Does free software have an image problem?

It is always a salutary experience to learn how those who see themselves as part of the IT mainstream perceive people involved in free software. A recent event has given me a sharp reminder of this. In his regular Computer Society Insight column in IT Brief for February 2010 (currently not online), the chief executive of the New Zealand Computer Society writes about “a cold war” between open source and proprietary software.

In it, he makes a number of interesting statements about where “the truth” lies.

Ideological reasons aside, there’s frankly no great benefit for the majority of users in being able to modify an application themselves — most don’t have the skills, knowledge or inclination to do so. Most motorists don’t need or want to be able to pop the bonnet and rewire their starter motor.

I see free software as a philosophy, not an ideology. Having heard each of Richard Stallman’s talks during the GNU Zealand 2009 tour, and read the transcripts, I can safely say that he has logical, evidence-based reasons for every statement he makes. People may disagree with his conclusions (show me two philosophers who agree on anything), but his position is a rational one. We also need to remember that the freedom to study how a program works, and change it to make it do what we wish, is only one of the four freedoms. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0) and the freedom to redistribute copies, so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2) are important for all users. Most proprietary software denies these freedoms to its users. And in fact, many motorists take their cars to the garage of their choice to get problems fixed, rather than buy a new release from the manufacturer.

He goes on:

And this, of course, is the crux of the issue. FLOSS advocates argue that if a user wants to pop the hood and have a play, they should be able to without restriction — just like with a car or any other physical-world equivalent.

Leaving aside the use of “play”, which implies that people don’t work on free software, they “play” with it, no, the crux of the issue is the four freedoms. I do not know to which FLOSS advocates the author is referring, as there is no citation in the original, so I can only speak for myself. My training is in science. For me, Isaac Newton encapsulated the scientific method when he wrote in a letter to Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Free software lets all of us, including those who write and sell proprietary software, stand on the shoulders of giants. It is part of our cultural common wealth, like literature, music, art and science. These are not “free as in free beer” but they are all “free as in freedom”. In my view, free software is preferable to proprietary software in the same way that evolution is a better theory of the natural world than “intelligent design” — not just as a way to understand the world, but because of the values which underpin the method by which science works.

I am also cautious of making generalizations about the free/open source world. You start off in a maze of twisty little passages all alike, but soon find yourself in a twisty maze of little passages, all different. There is no such thing as a typical project or a typical participant. There are some important shared values, but like communities everywhere, it’s their diversity that makes them interesting.

He then concludes:

The best solution is the one that adequately solves the problem of the client, nothing more and nothing less. No professional should ever lose sight of this or allow ideology to prevent them from providing the best solution: proprietary, open source or otherwise.

What I think this is saying is that all professionals have a duty to be pragmatists, that practical utility is the only valid test for software. And that everyone who isn’t a pragmatist is an ideologue. However, in my view, a professional’s first duty is to act ethically (“first, do no harm”). The pragmatic position seems to be that choosing software is a matter of utility only, there is no ethical dimension, and it doesn’t matter whether software is free or proprietary. The free software position is that free software is an ethical imperative. The open source position (and it’s a philosophy, not an ideology) is that open source is a superior development method.

Does it matter if the chief executive of the Computer Society (to which many people working in free software in New Zealand belong) has shown a limited understanding of the values underpinning free software? On the one hand, many people work with free software by choice, are passionate about it, while accepting that others do not share their passion. It’s a free country. We don’t all drive the same car or vote for the same party; we don’t all have to use the same software. Free software is a philosophy, not a religion; its advocates will explain it to those interested and will welcome those who choose to participate, but they don’t seek converts. Those who wish to inform themselves about free software can do so using the Web. Those who are not interested or who disagree are free to do so.

On the other hand, some may think that free software deserves to receive full and fair consideration during software selection processes, that software contestability is a good thing, and that proprietary software lock-in is bad for business and for society. In which case, perhaps free software has an image problem. Has it been (to quote one last time) “often unnecessarily and significantly damaging the mainstream view of FLOSS”?

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