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.
1. Ubuntu Is No Longer Open Source’s Last Great Hope
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.
2. Cloud Computing Undermines Free Licenses
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.
3. Richard Stallman Has Become a Mixed Asset
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.
4. Open Source Isn’t a Meritocracy
One of the main stories that FOSS developers like to tell themselves is that the community is a meritocracy. Status in the community is supposed to be based on what you have recently contributed, either in terms of code or time.
As a motivation and a source of group identity, the idea of meritocracy has powerful appeal. It encourages people to work long hours and gives community members a sense of identification and superiority.
In its purest form—say within a small project whose contributors have been working together for several years—meritocracy sometimes exists.
More often, though, it is heavily qualified. In many projects, documentation writers or artists are less influential than programmers. Often, who you know can influence whether your contributions are accepted as much as the actually quality of your work.
Similarly, the famous are more likely to influence decision-making than the rank and file, regardless of what they have done recently. People like Mark Shuttleworth or corporations like Google can buy their way to influence. Community projects can find their governing bodies dominated by their corporate sponsors, as has usually been the case with Fedora. Although meritocracy is the ideal, it is almost never the sole practice.
5. Open Source Is Infected with Systemic Sexism
Another trend that undermines meritocratic ideals is the sexism—and, sometimes, outright misogyny—found in some corners of the community. In the last few years, FOSS leaders have denounced this sexism and adapted official policies to discourage some of its worst aspects, such as harassment at conferences. But the problem appears firmly embedded at other levels.
The number of women varies between projects, but 15-20 percent would be considered a relatively high number of women involved in an open source project. In many projects, the number is below 5 percent, even when non-programmers are counted.
Even compared to these low numbers, women are under-represented at conferences, except in those cases where women are actively encouraged to submit proposals—efforts that are inevitably met with accusations of special treatment and quotas, even when no evidence of such things exists.
But the greatest evidence of sexism occurs in everyday circumstances. For example, recently a video interview with Rikki Endsley, USENIX community manager, appeared on Slashdot. Some of the first comments referred to a popular song that included Endsley’s first name in the chorus. Others discussed her looks and how she might look more “glamorous.”
Similar reactions, many of them far worse, can be found on many FOSS sites or IRC channels whenever a woman appears, especially a stranger. They give the lie to the claims that the community is only interested in contributions, or that the under-participation of women is simply a matter of individual choices.
6. Microsoft Is No Longer Unrelentingly Hostile to Open Source
Just over a decade ago, you could count on Microsoft to call FOSS communistic or un-American, or for leaked revelations of plans to destroy the community.
Much of the community still clings to the memories of those days—after all, nothing brings people together like a powerful and relentless enemy.
But what people fail to appreciate is that Microsoft’s response has become more nuanced, and it varies between corporate departments.
No doubt Microsoft’s top executives still see FOSS as competition, although the colorful denunciations have ceased.
However, Microsoft has realized that, given the popularity of open source, the company’s short-term interests are best served by ensuring that FOSS—especially popular programming languages—works well with its products. That is the basic mission of Microsoft Open Technologies. Recently, Microsoft even released a quote praising the latest release of Samba, which allows management of Microsoft servers from Linux and other Unix-based operating system.
Microsoft is not about to become an open source company any time soon or to make a disinterested donation of cash or code to the community. Still, if you ignore old antagonisms, these days Microsoft’s self-centered approach to FOSS is not greatly different from that taken by Google, HP, or any other corporation.
7. Desktop Innovation Is Stagnating
2012 saw a retreat from GNOME 3 and Unity, the latest major graphical interfaces. The retreat was largely a response to the perception that GNOME and Ubuntu were ignoring users’ concerns and imposing their own visions of the desktop without consultation.
The short-term effect of this retreat was the reinvention of GNOME 2 in various forms.
As the predecessor of both GNOME 3 and Unity, GNOME 2 was an obvious choice. It is a popular desktop and places few constrictions on users.
All the same, its long-term effect threatens to be a stifling of innovation. Not only is time programming the resurrection of GNOME 2 time away from exploring new possibilities, but it seems a reaction against the whole idea of innovation.
Few, for instance, are willing to admit that GNOME 3 or Unity have any useful features. Instead, both are condemned as wholes. Nor have future developments, such as GNOME’s intention to make security and privacy easier, received the attention they deserve.
The result may be that, for the next few years, innovation is likely to be seen a series of incremental changes, with few efforts to enhance general design. Developers, too, may be hesitant to try anything too different in order to avoid rejection of their designs.
I have to applaud the fact that the demands of users have triumphed in the various resurrections of GNOME 2. But the conservatism that seems to accompany it makes me worry that the victory comes at the cost of equally important concerns.
8. Open Source Is Becoming a Monoculture
Supporters like to claim that one of the advantages of FOSS is that it encourages diversity. Unlike Windows, FOSS is supposed to welcome new ideas and to be less vulnerable to viruses because most categories of software include several applications.
The reality is somewhat different. Examine a user poll, and you find a consistent pattern in which one application or technology has 50-65 percent of the votes, and the next one, 15-30 percent.
For example, among distributions, Debian, Linux Mint, and Ubuntu, all of which use the .DEB package format, won 58 percent of the votes in the 2012 Linux Journal’s Reader Choice Awards, compared to 16 percent for Fedora, openSUSE, and CentOS, which use the.RPM format.
Similarly, Virtualbox scored 56 percent under Best Virtualization Solution, and VMWare 18 percent. Under Best Revision Control, Git received 56 percent and Subversion 18 percent. The most lopsided category was Best Office Suite, in which LibreOffice received 73 percent and Google Docs 12 percent.
There were only two exceptions to this general pattern. The first was Best Desktop Environment category, where the diversification of the last year was reflected in KDE receiving 26 percent, GNOME 3 22 percent, GNOME 2 15 percent, and Xfce 12 percent. The second was Best Web Browser, in which Mozilla Firefox received 50 percent and Chromium 40 percent.
Overall, the numbers fall short of a monopoly, but in most categories, the tendency is there. The best that can be said is that, without the profit motive, being less popular does not mean that an app will disappear. But if competition is healthy, as everyone likes to say, there is some cause for concern. When you look closely, FOSS is not nearly as diverse as it is assumed to be.
9. Open Source Is Stuck Short of its Goals
By 2004, FOSS had reached the point where people could do all of their consumer tasks, such as email and web browsing, and most of their productivity computing using FOSS. If you ignore the hopes for a free Bios, only wireless and 3-D drivers were needed to realize the dream of a completely free and open source computer system.
Nine years later, many of the free wireless drivers and some of the free graphic drivers are available—but far from all. Yet the Free Software Foundation only periodically mentions what needs to be done, and the Linux Foundation almost never does, even though it sponsors the OpenPrinting database, which lists which printers have Linux drivers. Given the combined resources of Linux’s corporate users, the final steps could probably be taken in a matter of months, yet no one makes this a priority.
Granted, some companies may be concerned about so-called intellectual property in the hardware they manufacture. Perhaps, too, no one wants to reverse engineer for fear of upsetting their business partners. Yet the impression remains that the current state of affairs exists because it is good enough, and too few care to reach the goals that thousands have made their lives’ work.
Discussions, Not Flames
A few people might be aware of some of these taboo subjects already. Probably, however, there is something in this list to peeve everyone.
However, my intent is not to start nine separate flame wars. I’d have no time for them even if I wanted them.
Instead, these represent my best effort to identify the places where what is widely believed in the community needs to be questioned. I could be wrong—after all, I am discussing what I have grown used to thinking, too—but at worst, the list is a start.
If there are any other taboo subjects that you think that the FOSS community needs to consider, leave a comment. I’d be interested in seeing what I might have missed.