2020 in Free Software

Trends and Events in Free Software in 2020


Among other noteworthy trends in 2020, producing free and secure video conferencing software has become a higher priority in the past year.

Looking back at 2020, it's impossible not to talk about the pandemic or the economy. However, free software businesses and communities suffered less than many organizations this year, for the simple reason that many of the precautions that others scrambled to put in place have been standard practice in free software for decades. For example, when everyone was advised to work from home, many Ubuntu employees were doing so already. Aside from a surge of interest in video conferencing, the pandemic has been largely business as usual in free software.

For that reason, a thorough summary of trends and events in free software during 2020 is impossible. As usual, too much was happening. However, here is my pick of the key events of 2020 at every level from the corporate to the home desktop.

Application Arrivals and Departures

Once not so long ago, Adobe Flash was a necessity for the web. Some sites were actually written entirely for it. For years, the Free Software Foundation listed a free Flash replacement as a high priority project, and sponsored its own alternative called gnash. However, built in support in web browsers, as well as changes in design fashion and W3C standards have put an end to Flash at last. In November, Mozilla confirmed that starting with its next release in January 2021, Flash would no longer be supported in Firefox. A sign of how times have changed is that this milestone is passing mostly unnoticed.

By contrast, the pandemic sent millions to video conferencing with proprietary software like Zoom. Possibly overwhelmed by all the new users, in the summer, Zoom's gaps in privacy and security became known – and further concerns were raised when the company initially announced that end-to-encryption would only be available for paying customers, although that position was quickly modified. Unsurprisingly, free software video conferencing was added to the high-priority list around the same time. Almost immediately, previously obscure projects for self-hosting gained notice, like Riot (now Element), BigBlueButton, and Jitsi, as well as alternatives to Slack, such as Rocket.Chat. In this way, if few others, social-distancing literally changed free software's priorities.

Free Hardware Ups and Down

For free hardware, 2020 was a mixed year. On the one hand, System76, already a leading manufacturer of pre-installed Linux computers, went from strength to strength, with frequent announcements of additions to its aesthetically designed Thelio line, ranging from minis to high-end servers. System76 is even developing its own keyboard, while its in-house Pop!_OS distribution, with its auto-tiling feature, was in the top ten of page views on Distrowatch throughout the year.

On the other hand, Purism, which gained its reputation for its Librem line of laptops that were certified in the FSF's Respects Your Freedom Program, struggled all year to release a fully functional version of its Librem 5 phone. Although announced in September 2019, the Librem 5 was in unofficial beta status for most of 2020. When the completely functional phone was finally released in November, its price was $1999 – three times the price offered in the original fund-raising campaign in 2017. It is a disappointing story for a product that was announced with such high hopes.

Meanwhile, instead of the assortment of small businesses in open hardware that seemed to be emerging in recent years, the development of free hardware is still largely in the hands of existing corporations, and is currently emphasizing the development of modular parts, like the RISC-V chip. The use of these parts in new products is still to come.

Corporate Free Software

With the world’s economies in survival mode, major free software business news was scanty in 2020. Beyond the usual software releases, relatively little news came from the larger companies like Canonical, Red Hat, or SUSE.

Probably the most important news of the year came early in December, when Red Hat announced that it was discontinuing CentOS. CentOS had made its reputation as a more easily available clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), and was acquired by Red Hat in 2014 – presumably to remove the competition. Since then, CentOS has acted much as Fedora is supposed to do, as a testing ground for RHEL. Now, however, Red Hat will continue only CentOS Stream, which will become RHEL's upstream development branch with rolling releases.

One reason may be that CentOS is much more popular than RHEL as a server. Certainly that appears to be why angry CentOS users have been decrying the change. As Red Hat itself notes, CentOS Stream is hardly a replacement. Many are denouncing the move as a corporate betrayal.

Almost immediately, CentOS co-founder, Gregory Kurtzer, immediately announced he would create a CentOS replacement called Rocky Linux. Meanwhile, CloudLinux plans to produce its own clone Lenix – and invest over a million dollars a year in it. These alternatives should solve the practical problems of CentOS users, but the episode is likely to fester as an additional justification for free software users to mistrust corporations.

FSF Announces New President

In 2019, Richard Stallman stepped down as president of the Free Software Foundation. Stallman had made a poorly judged and perhaps poorly understood email comment in the case of Jeffrey Epstein, the alleged sex trafficker, which lead to a flood of stories about his treatment of women. Stallman also resigned from his position at MIT as a result.

Almost a year later, the FSF announced Geoffrey Knauth, a long-time board member and friend of Stallman, would be its next president. The announcement offers a new start to the organization, and perhaps a chance to reestablish its leadership in the community. However, several months later, Knauth specifically and the Foundation in general remains mostly quiet.

LibreOffice vs. Apache OpenOffice: The Battle Continues

LibreOffice might well be the most common application on the Linux desktop. No other free office suite comes close to offering its feature sets. Just as importantly, with this year's 7.0 release, it can claim to be the most feature-rich office productivity suite on any platform.

However, LibreOffice forked from its predecessor OpenOffice.org (now Apache OpenOffice) with considerable animosity on both sides. In 2020, on the 20th anniversary of the release of the shared code, The Document Foundation, which oversees LibreOffice, suggested an end to the feud. Each project could offer what the other could not: OpenOffice the name recognition, and LibreOffice the funds and developers. Sadly, the response on the Apache OpenOffice mailing list was uniformly hostile, so this pointless duplication of effort is going to continue.

The Fight Against Covid-19

With free software already in a strong position to wait out the pandemic, many projects are spending the pandemic looking for ways to assist in the crisis. Debian Med has been particularly active, holding an online "biohackathon" in the spring, and continuing to develop its biology and medical packages and to produce automated biomedical workflows using the Common Workflow Language. Countless others have experimented with using 3D printing to improve the availability of medical supplies. During 2020, academic projects for modeling like Nextstrain and CHIME also contributed to vaccine research. Moreover, Pfizer, the pharmaceutical that produced the first vaccine, released some of its code early in the pandemic – a move which probably contributed to the early arrival of the vaccines.

Most of these efforts have received little publicity. However, they are proof (if any is needed) that the spirit of volunteerism that launched the free software community remains both active and efficient.

The Future of Free Software

Free software seems to have held its own in 2020 – which is more than many organizations can say. Noticeably, the list of top ten page hits on Distrowatch remained almost unchanged, which suggests this last year was not a time for innovation.

A possibly more ominous note was struck in December by Hans Petter Jansson in his blog, "The Graying of GNOME," in which he tracks the origins of commits to GNOME over the years.

Jansson concludes that GNOME "has hundreds of experienced and first-time contributors every year. It is well-organized and arguably well-funded compared to its peers." However, he also concludes that the project's commits peaked around 2010. Currently, fewer and fewer veterans do most of the work, and are not being replaced by newcomers. He adds that, while corporate sponsorship is probably required, the number of sponsors is thinning.

Of course, in a year like 2020, just survival is an accomplishment.

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