Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Open Source and Its Lost Ideals

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Mention the year of the Linux desktop, and you are guaranteed to get a laugh. The six words have become a catchphrase, with the implication that it will never happen. But, even more importantly, the laughter indicates a change in attitude.

Where once Linux advocates were out to change the world, for many today, using free software has become no more than a convenience, or at most a matter of identity. Around the turn of the millennium, a book called Revolution OS or a monthly publication subtitled “the magazine of the revolution” sounded perfectly reasonable, yet few today would ever talk about Linux and revolution in the same sentence without being ironic. What was once revolutionary has settled down to being a minority choice, with very few being concerned about the situation.

The situation is similar to that before World War II, when George Orwell observed that the English Labour Party had been out of power for so long that members no longer talked about what they would do when elected, and had settled comfortably into being the permanent opposition. What was once radical has devolved into a lifestyle choice.

Part of the change is probably due to success. The young advocates of fifteen years ago are now middle-aged parents, employed by corporations to do what they once did as volunteers. Instead of being a challenge to the tech industry, free software is now a business strategy that can reduce the need to hire programmers, and bring products to market faster. Today, even Microsoft considers it too important to ignore.

Anyway, even without these changes, anyone who has worked for any length of time in free software can tell you that maintaining idealism non-stop for fifteen years is impossible. The routine of a full-time job can erode even the most solid idealism. In some moods, you might even call the change maturity, a move from naivety towards greater realism.

Yet, even so, the change is troublesome. It suggests that the reason for free software in the first place is being overlooked, and can make you wonder what real purpose remains.

The Open Source Ideals Left Behind

Originally, free software (or open source, if you prefer) had two claims to being disruptive. First, its collaborative development methods produce superior software. Second, its licenses make the code free to distribute, allowing programmers to focus on improving functionality rather than reinventing it, and offering end-users control over the software they are using.

Ask an advocate today, and they will probably still emphasize both these points. However, how advocates act is often at odds with their stated beliefs.


In April 2014, a critical security bug was found in OpenSSL, one of the basic free software tools behind the Internet. The discovery was not only a blow to free software prestige, but a challenge to the claim of superior development methods. It was not that the time-honored mantra that, with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow was proved false, but that it became obvious that, to enjoy that mantra, you first need to ensure that you have enough eyes.

The Linux Foundation responded with the Core Infrastructure Initiative (CII), in the hopes that important projects would never again suffer from a lack of funds or programmers. However, one of the first results of CII was the discovery was another vulnerability in core code — this time, the bash command shell. Although the CII quickly received funding from major corporations, just over a year later, it announced its Badge Program as a means of determining which projects met the standards necessary for security and quality.

What is noticeable in these events is that the problem is being tackled by corporations protecting their investment in free software, not in individuals motivated by pride in their work. Part of the reason for this approach may be that the Linux Foundation is more about corporations or individuals, but the impression is that most individuals preferred to work on cutting edge projects than focus on the core infrastructure that would benefit everyone.

In the same way, the community as a whole has been content to leave free software mostly finished. The Free Software Foundation does its best, but few pay any attention to its High Priority list of features that need to be developed to develop a completely free operating system, or even its Respect Your Freedom Certification.

In fact, only eight pieces of hardware from five companies are listed on the Respect Your Freedom page — another sign of how little the community as a whole cares about completing what it has started.

At the same time, the availability of Linux games on Steam continues to be greeted as a major step forward in free software’s success. Nobody mentions that the games have proprietary licenses, except to suggest wistfully that making Linux a major gaming platform might one day lead to more free licensed games. Having Linux games is too convenient to stick to the principles that make Linux matter in the first place.

Meanwhile, as with the core infrastructure, the few Linux games with free licenses remain unsupported.

All That Way for This

These observations are more than just nostalgia for youthful idealism. Instead, what I am suggesting is that, if Linux is going to be a serious challenge to Windows or OSX, it needs to offer users a serious alternative by focusing on its traditional strengths.

Some users would probably be content if the situation stays the way it is. So long as Linux is a minority desktop environment, its use confined largely to servers, those who use it can pride themselves as vaguely trendy, or perhaps expert users. Hearing the principles of Linux echoing around them, they can pride themselves on doing good without having to make any effort beyond going about their daily business of making a living.

Yet without its founding principles, Linux becomes just another operating system. It no longer becomes the means of providing Internet access to everyone, or of providing the technical structure for developing nations. Instead, it becomes an operating system with no meaningful difference from Windows or OSX, except for a vague prestige similar to OSX’s aesthetic snobbery.

Should Linux ever become a dominant desktop platform under these conditions, ironically, its entire point will be lost, and what should be a reason for celebration will lose most of its meaning.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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