On the future of Open Source thought leadership

Summary:After over a decade of being in the shadow of the Free Software movement and 30 years of its inflexible dogmatic principles, disruptive new Open Source thought leadership is emerging that is truly able to compromise with the realistic needs of business and end-users without carrying the baggage of strict adherence to an ideology that is by definition a culture of exclusion. (artwork by Spidermonkey, Inc.

After over a decade of being in the shadow of the Free Software movement and 30 years of its inflexible dogmatic principles, disruptive new Open Source thought leadership is emerging that is truly able to compromise with the realistic needs of business and end-users without carrying the baggage of strict adherence to an ideology that is by definition a culture of exclusion. (artwork by Spidermonkey, Inc.)

My last article on Richard M. Stallman's verbal attack on Miguel de Icaza and his continuing crusade against anyone who doesn't fit the mold of the Free Software community seems to have struck a chord with those who sympathize with that movement's ideals to the point of driving them to utter histrionics, unjustified hero worship and irrational thought.

Since then, there have been further dust-ups. Stallman, rather than clarify or deny his "traitor" statement that some have posited was simply hearsay, has published a paranoid rant on the supposed machinations of the new CodePlex Foundation without giving the organization the benefit of proving itself, and has added further gasoline to the flames by calling De Icaza a "Apologist", in reference to his cooperation with Microsoft in joining the CodePlex Foundation and his embracing of Microsoft-originated technologies through the creation of the .NET-compatible, GPL-Licensed Open Source development framework, Mono.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

Finally, after years of staying out of the ideological and political fray and strictly choosing to pursue his software development interests, Miguel de Icaza rightfully decided he had enough of Stallman's boorishness, ad hominem attacks and fear-mongering, and published a response on his blog.

What we are witnessing here is the making of the new Thought Leadership of Open Source and ushering in a new age of Open Source pragmatism, as my colleague at CNET, Matt Asay, best describes it. Those of us who are Open Source evangelists use Open Source software because it is practical and useful to do so, not due to an inherent ideological need to do so.

Open Source and Free Software are thought by many individuals to be the same or have similar philosophies, given that they share software licenses that they have in common, but the overall tone of the two movements are very different indeed. The fact that the General Public License, version 3, the preferred software license of the Free Software Foundation happens to be a conforming Open Source license has added to the confusion that Free Software and Open Source are the same thing. Again, they aren't.

By definition and in practice, as Richard Stallman would have you observe it, Free Software must be "ethical".  It has nothing to do with what the software costs. In a nutshell, Free Software has as much to do with how a producer of software behaves or how that behavior is perceived as ethical or not according the FSF as it does with the actual distribution of software.

According to the Free Software definition, proprietary software, that in which the source code is not distributed is unethical. Therefore just about every company you can imagine that produces commercial, closed source software is engaging in "unethical" behavior, and that of course includes Microsoft.

However, it is also possible to have software licenses and products which have freely distributable code that is not acceptable under the terms of Free Software. For software to be Free Software, it has to meet the following criterion as well:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Free Software also introduces the notion of "Copyleft" which is an inherent property of the GNU GPL license that guarantees free reproduction, adaptation and derivative works of the software that is licensed with it without restriction. However, Free Software allows for non-Copyleft software to exist in its ecosystem.

Open Source, however, is not about ethics or who or what should determine what is ethical. It is about allowing unfettered distribution of software and its source code and protecting/including people who consume it and develop it. In effect Open Source sets a an overall tone of "Your software can be classified as Open Source if it conforms to our definition and meets our criteria" whereas Free Software sets the overall tone of "You are excluded from our community of Free Software unless you conform to behavior that which we find acceptable".

This is why it is possible for Microsoft or another company such as Novell or Red Hat to release Open Source software and be good Open Source citizens, and yet still be classified as "unethical" or engaging in activities that are unethical by the strict dogma of Free Software. There is no ground for compromise in Free Software. You are either ethical or you aren't.

There is another distinction between the two philosophies. While Free Software has a single designated leader, Richard Stallman, Open Source does not.

Instead, we have several thought leaders that have written different treatises on what it means to be part of the Open Source community. However, the efforts of Open Source have often been drowned out by the FSF's and Stallman's well-documented boorishness and paranoia.

Public perception has often unfairly lumped Open Source advocates into supporting Stallman's views, and unfriendly to business because as a culture of inclusion the FSF's GPLv2 and GPLv3 are Open Source conforming licenses. This, despite the fact that Stallman himself does not support Open Source because its values do not conform and are incompatible with his. Really, it's true. Listen to the man say it himself.

We are at an important crossroads in the history of our Open Source movement and what is happening now is nothing short of amazing. We have begun to influence Microsoft in seeing the benefits of our development model and are ushering in a new age of interoperability. We are now guiding and influencing the business philosophies of the largest technology companies in the world, and for that we should be very proud.

But if we are to continue to do so, we must draw a line in a sand. That we are NOT Free Software. That we have our own identity. That we are mainstream. That we are pragmatic, flexible and work well with others. That we shall continue as a culture of inclusion and will not be the arbiter of behavior or demonize those who cannot yet or refuse to join us. That we seek opportunities for others to join our cause by enticing them to work with us in harmony.

Because as Miguel de Icaza most eloquently says in his adopted tongue, Not only (do) you attract more bees with honey than with vinegar, there are lots of shoes to sell." It comes out better in Spanish, trust me.

Is it time for us to recognize new Thought Leadership in Open Source? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Disclaimer: The postings and opinions expressed in this column are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Topics: Open Source, CXO, IT Employment, Software

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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