Aerodynamic Elephants and Free Software Without Freedom

A response to those critics who suggest that open source software needs to become more like proprietary software.
Posted November 10, 2010

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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As regular as a scheduled crontab job, the articles keep appearing: Armed only with common sense, the writer is going to set the free software community straight on how it needs to improve.

Typically, the articles are a mixture of demands for hardware support or new software and rejections of the way that the Linux community operates. Essentially the articles come down to a suggestion that free software needs to lose its interest in freedom and focus on function -- in other words, to eliminate the entire reason for free software in the first place.

Whether the writers are newcomers with a keep grasp of the obvious or more experienced users with particular grievances, the tone of these articles always seem to resemble a manifesto's. They demand that free software add support immediately for certain types of hardware, such as smart phones or wireless cards. They insist that the community create -- apparently in a process resembling immaculate conception -- software such as an exact PhotoShop or MS Exchange. They call on the community to make things just work, to become less geeky and less political, and to develop a more relaxed attitude about using proprietary software

Usually, the articles use the imperative tense a lot. Just who is supposed to implement the demands is left vague, and in general the articles show that the writers are only slightly more clueful than the regular crop of CEOs who discover free software and conclude that it is ripe for exploitation.

Misapplications and Ignorance

Not that these writers are wrong about free software's weak points -- although they are just as likely as not to refer to problems that were solved several years ago, or are being solved as they write.

However, where these articles go most seriously wrong is in their lack of understanding of how free software operates. For example, although free software is full of clever bits of reverse engineering such as Samba, and ingenious hacks like ndiswrapper, many of these efforts can only go so far. Much of the knowledge needed to provide support for specific hardware or software functionality is proprietary. And without the specs, the free software efforts are inescapably a release or two behind.

When a vendor actually releases free software drivers, as Broadcom did with its wireless cards a couple of months ago, nobody welcomes the news more those who have been trying to work around the problem. To imply otherwise is an insult to the existing efforts to do exactly what the articles demand.

The same is true for software compatibility. Does anyone really think there would any serious resistance in the FOSS community if enough code and standards were publicly available to guarantee continuous compatibility with MS Exchange? Most of the time, it is not free software that needs to be lobbied for support, but the owners of such proprietary applications.

Similarly, the articles frequently reveal that the writer has not spent enough time with the software. Show me a call for a Linux release of PhotoShop or MS Word (which, again, is the responsibility of the vendor to produce, not of the free software community), and I'll show you someone who has never bothered to learn The GIMP or OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice.

Although you can find exceptions, for the most part, basic office productivity in free software is capable today of producing professional work indistinguishable from that created in its proprietary equivalents. I know, because I've produced it -- not just once, but countless times.

Origins Limit Evolution

It is hard to take critiques seriously when they are ignorant of such basic facts. But where these articles and their writers truly show their ignorance is in their lack of understanding of how free software projects operate.

Historically, free software began as a geeky phenomena. The movement is no longer entirely geeky, and, as Peter Brown of the Free Software Foundation has long maintained, its credo could easily become a part of the social activist agenda in the same way that recycling has.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Linux desktop, Linux downloads, free software

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