Business Logic vs. Free Software Idealism: Page 2

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However, they are understandable, both emotionally and in real-life terms. In equating the free software way of doing things with terrorists -- however jokingly -- Negroponte does seem to be repudiating the community that created the project. And in not only wanting to model the project on the fiercely competitive Microsoft but partnering with it, he confirms that he is doing exactly that.

Moreover, it is hard to see how Microsoft, with its orientation to profit and ruthless business practices, is compatible with the basic idealism with which OLPC was founder and previously operated. Making accessibility to the Internet even partially connected to a commercial company is simply the wrong message.

What Negroponte seems to be saying is that, if you are going to succeed, then cutthroat capitalism is the way to go -- and to hell with free software idealism when you no longer need it.

Mark Shuttleworth and simultaneous releases

Mark Shuttleworth first raised the idea of major distributions and projects syncing their releases in a keynote at the 2007 Akademy, the summit meeting for the KDE desktop. Last week, he repeated the suggestion, adding that he would be willing to change Ubuntu's long-term releases if a majority of other distributions would agree to coordinate releases and also standardize "on a combination of kernel, compiler, toolchain, GNOME/KDE, X and OpenOffice versions." He returned to the idea in more detail a few days later.

Shuttleworth's suggestions are far removed in tone and intent from Negroponte's repudiations of free software. All the same, they suggest an emphasis on business that, while understandable in light of his efforts to commercialize Ubuntu, have little relevance to the average free software project.

If you are selling software (or services built around it), timely releases make sense. They allow for a regular product cycle, and create a sense among users that you are reliable. However, in the free software world, where "release early, release often" is a slogan, official releases are unimportant, especially when the standard desktops all include an update notifier. True, many distributions have moved to regular release cycles, but these are still flexible, and nobody is much concerned of the releases slip a few weeks or so.

By contrast, keeping to a regular release cycle causes no end of trouble in the commercial world. Frequently, they mean skimping on quality assurance, or shipping products with incomplete or missing features. A good example is the recent release of Fedora 9, which replaced the graphical software updater with one that was missing the ability to install multiple packages.

Admittedly, Shuttleworth seems to assume that such problems are unlikely to arise, since he praises the Ubuntu community's ability to combine timeliness with quality. The trouble is, if you value timeliness over quality -- which is what keeping to a regular cycle implies -- then a conflict between the two goals is sooner or later going to happen. Instead of falling into the same dilemma as commercial companies, most free software projects are better off continuing a tradition of excellence. Many projects already cooperate with each other, but acting like a pseudo-company is another matter altogether.

Matt Asay and free-riders

Another recent controversy making the rounds is Matt Assay's comments last week about the problems of so-called free riders -- people who use free software without contributing cash, code, or time to projects.

Asay acknowledges that maybe "there's nothing such projects should do about free-riders," and adds that at least free riders aren't using proprietary competitors' products and that they provide emotional reassurance to others by swelling the user base.

But, despite these efforts to consider both sides of the issue, he can't get away from the old-school idea that "someone must pay for software in order to have it written," and that free-riders are a problem "for those in the commercial open source world (and that's most everyone now)." He does not quite offer solutions, although, from his opening examples of airlines and hotels, he seems to favor some sort of loyalty program to encourage the sort of customers he wants.

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

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