Nine Attitude Problems in Free and Open Source Software: Page 3

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6) Focusing on hating Microsoft

The entire community is suspicious of Microsoft, and rightly so - - no other proprietary company has been so consistently hostile to FOSS, and recent efforts at friendliness are too tentative to impress anyone. However, some segments of the community seem less interested in computer freedom than in expressing loud and unwavering hostility to Microsoft.

This hostility is worth combating for several reasons. To start with, it is non-productive, doing nothing to help achieve FOSS' goals. As Joe Brockmeier, the openSUSE community leader and my former colleague at points out, people who spend their time hating Microsoft rarely seem to contribute to any projects.

Even more importantly, because the haters are vocal, outsiders often mistake them for the mainstream of the community, assuming that everyone in FOSS is shrill and paranoid. This is hardly an image that encourages outsiders to get involved. And these days, decrying Microsoft is so trendy that the haters -- and therefore FOSS -- risk blending into the general atmosphere.

But probably the greatest reason for rejecting the strong anti-Microsoft prejudice is that it can blind the community to other proprietary opponents. No one, for example, seems to be concerned about Apple's proprietary actions, even though in many ways it is emerging as FOSS' chief opponent.

In short, no matter how you look at it, Microsoft paranoia is something that the community needs either to jettison, or to dial way back.

7) Taking commercial development as a model for growth

With increased success come problems of scale. By the time they are noticed, problems of scale usually need to be quickly addressed, so perhaps it is natural that successful FOSS projects should look to commercial development for ways to handle growth.

But, for whatever reason, increasingly, large FOSS projects are acting more like commercial software houses. Fixed release schedules, for example, have become the norm for many projects, including GNOME, Ubuntu, and Fedora -- regardless of whether a new release is needed. Recently, too, Mark Shuttleworth has tried to promote the idea of synchronized release schedules among the major projects to make it easier for distributions to plan their releases, although so far the idea has yet to receive much support.

In some cases, borrowing ideas from commercial development may be useful. Yet it should never be forgotten that, while FOSS can work with commercial development, its goals are different. What happens, for instance, to the open source idea of only releasing software when it is ready when a project commits to regular releases? Sooner or later, problems in quality control will be inescapable.

Even more importantly, FOSS development remains fundamentally different that most commercial development. In many cases, FOSS developers include a high percentage of volunteers, and they are far more likely to be scattered in more locations than the members of a commercial development team. These circumstances mean that, as throughout its history, FOSS has to make up its work flow as it goes along. For instance, how do you get test plans done when your testers are volunteers? In this, as in many other things, FOSS needs to innovate rather than borrow ideas.

8) Making market share the top priority

The old joke is that the goal of FOSS is world domination. And what member of the community doesn't feel a second of pride when another country or company converts to FOSS, or an application like Firefox gains a few percentage in user share?

However, as I have written before, more users mean nothing if they are gained by giving up FOSS ideals, or if those users do not support them. In the excitement of being recognized at last, the community needs to remember that the goal is not just to provide alternative software, but an alternative philosophy and relation to computing.

If you focus just on gaining market share, the way that an increasing number of community members seem to be doing, then FOSS loses at the moment that it seems most successful.

9) Stopping short of a completely free operating system

Now that the goal of a totally non-proprietary operating system is in sight, you might imagine that people would like to push on and finish the job. However, as reactions to the Free Software Foundations's recent relaunch of its high-priority list shows, a surprising number of people in the community feel no need to achieve the ultimate goal. So what, they say, if they have to use proprietary drivers for their video cards, or use Adobe Flash Player on YouTube. We've come close enough to the free desktop not to worry about the remaining gaps, and at least these other items are free for the download.

The idea that the present situation is good enough seems at odds with the love of excellence that is central to open source. Even more importantly, it means accepting failure, and giving up the idea of providing free, alternative operating systems. Why give up when the goal is so close to being realized?

Discussing the problems

The attitude problems in FOSS depend on your perspective. I can easily imagine an open source advocate suggesting that my emphasis on user freedom holds back widespread acceptance, or the owner of a company with a FOSS business plan saying that my insistence that FOSS is not primary commercial is a handicap to success.

But my point is not just particular problems. My real point is that FOSS has grown so large so quickly that it has not had the time to question whether old attitudes were still useful or new approaches consistent with core values. Before it grows any bigger, the community needs to examine its attitudes and evaluate them. Otherwise, it risks, if not collapsing under the contradictions, then handicapping itself unnecessarily.

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Tags: open source, Linux, software, privacy, FOSS

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