Free and open source software (FOSS) advocates need to stop obsessing about Microsoft. But, just as clearly, many of them won’t, if the reactions I received when I blogged about the subject are any indication. Never mind that FOSS is a necessary fixture in modern business, or has evolved defenses that ensure its survival — or that paranoia and juvenile gestures like talking about “Micro$oft” and “Windoze” only hurt the cause. For many, hatred of Microsoft is a way of life, and they’d be lost without it.
Things were different ten years ago, when the community was a small group of hobbyists unknown to most computer users. Back then, the community was fragile, and might have been stamped out, had any of its enemies noticed it. Nor could you run entirely on FOSS without giving up functionality that users of proprietary software took for granted.
None of that is true today. Now, FOSS is so widely accepted that I can’t remember the last time I saw an IT company that didn’t depend on it heavily on the backend. FOSS has become a fixture in education, and developing countries are using it to jump start their IT infrastructure. Major corporations like IBM and Sun Microsystem derive a large part of their income from FOSS. You can’t quite say that to compute is to use free software, but, when even the average Windows user is aware of OpenOffice.org and Firefox, that day isn’t far away. The sixty pound weakling who used to dodge the neighborhood bully has grown up and bulked out, and now sports a set of muscles that would command respect in the local biker bar.
True, dual-boot machines with both GNU/Linux and Windows loaded are still commonplace, but they’re no longer the norm they were even five years ago. For almost all business and education purposes, proprietary software is no longer needed. I recently went ten months without a copy of Windows on any computer in the house, and the only reason I have two installed now is that my new computers came with them, and they’re useful for comparison articles. But, come the day I run short of hard drive space, guess which partitions get nuked first? About the only possible reason for keeping Windows is for the games I wouldn’t have time to play even if they weren’t all clones of each other.
In other words, Microsoft just isn’t relevant to my daily computing. I don’t need the programs that run on its operating systems; for the most part, I have programs as good or better, and those that aren’t as good are adequate and improving quickly. Similarly, when Microsoft comes up with something like Silverlight or the OOXML file format, I know that if they become widely used, an equivalent will be hacked for GNU/Linux in the next six months.
Oh, I know that Microsoft keeps trying to undermine FOSS by issuing tirades about alleged patent violations and cutting deals with companies like Linspire and Novell. But, while Microsoft might maneuver against FOSS business, the hostilities have degenerated into trench warfare, a series of skirmishes in which the prize is relatively small advantages. Despite its size, Microsoft can’t make many moves against FOSS without taking on the entire IT industry — and even Microsoft isn’t large enough to do that.
That doesn’t keep Microsoft from trying, of course. But has anyone stopped to notice that Microsoft’s first success at containing or destroying an aspect of FOSS will be its first? While in many ways, the heart of the movement remains the hobbyist and the community project, FOSS’s support among multi-national corporations gives it more bodyguards than the president of the United States. And that’s not even counting protectors like the Software Freedom Law Center, The Linux Foundation, and the world-wide branches of the Free Software Foundation — to say nothing like less formal organizations like Pamela Jone’s Groklaw site.
If the now-floundering SCO claim to the ownership of GNU/Linux proves anything, it’s that you can’t win against FOSS. You can only waste millions of dollars and create a media circus.
Under these conditions, mustering more than a mild concern about Microsoft is increasingly difficult. If you’re using FOSS, it’s no longer relevant, and no more than a token threat. In many ways, we’ve reached the age of detente, where FOSS and proprietary software have settled into reluctant co-existence as proprietary software either struggles to adopt to a FOSS world or totters towards extinction.
Or, to put things another way: FOSS has won. Maybe it hasn’t yet achieved the world domination that the community used to joke about, but at the very least, it has won the space it needs to exist.
Time to grow up
But that’s not how many in the FOSS community see the situation, judging from the responses to my blog entries. Over the years, we’ve developed a culture of hate, where bashing Microsoft proves our membership in the club. We’ve come to count on this opposition as a central part of our identity, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that so many of us are reluctant to move beyond it.
Consider this comment on my blog:
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. It is impossible to be an aficionado of free software without being opposed to Microsoft, because Microsoft is actively trying to exterminate free software.
To which I can only reply, “Will you listen to yourself?”
Between the self-importance, the fanaticism, and the either-or logic of such a comment, an outsider could only conclude that the speaker’s motherboard had popped a few capacitors. Such crusading rants are going to scare many people, and the few it attracts will be scary folks to have hanging around.
Such rants miss the point of FOSS. If FOSS was about no more than opposition to Microsoft, then people wouldn’t be spending their time building and distributing software. They’d be out picketing Microsoft and starting letter campaigns about the company’s policy. Then, come the day that Microsoft declared bankruptcy, FOSS would have achieved its aims.
Yet, when you think about it, the destruction of one proprietary company — even Microsoft — wouldn’t change much. While companies like Adobe and Apple may not be as open in their opposition to FOSS as Microsoft, the philosophies on which they run are every bit as hostile to FOSS. If Microsoft could magically be removed from the picture, all that would happen is that the remaining proprietary companies would rush to fill the empty niche. In the end, the same opposition would remain.
Anyway, competing with proprietary businesses on their own terms isn’t what FOSS is about. What attracts people to FOSS in the long term isn’t enlisting in the war against Microsoft or any other company. People may be lured first by the gratis software, but they stay involved in FOSS because it offers an alternative, an idealism made concrete in which cooperation replaces competition, and excellence takes precedence over being first to market, where people take control of their computing instead of handing their rights over to a company.
At its best, FOSS gives computing a human face. And if you value FOSS, these are the aspects you should be promoting — not the taunts more suitable to a high school locker room or the ghost stories about an increasingly toothless monster. FOSS has matured, and if we really want to help it succeed, we need to show that maturity to the rest of the world.