What Happened to the Vision in Open Source?: Page 2

Pragmatism seems to have replaced idealism in open source. Has corporate success ruined this once utopian branch of software development?
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I welcome this success as much as anyone. However, a successful movement has less need of vision than a struggling one. It tends to be too busy for the long term -- a yearly quarter or three at the most -- to be concerned with direction. In two words, it has gone corporate.

Today, such vision as FOSS has tends to be of greater success, not of radically altering the way that business is done.

Rather than focusing on the dangers of centralized media services, the community becomes concerned about whether Steam's involvement can make Linux a popular gaming platform. Rather than trying to make free-licensed hardware an option found in every computer store, it wonders whether Ubuntu can make itself the operating system of choice -- or, failing that, can become a player in the saturated phone market for more than a season or two.

Such goals are often conflated with more visionary ones. For example, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu and Canonical Software, consistently talks as though his projects are the last, best chance for the community to realize its long-term goals, when his priorities seem to be more about his personal success. Most of the time, though, the distinction between ambition and vision remains clear -- and so does the fact that today is marked more by ambition than FOSS' traditional vision.

If Memories Were All I Sang

Nothing is wrong with commercial success, of course. You might even say that vision was appropriate for the early days of the FOSS movement, and pragmatism for today.

Maybe -- yet I find myself lamenting the loss of vision all the same. Commercial success may be all very well, but it is also boring unless you happen to have invested stock.

For me, as well as many others, FOSS has always had a bit of extra spice because it was exploring alternatives and looking for different ways of doing things. It could do non-profitable things like developing office suites for almost-extinguished languages precisely because it had other priorities than financial success.

Without that extra spice, involvement hardly seems worthwhile. If I simply want to cheer an operating system, I might as well start using OS X as Ubuntu. One would be as bland as the other, because, the truth is, I have no great enthusiasm for cheering either one purely for technical or design reasons.

That is why projects like MediaGoblin and MakePlayLive are so arresting when I stumble across them. Whether their goals can be realized might be debatable, but the fact they have them at all indicate that, despite the current mood, FOSS is still not entirely about balance sheets and units sold. It tells me that parts of the community are still motivated by making things better -- and that it's still a little early to be giving up on FOSS' future.


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Tags: open source, Linux, FOSS, FSF, Mark Shuttleworth, Richard Stallman, Free Software Foundation


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