Business Logic vs. Free Software Idealism

For some time now, business and free software have coexisted relatively peacefully. But in recent months this cooperation has shown signs of becoming strained.
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These days, business and free software co-exist with little friction.

Although you still find some members of the free software community who automatically view business with suspicion, for the most part the community considers the multibillion dollar open source industry as a validation of its beliefs. Business and free software are so closely intertwined that kernel developers Linus Torvalds and Andrew Morton are employed by the Linux Foundation, a non-profit consortium of corporations. But in recent months, this cooperation is showing signs of becoming strained.

Key datapoints in this trend are the growing commercialization of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, the renewed calls of Mark Shuttleworth of Canonical and Ubuntu for release synchronization among projects, and Matt Asay's worry about "free riders" who give nothing back to the community.

The reactions to these events varies considerably -- for instance, the OLPC changes are widely seen as a betrayal of the community, while Shuttleworth's and Asay's comments have simply sparked discussion. However, what these events all have in common is they reverse the assumptions that have allowed business and free software to collaborate. Rather than having business adapt to free software, they suggest a wish to have free software adapt to business.

The transformation of OLPC

Six months ago, the OLPC project was a poster-child for free software. The project received assistance from leading free software projects and companies, and its innovative software was widely regarded as an example of what free software could accomplish.

Even more importantly, free software's ethos of cooperation seemed well-matched to an effort that, as the Vision page on the site still says, was "an education project, not a laptop project." The fit seems so perfect that Richard M. Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, was considering switching over to an OLPC machine for his personal use.

In the last few months, though, this association has tarnished as the OLPC goal of distributing 150 million computers by the end of the year has appeared increasingly impossible. In an interview in March with BusinessWeek, OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte is quoted as saying that, in the past, the project had operated "almost like a terrorist group" and needed to be managed "more like Microsoft." He also acknowledged that OLPC was looking for a CEO. About the same time, Negroponte announced that the project's XO computers would run a version of Windows -- news that was recently confirmed.

While these events have been happening, OLPC has lost several key members, including Mary Lou Jepson, the cofounder and CTO; Walter Bender, head of software and content, and Ivan Krstic, director of security architecture. Both Bender and Krstic indicated that their resignations were over disagreements with the directions in which OLPC was heading. Jepson specifically denied such motivations, but the denial may have been more diplomatic than anything else.

In the general free software community, these events have been greeted with outrage. You don't have to search far on the Internet to find people suggesting that OLPC has used and abandoned the community, and that it is becoming simply another laptop manufacturer.

These reactions are somewhat exaggerated. After all,the OLPC still seems focused on its educational mission, and the original free software operating system will still be available alongside Windows on the next version of the XO.


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Tags: open source, Linux, Windows, Microsoft, developers


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