You might think that a group of intelligent people like the members of the free and open source software (FOSS) community would be free of hidden taboos. You might expect that such a group of intellectuals would find no thought forbidden or uncomfortable—but if you did, you would be wrong.
Like any sub-culture, FOSS is held together by shared beliefs. Such beliefs help to create a shared identity, which means that questioning them also means questioning that identity.
Some of these taboo subjects might undermine truisms held for twenty years or more. Others are new and challenge accepted truths. If examined, any of them can be as threatening as a declaration of shared values can be reassuring.
Yet while examining taboos can be uncomfortable, doing so can often be necessary. Beliefs can linger long after they no longer apply or have degenerated into half-truths. Every now and then, it is useful to think the unthinkable, if only so beliefs can be re-synced with reality.
With this rationale, here are nine of my observations about open source today that are overdue for examination.
When Ubuntu first emerged nine years ago, many regarded it as the distribution that would lead the community to world domination. Coming out of nowhere, it immediately began focusing on the desktop in a way that no other distribution ever had. Tools and utilities were added. Many Debian developers found jobs at Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm. Developers had their expenses paid to conferences that they couldn't have attended otherwise.
Over the years, though, much of this initial excitement has eroded. Nobody seemed to mind Ubuntu's founder Mark Shuttleworth calling for major projects to coordinate their release cycles; they simply ignored it. But eyebrows began to rise when Ubuntu started developing its own interface instead of contributing to GNOME. Canonical started vetoing what was happening in Ubuntu, apparently not for the common good but mainly in the search for profit. Many, too, disliked Ubuntu's Unity interface when it was released.
But listen to Canonical employees or Ubuntu volunteers talk, and you could almost imagine that the last nine years had never happened. In particular, read Shuttleworth's blog or public statements, in which he assumes that he remains a community leader and that "the big mouths of ideologues" will eventually be silenced by his success.
Seven years ago, Tim O'Reilly stated that open source licenses were obsolete. That was his dramatic way of warning that online services undermined the intent of FOSS. Like FOSS, cloud computing offered users the free use of applications and storage, but without any controls or guarantee of privacy.
The Free Software Foundation responded to the growing popularity of cloud computing by dusting off the GNU Affero General Public License, which extends FOSS ideals to cloud computing.
After that, though, concerns about software freedom in the cloud waned. Identi.ca was created as a FOSS answer to Twitter, and MediaGoblin is being developed as a FOSS equivalent of Instagram or Flickr, but such efforts are dwarfed by their competition. Nor has the importance of free licenses or privacy in the cloud been emphasized. Consequently, O'Reilly's warning remains as timely now as when he made it.
The founder of the Free Software Foundation and the driving force behind the GNU General Public Licenses, Richard M. Stallman is one of the legendary figures in free and open source software. For years, he has been the most vocal defender of software freedom, and the community probably wouldn't exist without him.
What his supporters are reluctant to admit is that Stallman's tactics are limited. Many say he is not comfortable with people, and his arguments center on semantics—on the words chosen, and how they bias an argument.
This approach can be insightful. For example, when Stallman asks why file-sharing is equated with pirates pillaging and looting, he reveals the bias that the music and movie industry tries to impose on the issue.
But, unfortunately, this is almost Stallman's sole tactic. He rarely moves beyond using it to castigate people, and he repeats himself even more than most people who spend their time making speeches. Increasingly, he is seen in many parts of the community as both irrelevant and embarrassing—as someone who has outlived his effectiveness.
People seem to find it hard to live with the idea that Stallman could both have a history of accomplishment and be less effective than he once was. Either they defend him fiercely because of his history, or they attack him as a wannabe who never was. I believe both his accomplishments and his current lack of effectiveness are true at the same time.
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