Stallman hopes to save children from proprietary software

George Ou pointed me in the direction of Stallman's comments relating to Windows on the OLPC project, though I did nothing about it because my head was (figuratively) on fire. I then saw Christopher Dawson's response to Stallman's comments, and so I figured that I'd throw my two cents in before I head off to a location where I may or may not respond regularly to much of anything.

George Ou pointed me in the direction of Stallman's comments relating to Windows on the OLPC project, though I did nothing about it because my head was (figuratively) on fire. I then saw Christopher Dawson's response to Stallman's comments, and so I figured that I'd throw my two cents in before I head off to a location where I may or may not respond regularly to much of anything.

Stallman considers the freedom to customize the software that runs on the computing products we use to be the most important feature of any product.  He's so strong in that belief that he uses the OLPC, not because of its innovative design, but because it is the only machine from which he could delete the proprietary BIOSes in order to make his device completely free in a way that he considers absolutely essential.

Personally, I take a more utilitarian tack. Consider the following questions:

  1. Does properietary software add anything of value? Stallman doesn't care (he has gone so far as to state that their contributions are not welcome), as what matters most to him is the freedom to customize the product to his liking. Most, however, are not so constrained - possibly because most are not developers (not that that is the sole criterion, as I am a developer, and I favored Microsoft for its development technologies long before I became an employee) - and given that the vast majority of a typical software stack runs on proprietary software (the fastest growing alternative to Windows isn't an open source operating system, but another proprietary operating system, the Mac OS), I should think that most believe that proprietary systems DO add value.
  2. Is it useful for large proprietary software companies to be oriented towards the needs of developing-world consumers? Open source advocates often complain about the money advantage possessed by proprietary companies, a fact that translates into marketing on a scale that a more collaborative model would have trouble matching. That's the nature of proprietary software: it serves as one hell of a revenue source, which is why companies interested in sales of software as such (or interested in making software a feature of hardware, like Apple) have opted for the proprietary model (though Apple's is a hybrid, basing itself on open source BSD, even though that doesn't make it pallatable to Stallman on account of it not using his GPL license).  Is it not useful for a company as large as Microsoft (and just to be democratic, as large as Apple, or Oracle, or SAP - though none of them are trying to get their software put onto the OLPC device) to apply themselves to the needs of customers in places outside developed markets?
  3. Is it useful for people in the developing world to have access to the same library of products that the developed world, oriented as it mostly is around proprietary software, has access to? This goes beyond software options (and there is a lot of educational software written for Windows), and includes development staff, training materials, supported hardware, and all the things that create an ecosystem that is the foundation of vibrant innovation in developed markets.

Proprietary software pays people to think about the needs of other people in ways that open source software, which relies more on donated time, has trouble doing (though it's not impossible:  Firefox has shown that it is possible to make a consumer-focused product using open source techniques). Further, proprietary companies, due to the fact that they earn more money if they attract more people to their products, have a financial interest in pursuing the needs and wants of potential customers. We would not be having this conversation if private, profit-oriented interests had not turned what was essentially a network for academic collaboration into the Internet that is an essential component of the lives of most people in the developed world.

Those are USEFUL things proprietary software brings to the table. That doesn't mean that open source software (a term I use on purpose, as I find free software too constraining) doesn't offer advantages. Christopher Dawson works in education, and the fact that students have access to the guts of Linux in ways they don't with Windows probably resonates strongly with him.

That isn't wrong, and is completely correct. I think open source software is incredibly useful, and I think it will have a growing place in the software landscape. It is part of the evolution of software creation, IMO, and it is essential for every computer technician (a group that includes myself) to be familiar with it, as well as understand how best to make use of it.

But let's not throw babies out with bathwaters. Just because Ferraris are fun cars to drive doesn't mean we should stop making any cars except Ferraris. Further, blocking paths to other platforms just because you philosophically oppose revenue models that keep secrets about the code you use - irrespective of the utilitarian benefits derived from the financial incentives such secrets create - is wrong.

Sugar, even on Windows, always was and always will be open source. Further, open source software will always provide you full access to the internals of the operating system. Why not trust that the merits of open source will stand on their own rather than advocating that proprietary software be excluded out of some paternalistic fear that people might actually like it?