Sun 'distorts' definition of free software

Sun 'distorts' definition of free software

Summary: Jonathan Schwartz's claim that the best thing about free and open source software is the price has raised hackles


Sun's president Jonathan Schwartz has angered some in the free software community by appearing to misrepresent what open source is.

In Schwartz's opening keynote at the JavaOne conference on Monday he spoke about how free price is the most important feature of free and open source software (FOSS).

"I want to talk about FOSS — free and open source software. Now just to relay my bias, if you had to ask me what's the most important initial in free and open source software, to me, if you want to reach the broadest marketplace in the world there's one price that works for everyone, and that's free… and so the free part is what we've been focused on," said Schwartz.

But, the definition of free in FOSS is widely accepted to refer to the freedom of software, rather than its cost. Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, told ZDNet UK on Thursday that Schwartz has missed the point on what both the free software and open source movements are about.

"The free software movement stands for 'free' as in freedom. The open source campaign doesn't present freedom as an ethical issue, but it still formulates its criteria in terms of what users are permitted to do," said Stallman. "Schwartz has therefore missed the point of both — perhaps deliberately. Sun supports neither free software nor open source, so he is trying to oppose both at once by misrepresenting them."

Stallman later said that this is true in the context of Java, but is not true of everything Sun does.

Wookey, a Debian developer, shared Stallman's view and accused Schwartz of deliberately twisting the definition to justify not releasing Java as open source.

"Schwartz has a point when he says that the fact that free software is usually pretty-much cost-free helps drive its popularity, but to imply that that is the important bit is to fundamentally distort what free software is about," said Wookey.

Wookey went on to explain that "the 'free' in free software is about freedoms, and that remains the important bit. The four freedoms free software provides are; the freedom to run the software as you wish, the freedom to study the source code and modify it to do what you wish, the freedom to make and redistribute copies, and the freedom to publish modified versions."

"It is the existence of these freedoms — especially the last two — which makes the software so cheap it is usually not worthwhile charging for it. Schwartz has things back to front. This is no doubt because he wants to claim that Sun's Java is 'free software', which of course it isn't because Sun doesn't grant those last two freedoms," he said.

Irakli Nadareishvili, the chief software architect at charitable organisation Development Gateway Foundation, attended JavaOne and told ZDNet UK he was disappointed by Schwartz's comments. "Schwartz should have known better," he said.

Topics: Apps, Software Development

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  • Pundit Rule #001: No Wookies
  • Sun's president Jonathan Schwartz's comments about understanding free software as free as in beer instead of free as in speech underlines what he wish it were, and indeed, not what is actually happens to be.

    Free as in speech results in a paying market place for software services which is incompatible with what the current elite of software vendors favour as their business model. They'd rather keep living off per copy license fees rather than truly taking responsibility for delivering problems solved; which is a different ballgame altogether.
  • What many in the FOSS-community fails to understand is that Schwartz actually is right. For the large majority of people using the software the access to the source-code, or the right do modify is it totally irrelevant since they don't know how to program and thus have no need for the code and no means to modify it.

    Most people does not use the software in ways which commercial licences forbid either, so that's another freedom they have no use of. As for the right to redistribute the fact that the software was free to begim width makes it kind of irrelevant, since it's often easier to get it from the official hompage than having your friend burn a CD.

    Conclusion: The most important part of FOSS for most people is that it's free!
  • Erik Wikstr
  • I'm afraid, when it comes to understanding most people's motivations, I have to side with the Free Beer camp.

    People, by and large, aren't interested in philosophy. They have a job to do, and they want to get it done. Software is a tool to them, nothing more, nothing less.

    When "free" software doesn't do the job, isn't reliable, etc... Most users pay (happily or begrudgingly) whatever the going rate is for software that does do the job reliably. Supporting a philosophy of capitalism has nothing to do with it. If they can't afford it, many have no hesitation about pirating it by "borrowing" a disk from a friend.

    Similarly, when "free" software does do the job reliably, people are very happy to save the money and use it. They don't care that they can edit the source code. As far as their concerned, that is just alot of extra confusing material on the CD, or expanded from a download. They don't care about fighting the evil commercial empire. They just want to do their jobs as cheaply as possible.

    In addition, there is a lot of inertia. People buy what they're used to buying, whether it is the best or not. They'll get whatever software their friends recommend, by whatever means are needed. They'll vote for who they think CAN win, rathern than who they think SHOULD win. They want to back the winner, regardless of if they agree with him on everything (or even most things), as long as they "get the job done".
  • to Wikstr
  • Well said cb2.

    Those who use the software might say the most important thing is ....

    But realistically, they shouldn't be part of the equation. It is the actual writers of the software who has the most weight. The question is why did _they_ pick such and such license among all the others? For the majority the most important thing about FOSS isn't that it is free. The ratio of GPL to other licensed projects proves it.

    I think Sun is the LAST company we should go to when discussing FOSS. Sun has balanced on the fence and double talked so much, I no longer consider them dependable in any situation that includes this topic.
  • I wrote my comment in the context of the article, which specifically revolves around the quote "if you want to reach the broadest marketplace in the world there's one price that works for everyone, and that's free".

    It is the article itself that is lacking the context of the original statement. He made the statement so the audience would understand where he was coming from. It may not match the focus of FOSS in your mind, or even the minds of most of his audience, and he fully understands that. He therefore makes this statement so that he isn't misunderstood to be coming from a philosophically "pure" direction.

    To say the users are irrelevant to this discussion is the biggest fallacy I have heard in a long time. The users are EVERYTHING. Without the users, the software has no reason to exist, regardless of its platform, or its licensing model. (To ignore that fact is to follow the road of the Libertarian Party, many of whose members stress philosophical purity to the exclusion of the majority of voters' opinions, thus alienating the very people they hope to help. As a Libertarian, this disappoints me, and I work constantly to change their outlook.)

    Firefox is taking off like a rocket. Why? Because it is open source? No. It is becoming successful because it meets the users' needs better than IE, and it is free.

    In a way, people's attitude toward the importance of "free as in speech" reflects their attitude towards free speech itself - It is taken for granted. This is really too bad, because it is just as endangered by powerful interests as FOSS software.

    I understand the need for free speech. I understand the need for FOSS software to remain "free as in speech". I also understand the realities of the world, and the importance to "the average Joe" of the "free as in beer" aspect. The militant FOSS community advocates need to understand this as well, otherwise your movement will join the Libertarian Party on the fringes of relevance.
  • There's another aspect of Open that seems to be overlooked here. It is not so much the customers right to have access to the Source that makes the difference (as others have pointed out most customers wouldn't know what to do with it anyway) but rather the fact that whole developer communities have access to the same Source.

    That means that the "vendor" of an Open Source product is always on trial. They can't hide behind API's. If there's a problem within the Source it's bound to be found. As are needed improvements. Flaws are more easily discovered and fixed. Add-ons can really "get in" rather then being restricted to some sort of half deaf translator with a hidden agenda. And most importantly, should some Open Source products contain code that doesn't agree with current customer market demands (e.g.: perhaps the code more agrees with the internal commercial business goals of the vendor in question) then it will be identified, ripped out and replaced by code that does meet current customer market demands sooner or later.

    Now that's service and support you simply can't buy because such service and support isn't provided, it's given.
  • Asking the users about the details of the license agreement and differences between Free Software, Open Source and indeed any other variant is a complete non starter. As previousloy mentioned they generally do not choose their software on this basis.

    Saying the users are the most important element of the equation, because without them there would be no point is, in and of itself true, but very misleading in the context. You can say that without the software there would be no users. This is equally true and equally useless as a debating point.

    To my mind the issue is about the future.

    If I install some software that is free (no cost) today as a special discount from the vendors, but has a posted price of 1000 a seat, I feel good today. There is nothing to stop the company withdrawing the discount tomorrow and putting short sighted users like me in a bit of a bind.

    With FOSS that issue doesn't come up.

    If the vendor of a niche product goes to the wall, can I get updates and bug fixes any more? If I have the source code to do with as I will, then yes. If not, it's down to whatever deal is struck after the courts have their way. I have been in the situation where a supplier did go to the wall. Another company bought the rights and then did nothing. They then came out with an outragious price tag at the next arm twisting opportunity.

    With FOSS that issue doesn't come up.

    Traditional software vendors struggle with the business logic associated with selling people things they can get themselves for free. They don't seem to like working without the comfort of being a single source. While making Ra-Ra-FOSS noises they endlessly look for ways of treating FOSS like they had the sole rights to it and making stuff they have sole controlling rights to, look like FOSS. The FOSS community needs to be on the look out for this sort of behaviour.

    It's like buying hay cut from common land. You know the grass was free, but you are buying the time and effort it tales to convert it into nice handy bales. If you don't want to pay, you can cut for yourself. If you have better things to do, then pay the man.