What Happened to the Vision in Open Source?

Tuesday Mar 18th 2014 by Bruce Byfield

Pragmatism seems to have replaced idealism in open source. Has corporate success ruined this once utopian branch of software development?

Last week, I was writing about MediaGoblin when I was struck by a sudden realization: the project was not about code for its own sake. Instead it was about the sort of vision that seems to be disappearing recently from free and open source software (FOSS).

What makes MediaGoblin stand out is not just the idea of an all-in-one file-sharer, as convenient as that might be. Rather, the code is an explicit critique of centralized web services like Instagram, which require users to communicate through a single web site rather than directly with each other. As events of the past few years have proved, such centralization threatens privacy and makes surveillance all too easy.

In place of this model, MediaGoblin proposes federation -- a collection of individual but inter-connected sites. The federation model promises both that technical problems on one site will not bring down the entire network, but that surveillance will become much more difficult, especially when encryption is added.

It's a bold vision, and doesn't even mention profit. Fifteen years ago, it would had FOSS supporters cheering loudly. Today, MediaGoblin hardly rates a mention.

The same is true of the KDE-based MakePlayLive co-operative. The project is a union of community-based development and commercial company. Its first product, the Improv engineering board, is intended to vastly reduce the time to market, and the co-operative itself is seen as the first step in giving free-licensed hardware some influence among hardware manufacturers, allowing it to be at least a small player in the industry.

Yet, like MediaGoblin, MakePlayLive remains next to unknown. Both display the sort of cocky optimism that made FOSS the high-tech force it is today. Yet both are generally overlooked. You might almost think that vision is yesterday's fad, and was long ago replaced by a pragmatic, I'm-all-right-Jack attitude that regards such idealism as something tacky and faintly embarrassing.

In the perpetual absence of hard data, I can think of at least three reasons for these circumstances: the rise of crowd-funding, the decline of the Free Software Foundation, and, most important of all, FOSS' increased popularity.

Missing the Forests for the Trees

What happened to the vision in open source?

First, grand schemes have been replaced by little ones, thanks to the rise of crowdfunding. In supporting all the campaigns in play at any one time, perhaps the FOSS community has become jaded and short-sighted. Faced with thousands of dreams, seeing the importance of bigger dreams has perhaps become harder. In the crowd of dreams that need support, one no doubt seems much like the other.

To make matters worse, most of the crowdfunding campaigns are highly personal ones. "Help me finish my movie, my book" is the general request. "Help me make a living writing code for cool stuff." What you hear far less often is, "Help me finish this project for the greater good."

Don't get me wrong - I appreciate the rise of crowdfunding, and I am a frequent contributor to causes that catch my imagination. Unquestionably, the concept has encouraged thousands to try to live out their dreams, and the creative return has been rich.

All the same, I can see how, amid so many worthy causes, larger scale ones look less important than they are, and how causes that go beyond the personal might be hard to see as anything special. After the first half dozen causes or so, many people lose the ability to distinguish one from the other, much less rate their importance.

Losing the Message

In the past, of course, we had the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to remind us of the big picture. Although you might not agree that the point of FOSS was to allow average users to take control of their computing, neither could you ignore it. The message was clear, and the FSF repeated it often enough that everyone was aware of it.

However, in recent years, the FSF has become weaker in this role. Too often, its leaders continue to offer the same message they have always offered, without any updates. The implications of the cloud and of major form factors like phones and tablets with their app stores have received insufficient attention, which makes the FSF appear less relevant in precisely the areas of high tech that are growing most rapidly.

This decline dates from the writing of the third version of the GNU General Public License in 2007, in which the FSF decided to press ahead by itself instead of working harder for consensus.

In retrospect, that was the moment when open source, with its emphasis on writing quality software, began to be more influential than free software with its advocacy of human rights.

Since then, the vision of the greater good that had always driven free software became muted in favor of the pragmatism of open source. The distinction between free software and open source has never been as great as both sides have generally claimed, but as a matter of emphasis the difference remains clear. Increasingly, the long-term idealism that allowed FOSS to survive for its first two decades has been replaced in the last seven years by a business-as-usual approach.

You can see this change very clearly in the birthday greetings for FSF founder Richard Stallman over the last few days. Almost all of them refer to him as a man of vision while making clear that the speakers didn't always agree with them. They were worded in terms of past accomplishments, not present ones, and many sounded distinctively nostalgic.

Going Corporate

The FOSS community used to joke about its goal being world domination. Today, no one makes those jokes. As the Linux Foundation never tires of reminding us, Linux is everywhere. If world domination has not been reached, in many niches, a working approximation is now in sight.

I welcome this success as much as anyone. However, a successful movement has less need of vision than a struggling one. It tends to be too busy for the long term -- a yearly quarter or three at the most -- to be concerned with direction. In two words, it has gone corporate.

Today, such vision as FOSS has tends to be of greater success, not of radically altering the way that business is done.

Rather than focusing on the dangers of centralized media services, the community becomes concerned about whether Steam's involvement can make Linux a popular gaming platform. Rather than trying to make free-licensed hardware an option found in every computer store, it wonders whether Ubuntu can make itself the operating system of choice -- or, failing that, can become a player in the saturated phone market for more than a season or two.

Such goals are often conflated with more visionary ones. For example, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu and Canonical Software, consistently talks as though his projects are the last, best chance for the community to realize its long-term goals, when his priorities seem to be more about his personal success. Most of the time, though, the distinction between ambition and vision remains clear -- and so does the fact that today is marked more by ambition than FOSS' traditional vision.

If Memories Were All I Sang

Nothing is wrong with commercial success, of course. You might even say that vision was appropriate for the early days of the FOSS movement, and pragmatism for today.

Maybe -- yet I find myself lamenting the loss of vision all the same. Commercial success may be all very well, but it is also boring unless you happen to have invested stock.

For me, as well as many others, FOSS has always had a bit of extra spice because it was exploring alternatives and looking for different ways of doing things. It could do non-profitable things like developing office suites for almost-extinguished languages precisely because it had other priorities than financial success.

Without that extra spice, involvement hardly seems worthwhile. If I simply want to cheer an operating system, I might as well start using OS X as Ubuntu. One would be as bland as the other, because, the truth is, I have no great enthusiasm for cheering either one purely for technical or design reasons.

That is why projects like MediaGoblin and MakePlayLive are so arresting when I stumble across them. Whether their goals can be realized might be debatable, but the fact they have them at all indicate that, despite the current mood, FOSS is still not entirely about balance sheets and units sold. It tells me that parts of the community are still motivated by making things better -- and that it's still a little early to be giving up on FOSS' future.

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