The fight for FOSSH continues

Doghouse – FOSSH

Article from Issue 213/2018

While Free and Open Source Software and Hardware is becoming more commonplace, the battle against closed source isn't over.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the significance of the year 2019, how it marked several significant anniversaries, and how we might start planning to bring forward these milestones to the general public.

This started me thinking about the progress that GNU/Linux has made over the past quarter-century and how Free and Open Source Software and Hardware (FOSSH), in general, helps to drive the world.

The fact that FOSSH is so prevalent in the world might encourage us to relax a bit and declare "victory." After all, even Microsoft says they love open source.

However, I think that the playing field of "open" versus "closed" may only be moving higher up the food chain, with many people using and supporting FOSSH at the middle and lower levels, while higher level functionality is still closed, even though companies may be using FOSSH to help develop their products.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) are examples of the "higher level" of applications that may or may not be open, and both of these could have rather frightening implications if not handled properly. Many articles have been written about the issue of having IoT "things" get infected with viruses and (as an example) coordinate a denial of service attack on the Internet.

Closed source might prevent the people responsible for deploying those "things" from getting a security patch in a timely manner if the company that made the "thing" is no longer in business.

An even scarier thought is if the "thing" infected by the virus is artificially intelligent. This has been the fabric of many science fiction stories.

We (all of us) have to keep pushing the concepts and benefits of openness. We have to keep educating others on the business models around FOSSH and shooting down the (sometimes innocently spread) FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) that fights against openness.

It pains me that after all this time there are still companies that produce hardware products that use closed firmware (you know the companies I am talking about) and who refuse to document how the hardware works so that the FOSS community can properly program that hardware.

I often think how fast these companies would change their strategy if all of their customers simply said "we will not buy your hardware unless your interfaces are published and your hardware is able to be programmed with FOSS."

This does not mean that the companies cannot also generate their own closed firmware if they feel that they can create an advantage over their competitors, but it does mean that certain customers could now buy their hardware knowing that FOSS could support it properly.

Years ago, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) had a math library for Unix that was one of the best in the world. DEC paid a mathematician money to create an efficient library of routines like sin(), cos(), etc., and refused to disclose the source code, saying their competitors would easily be able to duplicate their work and they would lose their advantage.

While DEC was willing to donate the binary library to the Alphalinux project, they refused to donate the sources.

The Alphalinux community wanted the shipping math library to have sources available, so routine by routine they rewrote the subroutines until all of the subroutines except one were faster than the DEC binary-only version. That last subroutine was "fast enough," so no one spent the time to make it any faster.

We have come so far in FOSSH, but we need to push harder and not let companies designate FOSSH as a tool to help them create closed systems at some other level.

We have to talk to the consumers of tech and get them to understand and care about having FOSSH products.

Recently I was advising a major government funder of research and business about the benefit of using FOSSH in creating new products and industry. While they knew about FOSSH and its benefits for an economy to a certain level, two hours of a rapid machine-gun presentation brought the concepts they had in the back of their minds up to the frontal lobes. I advised that companies requesting public money to do research and incubate companies (public or private) owe to the public a commitment to FOSSH, and public entities owe it to their constituents to require FOSSH as a basis for products and services purchased.

Even fully private concerns with private funding should consider using, specifying, buying, and producing FOSSH products and services, because the opposite of freedom is slavery, and software slavery means loss of control over your business. Business people love control, and having them recognize their need for control over how and when they deliver products and services can drive them to FOSSH when discussions of freedom have no effect.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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