Wanted: A Purpose for Open Source

Monday Jul 7th 2014 by Bruce Byfield

Open source has come a long way -- but has it lost its original purpose?

Free and open source software is a way of life for thousands of people. Yet, as we trudge the endless treadmill of release upon release, there's one question you don't hear much any more: where is open source heading? Or, perhaps, should it have a purpose at all?

Not too long ago, the answer to either question was obvious. The goal was to provide a free alternative to proprietary systems. But progress got stalled at a good-enough ninety percent or so, and looks likely to stay there for the foreseeable future.

Moreover, Google Docs and other online apps robbed the progress towards this goal of much of its urgency. Free software did equal and, in some cases, surpass the proprietary desktop -- but just in time for the traditional desktop to become less important than phones or tablets. True, some projects are determined to find a niche on phones or tablets, but the determination is far from universal or successful.

Another earlier goal, to become part of business, was accomplished long ago. As the Linux Foundation always likes to mention, everything these days runs on Linux. Although you can still find companies who resist the idea of open source, the idea that limited cooperation with rivals means quicker time to market has been proved too many times for any serious questioning. The result has even been changes in corporate cultures that, while far less sweeping than those proclaimed years ago in The ClueTrain Manifesto, are widespread enough that most people take them for granted.

The Free Software Foundation still talks about promoting user's freedoms, but, although it has a small band of adherents, most users apparently prefer convenience to principle. Nor, despite the FSF's best efforts, has anyone gathered enough resources to convince large numbers of people outside the tech-industry that their selection of software has some connection to their ideals.

These days, you don't even hear much about closing the digital divide, and helping the poor get online, or developing countries to build their infrastructure.

Don't get me wrong -- here and there, you can find groups still focused on all these goals. What seems missing is a sense of common purpose. At most, working with open source seems a way to feel vaguely good about your daily life or your involvement in business. All too often, being involved with open source has been reduced to a part of our feel-good mythologies about ourselves.

Choose, or Be Chosen

Nothing's wrong with an outlook that helps you get through the working week, even if it is a diminishment of former high ideals. You might even say that free software is a victim of its own partial successes. While many purposes have fallen away just short of their goals, maybe a little complacency is justified. Not only has so much been done in the last twenty years, but much of it has been accomplished despite endless critics crowing that it was impossible.

Still, the trouble with relaxing your purpose is that events have a way of replacing it. This sense of foreboding came across me one day last week when I realized that every second or third Linux post on my Google+ feed seemed to be gaming -- specifically about Valve Corporation and its efforts to make Linux into a gaming platform.

These efforts are exciting, no question. Games have been a weak point on Linux for years, and establishing it as a gaming platform might just convince more people to consider it for other purposes.

Sadly, though, this excitement comes just at a time when free-licensed games like Unknown Horizons or 0 A.D. are becoming playable. Instead of supporting these community-developed games, many people seem to be turning to the newly available proprietary games.

This preference might seem like the realization of the long-declared goal of world-domination, yet I have doubts that world domination is worth achieving if it only comes through proprietary applications. Nothing would be wrong with a healthy market for proprietary Linux games if free-licensed alternatives were also being promoted. However, as things are, I suspect that our purposes are being selected for us by a minority with more direction than anything the rest of us can muster. In the name of providing games with their daily quote of frags, Linux risks being reduced to the technical equivalent of a local football team with a cute mascot.

A few bright moments do exist. For instance, MakePlayLive is experimenting with moving the community-based project with business co-operatives. It seems to be struggling with a lack of capital as well as the usual difficulties of being a new company in the marketplace, but the idealism behind it is admirable. Yet even if MakePLayLive's goal of eventually winning a voice in hardware manufacturing doesn't appeal to you, there are probably other purposes that can capture your imagination.

The important thing is to choose -- before someone else chooses for us, and we find ourselves in a different position than we expected.

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