“free” and “open source”

Wow. This video from the O’Reilly Radar Executive Briefing on Open Source is a must see. Eben admits to being “grumpy” and Tim “believe[s] that Eben regrets his confrontational tone“. Regardless, I couldn’t help but feel empathic with Eben’s surliness.

A few years back, I went too far in my criticism of open source in a discussion forum. I wondered out loud if open source had done harm to the free software movement. Fortunately, a reasonable fellow by the name of rms sent me (the extremist) a private note questioning my wonderment and offered a less alarming view of open source. He was right. Though open source detracted from our message, it was not in conflict with our movement. My anger with open source rhetoric instantly morphed into what would be better labeled as ‘occasional frustration’…similar to what one may feel when dealing with the occasional immaturity of an otherwise bright and well-intentioned child.

Eric Raymond has argued many times that “walk[ing] into an executive’s office” to promote the idea of “free” software as a business model is bound to fail. With the traction free software has gained in the business world, this may no longer be true. For as rms has been saying for decades, “there’s room in [free software] for business to be done.” The industry seems to be picking up on that fact now. In reference to the late 1990s however, Raymond’s take on specific circumstances is probably sound. When dealing with executives of large companies whose understanding is apathetically weak and driven by myopic financial objectives, one can see why avoiding ambiguous vocabulary (i.e. “free”) may be a better-than-nothing path (i.e. “open source”) to follow. In those rare circumstances, we thank the open source movement for their angle in hacking it.

However, in reality 99% of us are not walking into an executive’s office. Most of us are talking with our friends, our family, our colleagues. Most of us listen to another’s ideas not to pursue mere profit, but because we simply care to relate with others and understand their point of view. Generally, free software advocates are interacting with people who will take a moment to differentiate between “free speech” and “free beer”. When this happens, further conversation takes place at a socially meaningful and constructive level.

Though we’re steadily liberating the software on our own machines, we still face as Eben points out, tremendously complex issues associated with the very freedom we defend. A discussion centered around freedom and the rights of those within that structure is vital. Failing to do this means technology becomes our burden rather than our benefactor.

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One Response to ““free” and “open source””

  1. Bill Kerr Says:

    I loved the video, thanks for the link. I hope the conversation that eben is trying to provoke does happen, that would be a good outcome. The conflict was v healthy IMO

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