Linux and the Second Goal

Wednesday Apr 20th 2016 by Bruce Byfield

Linux's most important goal isn't world domination.

Ask advocates what their goal is for Linux, and many will say, half-seriously and half-joking, "World domination." However, there is another goal that few seem interested in today -- the creation of a completely free operating system.

This second goal dates all the way back to the first descriptions of free software. In 1985 in "The GNU Manifesto," Richard Stallman wrote that, once a free operating system is written, "everyone will be able to obtain good system software free, just like air."

Looking back decades later, Stallman criticizes himself for confusing free-licenses with free costs, but this statement has always seemed more powerful than the usual "free as beer." It suggests that free software is a natural right, which seems appropriate in the modern digital world.

After all, if a person does not have access to a computer and the Internet, their right of free speech is seriously curtailed. The same is true of a developing nation whose citizens have limited access to computers and dialup connections.

Increasingly, however, people seem surprised when I suggest that a completely free operating system is a goal. A few long-time workers in the field even question the assumption.

The result? While world domination seems well within reach, with Linux dominating technology and influencing everything from open source hardware to open access, the development of a free operating system seems stalled at 80-90% completion.

Hardware acceleration, for example, still frequently requires proprietary drivers. Basic productivity and graphics software exist, but specialist tools like optical character recognition have developed hardly at all in the last decade. Games have become available, but almost all of them are proprietary. On mobile devices, the Linux-derived Android dominates, but is often configured and released as though proprietary software.

It is as though, having come so far that the goal is in sight, users have relaxed and stopped worrying about the last 10-20%. Worst of all, almost no one seems concerned. In 2016, you are more likely to hear technical discussions about Linux and free software than you are about the philosophical and political goals.

Loss of direction

Partly, free software – Linux, open source – may be a victim of its own success. Having come so far, users who have lived their adult lives supporting free software are more apt to congratulate themselves than prepare themselves for the final sprint. What is available is good enough for everyday purposes, and suggestions are apt to sound obsessive and relics of the past. What currently exists is more than anyone expected, so why worry that it is less than perfect?

Few, I suspect, have deliberately taken this position. However, the first generation of advocates are now in their fifties and sixties, and no doubt many are thinking more of retirement than the last mile in their long marathon.

Others, although younger, have no doubt drifted into this position out of practicality. They have become accustomed to filling the gaps in free software with proprietary alternatives, and what was originally intended as a stopgap until free-licensed alternatives appeared has become the norm.

In other words, for many, hybrid systems of free and proprietary software has become the norm. Few bother any more to actively watch for replacements for their remaining proprietary software because the mixture of licenses they use is good enough from the point of view getting their everyday computing done.

Such complacency, no doubt, is aided by the fact the media concentrates on Linux and free software in business. The fact that free software has become big business means that journalists can discuss it in familiar ways, as though it were no different from proprietary software, in terms of sales and quarterly earnings, and the changes in features and technology.

In this atmosphere, the Linux Foundation, which represents dozens of businesses, receives far more attention than the latest comment from the Free Software Foundation.

Today, Microsoft's expanded use of free software has produced an entire genre of reporting about how the corporation has changed. Accompanying these stories is a related sub-genre that repeatedly explains how out of touch anyone is who still views Microsoft with suspicion.

The subtext of such developments and stories is that Linux and free software are no more than a business model and a sub-branch of technology -- which has aspects of the truth, but nothing like the whole story. Heard often enough, the claim is enough to make users overlook the fact that there is more to be said.

The truth is, Linux and free software have always been about more than technology. Part of that simple fact is remembered -- but chiefly the part about business, and how cooperation with rivals can be more efficient than perpetual competition.

What is increasingly overlooked is Linux and free software are also a form or technological activism, linking technology to consumers' rights, human rights, and social change.

Yet without this technological activism, what is the point? If Linux and free software may be superior technologies or development models, but if the goal of a free operating system is abandoned, much of their appeal is lost. Flaws and all, Windows is good enough for most users. Without the philosophical and political perspective of free software, by definition it ceases to be the cause to which so many have devoted their working lives.

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