced state. We’d have a much better flash experience than most other platforms and it’s likely that the gnash project would be a more serious competitor on mobile and alternative platforms. We might also have seen faster progress and pressure on the svg standard.

Now I’d never stop any one person from taking advantage of these proprietary offerings to improve their own experiences. But I would encourage them to also think of them as stop gap measures and proceed with investing time and money into the free software alternatives. This is more of the “Use but Pay for Future Freedom” model, rather than the OSS’s “Doesn’t matter so long as it works” and the FSF’s “It must be Free Software or you can’t use it”.

As users, if we don’t value freedom then we loose it. But conversely if we don’t value functionality, then we loose people. A balance is needed, the communication of the importance of Free Software ideals with some of the practicalism of OSS, a balanced approach that sees the short term satisfied without the long term forgotten to complacence.

there is no real competition in the market for Microsoft.

Microsoft are a monopoly, this is not a problem for the community alone to solve, but it is also a problem for competition commissions and legal systems around the world to not let Microsoft get away with it’s licensing arrangements with OEMs. Fairness won’t come about until either we in the FreeDesktop world have something 50x better or monopoly regulators start doing their jobs.

what reason does a development company have to try to change to the open source business model when they are targeting the largest audience possible?

FOSS is not just about making things available on a FreeDesktop like Ubuntu. It’s about choosing to respect your users, even if it means that some of those users will port it to Ubuntu for you. If they are FOSS, then they don’t need to really concern themselves with any of the small players, and can focus on windows all they like. FreeDesktops will take advantage of what they need to.

Proprietary software on Ubuntu will still require investment, but this time it’s static and not very future proof. It’s functional now perhaps, but it’s not secure, it’s not efficient and it’s not very stable. It’s easy to see how skype could drop it’s “Linux” support like a lead balloon and leave us powerless to stop them.

Finally, the point is while the closed source business, due to lack of competition among other things will not make the change to open source, I believe if the FOSS community were to build the bridge, they would use it.

As well as convincing users of the usefulness of using FreeDesktops, we must at the same time be able to convince them of the necessity of demanding FOSS licenses from their software providers. Just like users are already demanding organic and other valuable, non mass produced ideals. The time is right for Linux and the time is right to communicate to users, the general public, that what they buy matters.

Businesses will follow, so long as we have a way for users to buy something from a FOSS marketplace.

I also would like to respond to Simon who commented on my last entry:

Your model assumes that users know what they want and while that may sometimes be true, most of the time it is not. There is a big difference between what users THINK they want, and what they ACTUALLY want. You can see that in many forms in FOSS, for example, there are users wanting option A to be added to program Z, when what they actually want is a better application behavior (and that option A is not really necessary).

That’s very true, users have to not only be able to ask for what they think they want, but they have to trust producers that communicate why they think that’s a bad idea. There needs to be a trusting relationship and to some degree users will have to be convinced to invest in pure R&D. Purely idealistic because users aren’t that future proof when it comes to spending money.

Perhaps some kind of governmental or organisational research fund? or some website which developers and project managers can get together to get users interested in further development? I’m confident these problems can be solved if people really push in that direction.

All of this is my opinion, I would appreciate everyone’s thoughts on this subject below in comments or on your own blogs.

Closed source isn't immoral if…

I’ve been thinking lately that the way we approach the difficult wall between idealism and practicalism. Mostly I’m concerned with software in the Free and Open source communities and how we can navigate the issues. Let me explain.

Because of the way Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation conducts himself, he can be considered either as a leading light of self sacrifice. Being the first into cutting off his own functionality in order for the world to match his ideals of free speech software. This can lead to beating a path of necessity which can lead to positive creation of free replacements or it can reduce attractiveness and economics of the whole platform. As time goes on many wish to marginalise Richard’s voice because he wants everyone to painfully sacrifice just as he does.

On the other hand you have practicalists who see no problems with using closed source anything. It’s all fair game and the only good aspects of FOSS is that it’s free as in cost. If you can add a closed source library, module, plugin or driver. Then it’s your duty to do so or look stupid in the eyes of these practicalists. But then being practical about the situation your in can lead you to being able to utilise features and expand the user base without forcing people to confront painful sacrifices.

What I want to do is avoid both painful sacrifice and the complacency of practicalism. And the balances that the Ubuntu community have tried to strike are a good starting point in my mind. “Free where possible, Closed where absolutely required”. But I think I can do better.

It’s not wrong to use Closed Source (non-free) software, if…

  1. You understand the consequences and nature of closed software AND
  2. You make a reasonable attempt to find a free speech alternative AND
  3. You fund or put time into a free project, whilst using the closed version OR
  4. You put money into a bounty to start a replacement project whilst using the closed version.

It’s not so much a problem that people use closed nvidia drivers or flash-nonfree. It’s a problem that people do not understand closed nature limitations and do not have the will or method to support the creation or further development of the free alternatives. We may not be able to have the free alternative right now, but that doesn’t mean we should stop fighting for it, but at the same time it doesn’t mean we should stop using the closed solution.

I’d be interested in hearing about your thoughts, because this is a codification of my thoughts I will try and follow. As such I’ll be happy to do my duty and put some money into Gnash, SVG tools, Nouvou and other replacements to closed tools I use.