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December 9th, 2019

What Free Software, FOSS, and Open Source Share in Common

Although the numerous approaches to open source sometimes seem at odds with each other, users and developers of open source software, whether coming from “copyleft” or “permissive” camps, are travelling similar roads.

In any field, activists can be each other’s worst enemies — and FOSS is no exception. Simply for suggesting that free software and open source have more similarities than differences, I have been denounced as a capitalist-shill, and worse. Yet, even a casual glance around proves FOSS is an alliance of overlapping yet separate interests. True, many of us have little in common with certain members of the alliance — I, for example, couldn’t care less about why corporations support FOSS, despite the denouncements — but that’s the nature of an alliance. Moreover, without those sometimes competing interests, I doubt FOSS would be such an overwhelming success.

I count at least four major interests within FOSS today: the academic, the corporate, the hobbyists, and the political. Almost certainly, there are more.

Academic FOSS

FOSS’ origins lie in academia’s belief in the free exchange of information. If you remember, it was the discovery that an increasing number of programmers were no longer freely sharing information that inspired Richard Stallman to start the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation. The entire point of the GNU General Public License is to make code sharing a necessity and to keep the free exchange of ideas flowing.

Today, academic FOSS is frequently unknown outside a given project, yet remains influential. Thousands of teachers who have never hear of the Free Software Foundation regularly use Creative Commons licenses to share slide shows and other teaching aids. Behind the scenes, too, academic research remains a major influence on FOSS. Academics who release their work under a free license are forever starting small companies and non-profits. Often, one small body of research establishes an entire sub-section of FOSS — for example, the Yale OpenHand Project is the foundation for FOSS projects and corporations that research the development of prosthetic hands. More directly, FOSS itself has inspired the Open Access movement, which promotes academic publication in freely available journals. Today, as now, the main motivation in academic FOSS remains the free exchange of ideas.

Corporate FOSS

By contrast, corporate interest in FOSS remains ruthlessly practical. Participation in a FOSS project can eliminate the need to reinvent an already existing technology. It can reduce the need to hire staff, and can half the time required to bring a product to market. Just as importantly, it can mean that a product that might not be worth the time to develop by traditional methods can become profitable.

Purists often complain, sometimes with justification, that corporate FOSS and its professional association the Linux Foundation are parasites on FOSS, taking more than they give. Similarly, corporate FOSS often seems too ready to accept the support of former arch-enemies like Microsoft. Yet, at the same time, corporate FOSS often funds programmers to work on projects full-time, and quietly bring together developers to focus on cutting edge technologies. For example, for all the talk about self-driving cars, few are aware that virtually every company in the field is involved in the Linux Foundation’s Automotive Grade Linux. Similarly, the recently formed Chips Alliance is developing the RISC-V chip and other free-licensed hardware that can form the building blocks for other open hardware. Although corporate FOSS does not always play well with other stakeholders, FOSS would probably not be nearly so omnipresent without it.

The Hobbyists

Do-it-yourselfers have a long history with technology. Before personal computers, between 1940-80, they tinkered with radios and build gadgets. Now, both the tinkering and the building have become more sophisticated, thanks to low cost parts like Arduino boards or the Raspberry Pi. Today, in non-profit projects, the distinction between professionals and hobbyists is becoming increasingly blurred, with tools designed initially for hobbyists being used for both prototyping.

In addition, with the rise of crowdfunding, hobbyists are increasingly making the transition to small businesses. My favorite example is Keyboardio, which started with one man’s search for an ideal keyboard and has become a successful family business, a change that would have been next to impossible a decade ago. In fact, if you go to sites like Crowd Supply or Indiegogo, you will find smaller scale versions of the building blocks the Chip Alliance proposes already happening — all in the name of the wish to tinker.

The Politicals

The politicals are the most vocal members of the FOSS allegiance, although whether they are the most numerous is hard to decide. They are the ones most likely to talk about free software, and to criticize corporate supporters while ignoring other stakeholders. Their reasons for supporting FOSS are often software freedom in the abstract, but sometimes overlap with consumer rights or privacy and security concerns.

Which of these causes is advocated by the politicals has shifted over the years. The most dedicated supporters of software freedom seem to have declined in the last twelve years, although the Free Software Foundation has made efforts to recruit from time. In comparison, those with privacy and security concerns seem to have become more active in the last five years, no doubt because the computing industry in general has been slow to address these concerns.

Corporatists often dismiss the politicals as naive, and admittedly the more vocal politicals, especially the youngest ones sometimes demonstrate a lack of business knowledge. However, of all the groups mentioned here, the politicals tend to be most in touch with the original goals of free software. At their best, they serve as the conscience of FOSS, reminding other members of the alliance what they should stand for.

A Common Interest

These groups sometimes overlap. Academics and hobbyists and politicals concerned with privacy and security may also become corporatists. Similarly, a growing number of corporatists are showing an interest in being a social interest company, or having their products receive Respect Your Freedom certification from the Free Software Foundation. Moreover, the presence of FOSS in business represents a partial shift from competition to co-operation, which can be seen as a victory for the political interests.

However, my point is not to provide a field guide to FOSS participants. Instead it is to point out that each of the groups mentioned here makes a contribution to FOSS overall. Without the academics’ championing of the freedom to share ideas, the hobbyists’ demand for the right to tinker, the corporatists’ popularization and support of FOSS or the politicals’ ethical emphasis, FOSS would be a more fumbling, less effective movement than it is. Most supporters will naturally gravitate towards one interest group over the others, but all the members of the alliance need the other. It’s a point worth mentioning the next time you are tempted to diss someone else because they don’t support FOSS for the same reason that you do.

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/

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