In recent years, it has become common for the terms “open source” and “FOSS” to be used interchangeably. While it’s true that all FOSS is also open source, it’s also true that being open source doesn’t necessarily mean it’s FOSS.
In the early 21st century, practically anyone using GNU/Linux knew the difference between proprietary, open source, and free and open source software. In those days distinguishing between proprietary, freeware, shareware and truly free software was a piece of cake. This was in large part due to the fact that open source was a relatively new concept, with the term first receiving widespread use in 1998. There were other reasons as well, mostly having to do with the Linux users of the day.
Hardly anybody installed Linux without doing some research first, and very few installed Linux expecting it to look and act like Windows. Although Windows 95 had been out five or more years, most users making the leap to Linux were people who cut their teeth on the command line and who remembered when 640 KB was the absolute amount of RAM in an “IBM compatible,” an ancient name for the PC.
They also weren’t strangers to configuring their systems. Many users of the day could still remember installing “expanded memory” on MS-DOS machines to allow RAM to be increased above the 640 KB memory barrier to a full megabyte, “extended memory,” which allowed RAM to be extended beyond that newly established megabyte absolute, or DriveSpace to encrypt on-the-fly and nearly double the amount of data on the hard drives of the day that might be as small as 40 MB.
A majority of users could remember when home computers were rarely networked, with those that were by way of “walled garden” services such as CompuServe, Prodigy, America Online or private bulletin boards.
There were also many hoops in the process which kept casual users away from Linux, starting with the difficulty of getting a copy to install. By 2000, downloading small applications from the Internet was a common practice, but with most users still on dial-up, with a maximum 56 Kbps download speed, downloading something as large as an operating system could take days, and that’s if the download didn’t break. This meant paying full retail to purchase a shrink wrapped copy at a brick and mortar store — in 2002 a shrink wrapped copy of Mandrake’s PowerPack cost around $75 at Best Buy — or spend considerably less buying install CDs online through outfits like Cheap Bytes.
Also, hardly anyone had an uncle, aunt, brother, sister or friend who knew anything at all about Linux, so getting help with installation, the intricacies of disk partitioning and the like was out of the question — except online. It was in the various Linux forums where people could be found to explain each and every step of the installation, and hold new users’ hands as they made necessary changes to configuration files to get their systems up and operating.
Learning to edit configuration files the Linux way was an absolute necessity back then. Even user-friendly distros such as Mandrake, which allowed the user to make most configuration changes through the GUI, couldn’t do it all, meaning users were assured that occasionally they were going to have to go to a terminal, open a configuration file and make some changes using the command line. And troubleshooting in those days meant users were just as absolutely going to have to learn more about how their Linux system worked beyond mere point and click.
Along the way, users couldn’t help but learn about licensing and that Linux, and the software that came with it, were not only free in the sense that money didn’t necessarily change hands, but that they were free because the user actually owned the software and could modify it in any way necessary to suit his or her needs. It didn’t matter that many users were like me and didn’t have the skills nor the need to modify their software. The important thing was that the software was theirs to do with as they liked.
Which brings me back to my opening statement: As part of the process, most users learned to differentiate between software that was merely open source and open source software that came with an extra guarantee of freedom. In other words, they learned to distinguish between OSS and FOSS.
Flash forward fifteen years or so and it’s already a completely different world.
Many if not most new Linux users today don’t download and install Linux themselves, they have it done for them by a friend, coworker or relative. Also, many if not most new users don’t research their new operating system, either before or after installation. There’s no need. The installation is done for them, and after some cursory instructions they’re off to point and click into the wild blue yonder.
At some point they’re probably told by the friend or relative who set them up that Linux and the software that comes with it is “open source,” but with all the finer points of free software being glossed over. There’s no distinction made between software that is open source and software that is both free — as in speech or freedom — and open source.
To many, open source is open source is open source. It’s mainly just seen as software that can be installed for free without coming afoul of any intellectual property laws.
This is unfortunate, because it leaves the new Linux user thinking there’s no difference between OSS and FOSS, if they think about the matter at all. Even some tech journalists use the terms interchangeably, which only goes to reinforce the new user’s belief that open source is open source is open source.
This leaves no opportunity for that aha! moment, when a flash of insight brings about the realization that while all FOSS is OSS, not all OSS is FOSS. Along with that realization comes another aha! opportunity: the chance to realize the subtle nuances that allows an open source project to also qualify as FOSS. This is not to mention the paradox that software can be both free and not free, with even the GPL, perhaps the most free license on the planet, not being immune from this paradox. For an example of the later, look at the amount of GPL software being developed by black hats like Microsoft and Oracle for the sole purpose of driving users to their proprietary, and definitely not free — as in freedom nor as in beer — software.
It’s also unfortunate that the tendency to treat open source and free and open source as if they were the same has crept into the language used by free tech advocates as well. This often makes those who advocate for free tech seem like fanatics, especially to users who are too young to remember when the distinction between the two was clearly defined. When we say that traditional adversaries of free tech, such as Microsoft and Oracle, are not legitimate open source companies — when it’s obvious they are, as both contribute mountains of open source code which other open source companies happily use — we seem to be being merely unreasonable and argumentative. Open source does not require those who use or create it to be ethical, it only requires that they comply to the letter of the open source licenses being used.
Without a doubt, both Microsoft and Oracle are open source companies. What they are not, and probably can never become, are FOSS companies, because that requires a commitment to the concepts behind software freedom. There’s not a bone in either companies’ bodies — if corporations can be said to have bodies — that is in any way sympathetic to free tech. Even while obeying the open source precept to “share and share alike,” both companies are only concerned with expanding their bases of power and ownership of tech, and in Microsoft’s case at least, much of their open source software is designed solely for that purpose.
These are distinctions which need articulating, not only so we don’t seem like we’re never happy crybabies, but so that younger users of open source software can come to see the difference between FOSS, on the one hand, and OSS, on the other, and that while one is always the other, the other is not always the one.