Looking Back on Thirty Years of Free Software

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 23, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

As I reflect on the thirtieth anniversary of the Free Software Foundation, I'm reminded of a scene in The Horse's Mouth. Alec Guinness's character is standing in front of a large picture that he has gone to some trouble to paint. "It's not what I meant," he says before he walks away. "Not the vision I had in mind." Looking back over sixteen years of involvement with free software, I understand the sentiment exactly.

Today, free software is everywhere, and running everything. In many ways, it seems well on the way to making the jokes about world domination a reality. Yet as I look around, I can't help thinking that we should have been careful about what we wanted, because, although we are near to having it, the details are not all in the form that we imagined.

When I first learned about Linux, I was overwhelmed. Coming straight off IBM's abandonment of OS/2, I welcomed not being at the whim of a company.  Reading books like The ClueTrain Manifesto and The Cathedral and the Bazaar, I was convinced that the free software movement was poised to revolutionize business, making co-operation, not competition the main way that corporations interacted. Thanks to free software, developing countries would soon have the infrastructure they needed to take an equal place in the world. Proprietary software, I thought, would have disappeared by the time I retired.

Was I naive? Very. I can only plead that it was the Dot-Com Era, and enough people were saying such things that they seemed plausible through repetition alone.

Between the conception and the creation
The optimism wasn't completely unfounded. Possibly, free software wouldn't have come as far as it has without a streak of optimism that was unjustified by events.

Then, too, unexpected surprises have happened along the way. The code of major projects like OpenOffice.org and Java was released. Other movements such as Open Access have taken the ideas of free software and applied them to concerns other than software. More recently, combining with crowdfunding, free software seems poised to create a whole new niche of small businesses, making free hardware a reality at last. Even if a majority don't share free software ideals, they are starting to receive some circulation.

All the same, in my professional life I sometimes feel trapped in "The Monkey's Paw," that short story in which every wish is fulfilled to the letter, but in a way so far from the spirit that another miracle is needed. We may no longer be at the whim of IBM or Microsoft, but we are sometimes still too much under the influence of our own examples of corporate success, like Canonical and Red Hat. Too many of the community projects these days are small with no voice compared to that of companies.

True, most companies today use free software, but they do so to save hiring developers and to reduce development time. When they reach the marketplace, suddenly free software is of less concern. Some support free software only in the hopes of luring customers to proprietary tools instead. Many more offer free services like free software, but still insist upon a degree of control over customers' data that is unacceptable.

For too many companies, free software is a tactic that matters only because it reduces their development time. If they talk about the rights and privacy of users,  their rhetoric is vague, and little supported by actions -- or even their own features and services. The open source position in the old debates appears to have won out over the free software position, reducing free software to enabling developers and paying no attention to returning control of everybody's computer to them.

Moreover, far from being disappearing, proprietary software seems only to have mutated. Some traditional revenue sources like operating systems and office suites may have been undermined by free software, but software is mixed today and seems likely to remain so The preference is for permissive licenses that allow free-license code to be re-licensed as proprietary, and nobody talks at all about new ways of doing business.

As for world domination, the closest that free software has come is Android, a privatized version of Linux -- and it is generally shipped as though it were 1980 and no one had heard of anti-viruses or malware, with a change of name so that even for those in the know, the attribution is easy to forget.

Something should be said too, of the cruel irony of a group of idealists having creating a sub-culture in women and minorities are often unwelcome, and many people fail to see a problem.

Modified Rapture
I suppose today is better than it would have been without free software. Still, when I consider how the free software movement seems stalled with three-quarters of its work done, and the other quarter on hold, and made up of compromises and temporary makeshifts that never quite go away, I understand why, according to Eben Moglen, Richard Stallman is often pessimistic about the movement that he founded. Sometimes, the frustration must be agony, dealing with the twisted mirror world of yesterday's ideals.

Looking around, what can I or anyone else say? Except, of course, that this is not the vision that we had in mind. Things could be worse, but let's hope that the next thirty years will be less ambiguous than the past thirty.

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