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Why Gnome 2 Continues to Win the Desktop Popularity Contest
Where Open Hardware Is Today
Huawei and Other Mobile 'Tech Giants': You Should (Really) Break Free from Google/Android
How User Revolts Shaped the Linux Desktop
April 8th, 2019

The Demise of Google+ and the Case for FOSS

Google’s failed social network is now just another empty storefront on the Boulevard of Abandoned Tech

google+ closes

So much for Google+. As of April 2, 2019, the social media site’s personal accounts are no longer available for posting or comments, although for the time-being users can still access their accounts for downloading data. News of the shutdown proved surprisingly disturbing to me, reminding me of why I have used free and open source software exclusively for years.

Personally, I never warmed to Google+. Although I used it almost from the start, for me it was always a poor third to Facebook and Twitter among social sites. Although it often had better discussions, it wasn’t where most of my friends and acquaintances were — which, after all, is what social media is about. I would post a few times a week, and respond to comments, but I rarely checked other accounts, and never took part in any groups. Still, I would usually login for a few minutes before beginning my day’s work.

Yet somehow I couldn’t let the news go. In the last month of Google+’s existence I found myself counting down the days. On the morning it was shuttered, I automatically started to go the site, and when I remembered it was no longer active, I had a flash of anger I couldn’t explain. Before I knew it, I was having a flashback to the mid-1990s and the end of OS/2. Once again, a company was making decisions that affected my computer use without bothering to consult me.

Flashback to OS/2

OS/2 still exists today, renamed eComStation and shored up by FOSS apps. But for most people, it long ago became a minor footnote in history. What isn’t remembered is that in the 1990s it was a refuge for those who disliked the clumsy makeshifts of Windows 3.x. At a time when Windows only offered task switching, OS/2 had multi-tasking. It was the first 32 bit commercial operating system, and with a little tweaking often ran DOS and Windows applications better than DOS and Windows could. It seemed the sensible alternative of its time.

So imagine the surprise of users when around 1996 IBM started de-emphasizing OS/2 in favor of Windows. The budget for the product line was reduced by 95%. OS/2’s development lab and marketing ceased, and some 1,300 developers were laid off. User requests to release the code went unanswered, presumably because parts were proprietary.

This change of direction was not immediately obvious, but over the next couple of years it became obvious that the users had been abandoned. Naively, we had trusted IBM to provide a refuge from Windows, and the corporation had responded to our loyalty by betraying us without even informing us.

That was the end of me expecting corporations to act in my best interest. Fortunately, around the time I realized that OS/2 was no longer an option for my desktop, I discovered Linux and FOSS.

The contrast could not have been greater. Instead of being developed by a corporation, Linux was developed by a community. Instead of decisions being made in a secret board room, they were argued in public forums. Who cared if the discussion sometimes got raucous? There was an honesty in FOSS development that I could respect. I started experimenting with Linux, promising myself I would never be under the control of corporate whims again.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

The way Google+ closed down bothered me because it reminded me of what happened with OS/2. True, in contrast to OS/2 I had minimal emotional investment in Google+. Yet for the first time in twenty years, I had been touched by a corporate decision that was made without even token consultation.

Even worse, the closure date had been moved from August to April. The official reason was security vulnerabilities that were too expensive to fix. Yet the decision was only announced after the story leaked that Google had kept a security vulnerability secret for over half a year. Nor apparently, did Google see anything wrong with Google+ users continuing to be exposed to the vulnerability for another couple of months — although if it was serious enough to shut down the service, then I would have thought it was serious enough to shut immediately. The kindest explanation is that Google was not living up to its responsibility to users. The cruelest is that Google preferred to mislead users rather than simply admit that Google+ had not had its hoped-for success.

Should we have known better? Of course. Google has such a long history of closing down projects that there are even sites dedicated to listing all the failures, like Google Cemetery. But the closure emphasizes the obvious: corporations are not on the side of their user-bases.

Nor is this reminder applicable only to social media forums. It applies even more so to cloud applications and services like Google Docs and online storage. Providers’ claims to be secure have to be taken on trust without the least bit of evidence. Even worse, often both the terms of service and the services themselves are subject to unilateral changes by the providers.

Linux users of Dropbox had a minor example of this basic truth in 2018, when the company announced it would only support ext4 filesystems. The fact that ext4 is probably the most commonly used filesystem in Linux does not make the change any less arbitrary.

Online services often out-compete FOSS ones. Both offer free services, but the online services are often better known and offer easier interfaces. If convenience were the only criterion, who wouldn’t prefer Google+ to Mastodon?

Yet users should never forget that when using cloud services of any kind, they aren’t the ones in charge. Online services can be convenient for exchanging files, but users should make sure they have local backups. If encryption matters, then users should install an app like Tahoe-LAFS and encrypt for themselves. No one should forget that while corporations want their business, any loyalty they feel may not be reciprocated.

Forget these basic truths, and you risk being burned — just like Google+ users were reminded last week.

Bruce Byfield has been involved in FOSS since 1999. He has published over 2000 articles, and is the writer of "Designing with LibreOffice," which is available as a free download at http://designingwithlibreoffice.com/download-buy/

19 comments to The Demise of Google+ and the Case for FOSS

  • Andrew McGlashan

    reminding me of why I have used free and open source software exclusively for years.

    You are clearly not that “free and open source” if you still use FB and Twitter; and certainly not exclusively for years!

    The next problem, the article has all these links to proprietary systems that are not free and open source:
    fb, tubmlr, twitter, pinterest, reddit (??), linkedin (ownedin), telegram, pocket (??), skype, whatsapp.

    That blows a lot of holes in your argument; perhaps you could opt to remove all those proprietary platforms from the posts; and then stop being such a hypocrite ….

    Oh and then there is gravatar in the mix as well. Oh and even more, you are using Google for captcha and fonts too.

  • Andrew McGlashan

    Interesting about eComStation, but it is just 32 bit and is BASED on OS/2 — it is also closed source 🙁

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EComStation

  • Andropause

    I truly feel great. I can congratulate myself for having avoided Google+ like the plague.
    I noticed that since Larry Page took over as CEO and implemented his “more wood behind fewer arrows” philosophy immediate revenue is the only measure for any Google project.
    If it does not generate money, it is shut down without as much as a thought for the users.

  • Mike

    Social media is a disease, a social disease.

  • Dragonmouth

    Tone down your RMS-like snobbery/elitist attitude there slugger. Granted, the article has some bumps, but I don’t see you doing any better. If you were, you wouldn’t be on here acting like a prick because you’d be doing better things, or at least holding a better conversation. It’s that snobby attitude that hinders FLOSS more than hardware/software issues do.

  • TWP

    First, I’m glad to see a new article on FossForce.com. Let there be many more.

    RE the topic of this article, I’m not a user of social media and felt no sense of loss from the Google+ shutdown. I acknowledge that I may be in a minority here, but social media does not serve me or my business. I advocate against social media wherever possible.

    I’m also a member of the OS/2 fan club. Back in the day, I rep’d for OS/2 via my business and did indeed feel the burn when IBM caved to Microsoft. IBM gets no support from me, even today. Microsoft is/was just as bad and I’ll not be recommending them either.

    Which brings us back to Linux. I’ve tried many Linux desktops over the years. Currently I run Kubuntu on my primary 64 bit laptop but have Mint on my backup 32 bit laptop and desktop systems. I keep these up to date and even run bleeding edge Kubuntu 19.04 / with Linux Kernel 5+. There is a trust factor here which does not exist for either IBM or Microsoft.

    As for the idea of a common desktop for Linux, I see this as being a very steep uphill battle, with opposition not just from those businesses which support our current set of desktops (Ubuntu, Redhat, etc.) but also from the desktop users themselves. Change is always difficult and support for a common desktop implies that the end users (like me) actually see some reason to move to a “common’ desktop.

    With all due respect for the author, there isn’t such a common desktop visible on the playing field. I will keep watching for it to appear (it is possible).

    Mr. Torvalds wields a very large hammer in this endeavor, I just hope that he considers the Linux desktop user as worthy of his respect. He could fragment the Linux users by appearing to support one desktop over another, before such a common design gains acceptance by the Linux desktop community. That would definitely be a “cart before the horse” scenario.

    “The more things change, the more they stay the same”…

  • Bruce Byfield

    Andrew McGlashan

    Your rudeness hardly merits a response. I have promoted free software for 20 years, and written a book under a CC Attribution/ ShareAlike license. Have you done anything except be self-righteous? h

    However, let me take the time to educate you.

    Look up free software on either Twitter or Facebook, and you will find that all sorts of free software developers and projects represented. Why? Not because they wouldn’t rather be using free software, but because to promote or publicize, they have to post where the people are. Most of them probably post elsewhere, but to ignore the big sites would hurt the cause of free software, not help it.

    Also, at the risk of sounding like I am dodging responsibility, any complaints about the links on the page that are outside the article are the responsibility of the editor, not me. It shouldn’t be that hard to find the link where you should direct your complaints.

    Next time, do some research before you post.

  • Andrew McGlashan

    Bruce Byfield.

    I fully accept that you profess to be more FOSS than not and that is great. But don’t make sweeping statements like “reminding me of why I have used free and open source software exclusively for years.” …

    Doing so opens you up to question, naturally. So, perhaps it is just lip service. Thanks anyway.

    And so, it’s all about clicks is it? Gotta post where the people are. No, the content matters much more and we are here because we love FOSS; we can influence others when we get the opportunity. I think it is hypocritical to link to the main platforms such as fb and ownedin, but to each their own; speak to your people, if we are.

    And Microsoft is all for Linux too, aren’t they? No, they are not. They sure do love Linux so that they can apply patent taxes and reap rewards to which I think they are not entitled to.

    Also Linux foundation has it’s issues as well if you read Techdirt [1], but I digress.

    [1] http://techrights.org/2019/03/26/the-linux-foundation-is-not-about-linux/

  • Mike

    I hate social media, but I understand why people use it. The same goes for dangerously closed platforms like mobile phones.

    It can be frustrating when society as a whole forces us into using proprietary software and platforms. That is very unfortunate, but it really isn’t realistic to completely shun those things, forcing us to become digital hermits, since that eliminates our influence allowing the world to ignore us and move on to an even worse state. The cause of Free/Libre Software (FREEDOMWARE) would be better served by subverting those platforms, in the same way the GPL subverts the non-free mechanism of copyright.

    I would like to reply to one thing Dragonmouth said that I find inaccurate:

    > “It’s that snobby attitude that hinders FLOSS more than hardware/software issues do”

    The most dangerous thing to FLOSS today comes from hardware manufacturers: Closed source firmware and Tivoization. This has spread far beyond appliances to the firmware of almost every sub-component of modern computing devices, for instance CPUs (see Intel Management Engine or AMD PSP), wifi chips, cellular modems, hdd controllers, and more. Without consistent directed pressure on hardware manufacturers to release truly open hardware, FLOSS ***WILL*** become meaningless. Having the source code and the right to modify it is pointless if the hardware won’t work with any code except the manufacturer’s cryptographically signed copy. That is the enemy we must all fight.

  • Andrew McGlashan Knowing Bruce and his reputation as a FOSS advocate, I’m pretty sure that if you to look at his computer you would find that it’s completely FOSS. The internet is another matter entirely, as it’s pretty much impossible to use the public network without using proprietary services, which is an issue Bruce addressed in this article. Even such FOSS luminaries as Jon “maddog” Hall, who has accounts with both LinkedIn and Facebook, and others, make use of non-free internet services.

    So do you. I note that you’re perfectly willing to post here to explain how FOSS-pure you want everyone to know you are, even while noting in your comment that we take advantage of Google’s Recaptcha to keep our comments relatively free of spam.

    But all of this is moot.

    Software freedom means that you should be free to use whatever software you want or need to use — otherwise it wouldn’t be freedom. It is important, however, to be aware of the non-free software you use, even online, and to recognize the price you pay for using services that are not free and open. Again, from reading Bruce’s article — he’s aware.

    And in my book, if your PCs and laptops have no proprietary programs installed, it’s fair for you to say that you use “free and open source software exclusively.”

  • Andrew McGlashan

    Christine Hall, you are right about it being pretty much impossible to use the public network without using proprietary services…. but sometimes you also need to actively refuse to use same; we need to take a real stand, not simply fall in to line.

    There is no alternative to Google’s recaptcha? Really? Google already sees so much of what is done on all websites due to tracking, add in font usage and other Google services and they get an unfair advantage over other providers.

    I don’t google anything, I duck duck go it and I do so via Tor network as well. Yes, at times it can be more painful, but I am taking a stand even though I can’t take it as far as I, myself, would like. But my ownedin profile is just a place holder and it does not have accurate information as some bright spark there populated false data.

    My FB account is used as little as possible; Twitter is like a firehose and I never use Skype, but all that is just for starters.

    If we want a more FLOSS world, then we must all take more of a stand, especially sites like this one.

  • Lonnie Nunweiler

    I use free software on both Windows 10 and Linux. I also buy software, again for both systems.

    I am a programmer and to get the job done I like to use the best tools available, whether they are free or at a cost.

    I do not have the luxury of working for nothing and so I am forced to charge for my work. If you want to cut living costs costs you can always move out onto the street. Unfortunately that will not be the end of your money worries since you still need to eat. Soup kitchens would have to be it, since the food bank would require a kitchen.

    So, let’s not go all high and mighty on FOSS. Don’t get me wrong, FOSS is awesome, BUT in the real world there can be other valid choices.

  • Andrew McGlashan I don’t think I said there’s do alternative to Google’s Recaptcha, only that we use it.

    I’m glad you’ve set standards for yourself and that you follow them. But don’t try to force those standards on others, who have their own equally as valid standards and reasons for doing what they do.

    You’ll never convince anyone of the rightness of your viewpoint by telling them they’re wrong unless they do as you do.

  • Mike

    Lonnie Nunweiler,

    I think you missed the point. FOSS has nothing whatsoever to do with cost.

    It is possible to make money creating, using, and supporting purely FOSS software. It’s just a different model with different expectations and realities.

    Proprietary software isn’t going away any time soon, but it is possible to go 100% FOSS if that is something you care about. It’s OK not to care about that, but it isn’t wrong to care either.

  • Andrew McGlashan

    I’m not trying to be all high and mighty about these issues; there are other issues to consider too, such as privacy and other freedoms.

    I would appreciate sites NOT using Google fonts (it shouldn’t be necessary), also forgoing Google tracking (again not necessary) and also to choose an alternate reCaptcha that doesn’t rely upon Google.

    If you do it, great, if not, well that is your freedom of choice and I fully accept that.

    I did argue against the premise of the first main paragraph… that’s all really … as a mis-truth (or over statement). You can’t say that you use FOSS exclusively if you are clearly not doing so. I guess there would be very few people, if any whom can totally manage to entirely use FOSS (not withstanding the related hardware issues in play).

    There is always something more that anyone can do if they wish; and I encourage people to do just that when they can. If they, or not enough people, don’t then I fear that the very large and very greedy corporations will dictate even more than they do today.

  • Bruce Byfield

    Andrew, it’s great that you appreciate FOSS. However, you would contribute more if you got to work on a project or two. Willfully misreading and lecturing people like you do contributes nothing of value. In fact, a case could be made that it’s actively harmful — not least of all in wasting everybody’s time, including yours. Please consider harnessing your energy towards something constructive.

  • Sum Yung Gai

    Bruce, I’ve been reading your articles for some years. I haven’t always agreed with everything you’ve said (of course–we’re different people), though generally I think you generally hit the nail on the head. That is true in this article.

    There’s an old maxim that a UNIX admin once taught us. It goes like this:

    “Boy, if you ain’t got physical security, you ain’t got diddly.”

    You’re right about using external providers (e. g. “cloud architecture”) to host things. You really don’t have control of your data; the provider does. That’s bad enough, but in this age where we know about the NSA’s PRISM and similar, privacy matters even more. I avoid “the cloud” for any of my things which are really important to me and which would be difficult to replace. NAS’s are easy enough to make these days, with Free Software (think GNU/Linux or *BSD with Samba, NFS, or FreeNAS), and we have control over it. We can implement our own strong encryption (e. g. AES-256) using LUKS or similar. This way, we don’t even have to depend on “hardware encryption” that may have backdoors in it.

    So why am I, like you, a Free Software advocate?

    I used to work for Microsoft years ago. This was during the time of Windows NT 3.5 and 3.51, which I personally consider to be among the most stable of Windows NT versions. Windows NT 4.0 ended up pretty good as well. I evangelized Windows NT Workstation anywhere I could over our other, lesser products, Windows 3.1 and especially Windows 95.

    Then, in 1998, I went to COMDEX and got my hands on Caldera Linux 1.3 and Red Hat Linux 5.2. Compiled my first kernel n 1999, and the rest was history. I have been “Microsoft Free Since 2003” at home, and even on my Power Mac’s, I used Yellow Dog Linux instead of MacOS. Did a few K12LTSP deployments. Guess who had control of the K12LTSP deployments? The local admins did, not Microsoft or Apple. 🙂

    Ken “Helios” Starks was, and remains, correct.

    As for your use of Google’s reCAPTCHA, it’s not a requirement to run a Web site. We did it for decades before reCAPTCHA; rather, it’s simply a “nice to have”.

    Keep posting articles!

    – Sum Yung Gai

  • Sum Yung Gai

    And to the point of depending on other providers, we should also touch on the subject of API’s. I’ve seen online providers change their API’s (Microsoft Azure is one of the worst offenders of this!) on a whim, thus breaking popular applications that people actually use. There have been several instances of this.

    By contrast, with GNU/Linux and *BSD, two sets of Free Software platforms, I can choose my kernel revision. I can choose my version of my preferred shell, or even which type of shell, that I run. I have scripts that are now approaching 30 years old; they still run on the latest BASH without problems. If I need to run an older program, I just recompile it and go, and that has, to date, never failed for me even once. One of “Linus’s Laws” is that, and I quote, “WE DO NOT BREAK USERSPACE!” The overall community keeps even the Linux maintainers in check.

    That’s one of the huge differences between “corporation” and “community”.

    — SYG

  • Mike

    @SYG

    Nicely put.

    Also, one very serious but mostly invisible impact on privacy of using cloud services (even end-to-end encrypted ones!) is the valuable metadata the provider can collect and share regarding connections between people. This tends to get overlooked in favor of directly shared data.