Friday, June 25, 2004

Free Software: why it's A Good Thing (TM)

Eric S. Raymond (ESR) has released the latest Halloween Document, eleventh in the series and titled 'Get the FUD'. Unlike the first few documents, which were genuine Microsoft memoranda leaked to Raymond, this appears to be merely biased commentary. It's even intellectually dishonest to call it a 'Halloween Document.'
It's a good time to take stock of where we are, what our favorite evil empire is doing, and how best to respond.

If he wants to be taken seriously, he should stop using phrases like 'our favourite evil empire.' It only makes him sound childish. Can he not produce a reasoned article any more? And then, of course, he doesn't miss the opportunity to take a sideways dig at Richard Stallman and the FSF.
Hello? If there is actually anyone still left on the planet who thinks the term "free software" was a good idea, I hope they're paying attention. Because what Microsoft is doing here is exploiting the old familiar gratis/libre ambiguity of the word "free" in yet another way. They're setting up for a claim that "free software" advocates are lying or deluded because Linux has a nonzero TCO. Therefore, goes the implication, you can't really trust them about that other freedom thing, can you?

I happen to be one of those poor misguided fools who think that "free software" was a good idea. "Open Source" just doesn't cut it. The fact that the source code is available is good, but how would you feel if I distributed source as well as executable code, but made it illegal for you to redistribute modified code? That would reduce the advantage of the Free/Open Source paradigm to essentially nothing. The idea is that any user has the same rights as the author; the right to do whatever he (or she) wishes with the program. The idealism behind free software is precisely what makes it so powerful and appealing. I always had the feeling that ESR never understood this.

Honestly, though, I think Raymond spends too much time attacking Microsoft / defending GNU/Linux (though he, of course, calls it Linux) and not enough time focussing on how to make it better. There was an interesting discussion of the latest Halloween document on Slashdot, and Junks Jerzey had this to say
Remember how Linux advocates, real early on, used to love to quote Ghandi? You know, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you've won? Well, it works both ways. Now we have both camps bitterly and intentionally fighting with each other. And what good does it do? If Linux--excuse me, I mean "open source in general" is so blindly superior to Windows in every single way, then that's it. It's over. The existing momentum will carry through and eventually the better solution wins. It's a quiet revolution. Now what should be worrying people like Mr. Raymond is that ... Linux *isn't* so blindingly superior as to carry the day

If you haven't already, visit the FSF website and read about their Philosophy.

I've recently read a lot of reports, often produced by "think tanks", on why Free Software is 'viral', 'unethical', 'un-American' (the authors seem to think this is a bad thing), 'communist' and so on. Typically, I've found that they're badly written, and often plain wrong on substantive issues.

As a classical example, Defenders of Property Rights has this report (Sorry, another PDF) on what they call the "Open Source movement". Of course, it's riddled with atrocious errors. They claim that the movement took off last year in Europe (how dare those socialist Europeans attack our American profit-making way of life?), ignoring the fact that Richard Stallman was working at MIT (which was in Boston, Massachusetts, when I last checked) when he decided to launch the Free Software movement in 1984. What's infinitely worse, though, is that they attempt to shock the reader by explaining how those evil, commie, open software nuts take advantage of the unsuspecting American population with their diabolical licensing schemes.
As unlikely as this might seem to the skeptic, the National Security Agency (NSA), that coordinates, directs, and performs highly specialized activities to protect U.S. information systems and produce foreign intelligence information, made the folly of developing GPL-licensed code to improve the Linux operating system. After reading the terms of the Linux GPL, the NSA realized they needed to post this enhancement to the Internet in source code form for the world to see. Unbelievably, any person with a PC and an Internet connection can now logon to the NSAs website and print out the blueprint for NSAs Security Enhanced Linux software

That's just plain, old-fashioned lying. To begin with, the NSA is well aware of Open Source or Free Software, and the licenses they are usually distributed under. It passes the bounds of belief that they wrote SELinux and then suddenly realised that they would have to release it. Also, the NSA still feels that open source software has a role to play in secure systems.

Much more important, though, is that the GPL does NOT require NSA to release their code, if they wanted it hidden. NSA chose to do it of their own free will, wanting to give something to the community. They would only have been required to release source code if they wanted to redistribute it. And so, even if this had been the latest system of secure communication that the US government was using, and not just a research kernel, the NSA (and the US government) could have deployed and used it freely without making code public. The only thing the GPL prevents them from doing is distributing it to other governments/users. And why would they even want to give away their secure communication systems?

All that Defenders of Property Rights and other think tanks are trying to do is to spread FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) about Linux and Free Software in general, and they do it through smear campaigns, disinformation, and plain untruths. More people should be educated about the advantages of Free Software. Visit the FSF website today. (And while you're there, make a donation if you can afford to!)


Anonymous said...

Hey Nitish,
You might find this interesting, if you've not already read it.

I think Stallman's an extremist nut. What I understand of his philosopy shows him to be an extremist, putting him on equal footing with the Evil Emprire (which, in recent times, is doing many things that are actually going in the right direction. I give you WinFS, the now relatively stable NT kernel, and the funny XML based GUI thingamajig). Most of this innovation is driven by the competition (Reiser4, Linux, XUL/Glade).

Stallman gives FSF a bad name, and makes them look like a bunch of over-assertive loons. ESR has become way to self-absorbed to know his nose from his butt.

The problem with people is that they're not willing to understand the tool that they're using. MS makes it easy for a computer-illiterate person to use a computer with little effort. Except that the user must use it as MS wants him/her to. So the tool can only take you as far as MS thinks you want to go. Their ads are bullshit, in that sense.

Linux has a small way to go before it's as easy to use. The Linux desktop might be fairly usable nowadays, but not too many people are willing to put in the effort to make use of the system. They're happy with what they have, and they're happy to merely crib when what they have doesn't do what they want it to do.


Nitish said...

Thanks, Arun, I read it when it came up on Slashdot a while ago. I agree entirely about ESR, and that Stallman is a little extreme. But his philosophy doesn't seem that bad to me; just that he tends to go overboard. He agrees that proprietary software has a role to play, but then tries to educate people about the benefits of free software. Some of his ideas (like why schools/universities should insist on free software) are very interesting. Of course, the long hair and frequent ranting don't help his image as a zealot! :-)

You're definitely right about Microsoft and the current state of the Linux desktop. Sad, but true, and I don't see it changing anytime soon. Too many geeks feel that keeping it complex is like a test of honour. ("I can set up Linux efficiently and quickly." "Really? How cool; you must be a uber-hacker!") Simple is not necessarily equal to stupid.

Btw, Did you mean Avalon?