30 June, 2010

Being Free - why it matters

Hi all,

Ok, so the blogs about being free are done (last one) - I just want to add a few thoughts here before I throw myself on the blog about my earlier LinuxTag Flames. FYI this will probably be more controversial than that one, so brace yourself (or don't read if you don't like honest yet strong opinions).

This is related to some discussions on the web about the FSF, the FSFE, and pragmatism vs idealism. And prompted by Ben Martin's blog about Meritocracy.

Let me tell you my point up front: those who see a difference between pragmatism and idealism in FOSS are wrong.

Read on to figure out why I say that...

Basic assumption
We want as much Free Software as possible, right? Let's first look at why we want that:

  • Because it is better for Freedom. "In a world where speech depends on software, Free Speech depends on Free Software." (Donald B. Marti Jr). Need I say more?

  • It helps companies to be independent of a few large businesses, it is better for the economy. FOSS promotes a free market where everyone can choose from a series of vendors.

  • It's good for second- and third world countries because they don't have to waste dollars on big US or European companies and they can learn from the code.

And I'm sure there are more reasons. So, our goal should be simple: spread as much Free Software as possible, and educate people about it. Firefox does great in this regard (at least as much as can be expected) by showing the why on their site and in the browser when you start it for the first time. Oh, and they do it this way: FIRST get them the software (free as in free beer), then try to educate them. Firefox has been very instrumental in me explaining what I do for KDE to completely IT ignorant people. I say, I am part of KDE. It's an international blablabla doing FOSS. FOSS? Yes, ever heard of open source, linux? Nope. Firefox? Yes, I know $friend using it. Ok, so that's developed by volunteers in their free time. They do that because they believe it helps make this world better. blablabla. Thank you Firefox!

Idealism vs Pragmatism

So where is this idealism vs pragmatism? Well, some people apparently dislike Ubuntu because it makes it easy to get non-free codecs. Or dislike openSUSE because it ships binary firmware. Or firefox because they make money thanks to Google. Well, screw that. Sure we must try to get such things to be opened up, but what end user is interested in those niche 'pure FOSS' distro's which barely run anywhere, can't play mp3's or can't visit Facebook, gmail and other popular sites?

Others are against making money with FOSS. Doesn't get any sillier. I'd rather have Novell make a deal with MS, letting our 'friends' from Redmond distribute SUSE licenses, than not have these customers at all. Sure such a deal has disadvantages and I don't know enough about the details to properly argue about it, but the basic principle I have no problem with. And there are plenty more examples more or less like this. Google's deal with Firefox. Ubuntu One. Darn, if BP sponsored me to do marketing for a year, fine, as long as they don't expect me to say to the world I think they're doing great in the Mexican Gulf ;-)

Idealism is going for the BIG WIN. Pragmatism is how you do it. They're two sides of the same coin. That's what I think.

It's about the world, stupid

I want *the world* to use Free Software, not 1% geeks. Commercial parties can play a huge role here, and I'm happy to let them experiment, stumble and fall, get back up and *spread the darn software* in the process. Because I believe in the end, it will work out. Take dual licensing. Is it evil? Hell no, in the end it turns out the 'free' version becomes so much better the model doesn't even work anymore... See MySQL, for example. In the end, money goes into improving Free Software, and the FOSS model ensures domination ;-)

Let me put one thing straight: I'm perfectly fine with those who hack on FOSS because IT IS FUN and don't care much about anything else. Power to you. I'm argueing with those who say they want everyone to be free and use FOSS but at the same time restrict people in what they can do!


So pragmatism vs idealism is wrong. You need pragmatism if you want your ideal world, and by only idealism you get - fairly litte. And the FSF has done plenty of pragmatic things, which is why they made a huge difference. The reason I mentioned them is that lately, some actions seem a bit too extreme to me... But there are ppl out there in 'our world' who are FAR more extreme, and hindering FOSS adoption that way. Either by opposing things, stopping others who're doing great, or just being negative and thus giving a bad impression to the outside world.

I admit, I might have went a bit over the top in the text above and there are probably plenty arguments to explain why some examples were wrong. And I admit, there are things you shouldn't be doing, there are boundaries. But in the end, it boils down to: do you want to spread Free Software everywhere, or are you just focusing on your own narrow group of fellow hackers?

I go for world domination. I want the vast majority of people on this planet to use Free Software, knowingly or not. What about you?


  1. I have to disagree with the notion that pragmatism vs. idealism is wrong. I agree that there is no absolute dichotomy, and that some pragmatism is necessary to advance the spread of ideas. But there are limits. Sometimes under the banner of pragmatism we compromise, water down, adapt, or sometimes completely give up some of our ideas. The risk is always there, and I do not want world domination by free software if, along the way, we have lost the key features that make free software something I believe in. Of course, a new discussion about what these key features are and where the limits should be begins here, but that is another matter...

  2. My viewpoint has evolved. When I first tried linux (fedora) I didn't like that my mp3s didn't work and if I hadn't found another distro where they did then maybe I'd have given up. However, now I'd rather make my own choices about non-free software and have none, even drivers, installed by default.

    Re Novell and MS - I agree that getting MS to dsitribute SUSE is great. My problem was with the patent FUD MS managed to wring out of that and the license chicanery on Novell's part. Perhaps Novell were in too weak a position at the time, but Red Hat managed to get an interop agreement and mutual certification with MS without any of the BS

  3. So let me say what I'm saying in a different way, cuz I was thinking about it in the train back home ;-)

    An idealist has a great idea but won't ever get there
    A pragmatist is like an unguided missile - does a lot of stuff but it has little meaning.
    A pragmatic idealist (or idealistic pragmatist) is someone who can change the world.

    So that's how I think about pragmatism and idealism.

    And Oriol, you're right - we should certainly be careful not to water things down too much. It is, in the end, about balance.

    Re stu: The exact thing happened to me. I came because of the great software, I started to contribute out of curiosity and I stayed because I believe in Freedom. It's simply the right thing to do...

  4. I think you are being rather too black and white, summed up in your "pragmatist idealist" comment.

    I am an idealist. Certainly accommodations can be made, and although I am a firm supporter of FLOSS, I have no problem with people getting paid.

    At the same time, it can be soooo easy to make bad accommodations. But if you aren't very very careful, accommodations can lead to the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. FLOSS or FOSS or OSS... didn't software pretty much all start as OSS? And aren't the really big corporate entities responsible for closed source?

    Why was it even necessary to start a Free Libre Open Source movement? Working with corporate giants is one thing, allowing them to make the rules is something else again.


Say something smart and be polite please!