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What's the Future of Free Software?
October 7th, 2019

What’s the Future of Free Software?

Is it time for the Free Software Foundation to consider some new directions for the free software movement in the post-Stallman era?

computer recycling

Source: Bluedisk at English Wikipedia

Whether you think Richard M. Stallman is a creep who got what he deserved or a great man toppled by petty spite, one thing is certain: free software will never be the same without him. For better or worse, for the first time the movement does not have one man’s vision influencing goals. As a result, an unprecedented opportunity exists for self-evaluation.

Of course free software in general and the Free Software Foundation in particular may not want to take the opportunity. Yet the suddenness of Stallman’s resignations makes at least one long-neglected issue impossible to ignore: how are the current leaders of free software to be replaced? Or do they need to be replaced at all? After all, much of the work of the FSF is already done by its executive director.

Free software may not have any choice except change if it is going to survive. The last decade has seen an erosion of FSF authority that, if allowed to last another decade, might very well reduce free software to a private club that is ignored by others. The FSF needs badly to publicize its efforts, to cultivate the relations it had with journalists in the first years of the millennium, and to make common cause where possible — yes, even with those who prefer the term “open source” to “free software.”

Some reactionaries worry that the changes might mean abandoning free software to a spooky conspiracy by social justice warriors opposed to the meritocracy that built free software. Knowing activists who might fit the SJW label, I personally doubt that any of them are that organized. However, you have to search long and hard for any call for affirmative action or any other bugbear of the right. In fact, I’m not sure you could find one. The critiques are about the flaws in meritocracy. If listened to, the critiques might actually led to a truer meritocracy. Or does anyone believe that no improvement is possible? Apparently, the reactionaries have never stopped to think that people could support free software but think differently from them.

Anyway, diversity opens up the possibility of more contributors to free software projects. And how many projects would turn down additional help? If some newcomers are not coders, help with documentation and technical help is still an important contribution. Given the cultural times, it also seems inevitable. The only thing that is surprising is that free software survived the calls for changes as long as it did. Now, though, it’s time to join the twenty-first century.

Reaching Out With Free Software

While diversity is desirable for many of us, it is not enough by itself. The harder thinking must be about long term directions. Aside from a few new directions like the Respect Your Freedom certification for hardware, in recent years, free software has shown a tendency to stagnate and look inwards. Old jokes about world domination have given way to … nothing. Some efforts have been made to recruit young programmers, but without a long term goal, retention becomes more difficult.

Personally, I’m in favor of the plans that Peter Brown/ the former executive director of the FSF, made in 2007. A former member of the staff for The New Internationalist, Brown advocated efforts to make free software a cause that cuts across political positions, like recycling or buying free trade coffee, which are things that the FSF already does.

“It’s not part of our agenda,” Brown admitted, “but here we are following the guidance of the community that we are now part of, and we now believe that recycling is a good thing. So in that sense we can look to a future where organizations who care about these issues can add free software as a natural ethical service that they can expect of themselves.”

Since free software can keep old hardware working longer, he said, it fits well with the existing recycling ethos.

“Our job is to raise free software as an ethical issue. And we can go forward from there. Whether they choose a community distribution like Ubuntu or a commercial one like Red Hat will be up to them. But just raising the issue is the key. It’s like recycling: you don’t have to give them a hotline on how to proceed. That’s something they do locally, through their own networks.”

Brown proposed focusing on a few groups in each area: several schools, businesses, and activist groups, to which different advantages of free software would be pitched, and, when necessary, specialized help. In this way, free software would gradually gain public support and awareness.

Unfortunately, not much came of this proposal. A few years later, Brown moved on from the FSF, and his ideas were not picked up by anyone else.

However, now that free software has a chance to rethink, perhaps something similar to Brown’s proposal is worth considering. It would give the movement a sense of purpose it has lacked in recent years, and a way to stay relevant. All it would take is some imagination and co-ordination of effort. The question, though, is whether the will exists in free software to embrace change.

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/

7 comments to What’s the Future of Free Software?

  • I think you’re getting ahead of yourself in declaring this “the post-Stallman era”. Stallman didn’t resign from the GNU Project; he’s still the lead there, and the FSF is still sponsoring GNU. That may change; the FSF is seeking comments on what its relationship with GNU should be going forward (see https://www.fsf.org/news/fsf-and-gnu ), but for now, at least, I’d say RMS still has a lot of control over the FSF’s direction even if he’s no longer its president.

    That said, I think the first step for the new FSF should be to cool it with the prescriptivism. If you want to say “GNU/Linux” instead of “Linux” or “FLOSS” instead of “FOSS”, that’s fine; make your case, say it once, and then move on. It is not a hill worth dying on.

    Another important thing is to figure out when it’s necessary to take a “my way or the highway” approach and when it would be better to build consensus. I believe in the goals of the GPLv3, but its lack of wide adoption certainly suggests that failing to build consensus has rendered it largely irrelevant.

    And speaking of irrelevance, the FSF seems to have been blindsided by a number of developments in how people use their computers. They were so focused on explaining why software as a service (or “service as a software substitute” or whatever goddamn name Stallman insisted everybody should call it instead) is bad that they didn’t prepare for a world in which everybody’s using it. While Stallman was dithering about how we shouldn’t call it “the cloud”, it became incredibly common for people to run software on remote web servers. Now, there’s been a way of applying copyleft to server-side software since 2002; it’s called the Affero GPL. But it never quite felt like Stallman’s FSF made the Affero GPL a priority or took the threat of companies avoiding GPL compliance by deploying GPL software on a private server seriously.

    And I haven’t even gotten to phones yet. While I applaud the efforts of the Replicant team, Replicant is not, at present, a practical solution to the problem of proprietary software on smartphones. (I own a Nexus 5 from 2013. It feels ancient; it’s falling apart. I’ve already had to take it in to get its power button replaced, and I suspect the microUSB slot is on its way out next. This phone is newer than any device that can run Replicant.) There are efforts to release GNU/Linux smartphones — Purism’s Librem 5 is the only one putting any effort into conforming to RYF requirements; the PinePhone is coming, too, but is focused on low-cost components that are likely to require proprietary blobs.

    Where’s the FSF in all this? Taking a passive role, letting third parties figure it out. That’s no way to run a railroad. Smartphones have exploded, and the bulk of them rely on an OS that is, itself, free but won’t run on most hardware without proprietary blobs. That’s a serious problem, the FSF hasn’t taken an active role in finding a solution, and I can’t help but suspect that Stallman’s own lack of interest in smartphones is responsible.

    There was a time when the FSF and GNU would respond quickly and effectively to nonfree projects encroaching into the free-software space. When KDE first appeared and required a proprietary toolchain to build, the FSF and GNU rightly saw it as a threat to free software and moved quickly to introduce a fully free alternative. The results were positive for everybody: we got GNOME, we got GTK, and eventually Trolltech responded to the competition by releasing Qt under the GPL.

    We simply haven’t seen that kind of nimble and effective response from the FSF and GNU in the two decades since then. We’ve seen the rise of smartphones (and other ARM-based single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi) and web-based software, and we’ve seen a failure of leadership from the FSF in those spaces.

    I hope that will change. And I hope the FSF spends more time looking outward, at how the world has changed and how most people use computers and where the growth sectors are, rather than simply focus on GNU devs scratching their own itches. Free software should be for everyone, not just software developers with Thinkpads built during the Bush Administration.

  • Mike

    Well put, Thad.

    I agree with pretty much everything you said but I’d like to add a bit:

    I do think some of the problem is caused by the FSF not knowing where to focus. The ridiculous terminology battles are a fine example. Yes, words have power and meaning, but when the average person (well the average person who understands software at all) thinks free software is synonymous with freeware, you (the FSF) have a bigger problem and pedantic nitpicking does not help your cause. Childish name-calling of things you don’t like (Secure Boot vs Restricted Boot) doesn’t help any either.

    Agreed, the Affero GPL is a very important and under adopted counter to the nightmare SAAS world being pushed on everyone relentlessly. It needs more promotion.

    Much of the binary blob problem (especially in smartphones, but also wireless chipsets, boot firmware, and elsewhere) is due to a combination of monopolistic behavior, paranoid ‘trade secret’ protection, and bureaucratic regulation requirements that make open alternatives practically non-existent. I’m not sure what the solution here is, but the current situation is pretty grim and I’m not sure the FSF can do much to help. You are right that using 15+ year old hardware is not a viable solution.

  • Free-as-in-beer software is NOT a society that cuts across political beliefs: as a Trotsky-slut SJW recently said … THE PERSONAL IS THE POLITICAL … or suchlike. Reaching for your musket when M$ starts sucking on your BIOS is just plain survival.

  • Andy Betts

    This article should have had an “OPINION” tagline somewhere. It would help clarify the author’s intention and thinking.

  • @Andy Betts: You saw a headline that started with “what’s the future” and couldn’t tell the article was going to be an opinion piece?

    What did you *think* it was going to be? The diary of a time traveler? Readings from goat entrails?

  • Since I was discussing attempts at FOSS phones upthread, this is relevant: Phoronix’s Michael Larabel interviews Zlatan Todoric, former CTO of Purism.

    https://www.phoronix.com/scan.php?page=news_item&px=Zlatan-Todoric-Interview

    Purism does not come across well. It sounds like Todoric shared many of the same concerns I’ve seen in the comments here, about Purism’s tendency to overpromise on FOSS compliance and underdeliver, rather than setting reasonable expectations. (For example, Coreboot is a big step toward FOSS, and that’s worth celebrating, but it ain’t FOSS.)

    He’s got a very dim view of the phone project, which is a shame; I’d really like to see a decent GNU/Linux phone. Todoric doesn’t seem to think the Librem 5 will be that, which is too bad.

    He’s much more bullish on the PinePhone, which is a bit of a surprise because it looks like it will be relying even more heavily on binary blobs than the Librem 5, but I think he’s looking at it in terms of a step on the road, a project that’s going to be sustainable in the long term.

  • Mike

    That interview lines up perfectly with what I saw as an early crowd-funding supporter of Purism.

    They made bold, ultimately unrealistic promises and were evasive when pushed on details. After two years of patient waiting I decided to back out, only to get a personal e-mail from Todd. The content of that e-mail did not instill any confidence in me and in fact only reinforced the things I was already concerned about.

    I do not regret backing out when I did. Their marketing has never been in line with the technical reality of their hardware.