Starting from nothing, the free software community has achieved the impossible, confounding all sorts of expectations. So why all the angst?
[Correction appended to end of article.]
Ever since I wrote "It's Time to Get Over Microsoft," people have demanded in blogs and emails how I could ignore the obvious threat that Microsoft represents to free software. Usually, I ask them to read the article more carefully, and note that it suggests that free software has grown strong enough to take care of itself. The fact that so many free software supporters persist in a negative identity -- that is, one defined by not being a Microsoft user -- frankly puzzles me when the community has so much to be proud of in its own right.
As a citizen of Canada, a country whose national identity is too often defined in terms of anti-Americanism, I'm all too familiar with the limitations of a negative identity. Admittedly, Microsoft bashers, just like Canadians who are hostile to the United States, are in little danger of losing their identities through the disappearance of the object of their hate, but other dangers remain.
With a negative identity, you tend to focus on whatever defines you so intensely that you overlook other things that are equally important, such as the fact that other monopolies, such as Adobe or the Recording Industry Association of America, are just as much a threat. Even more importantly, you are unable to see yourself or your accomplishments clearly. Self-knowledge and an integrated personality remain beyond your reach, because, instead of taking pride in your accomplishments, you are forever distracted by establishing what you are not, rather than on what you are.
That is why, aside from the occasional curse in the direction of Microsoft, I usually prefer to focus on what the free software community has accomplished.
Think about it: Starting from nothing, the free software community has achieved the impossible, confounding all sorts of expectations. In doing so, it has not only changed the way that business is done, but empowered millions, combining technological and social change in a way that has never been seen before. These accomplishments, I suggest, are long overdue for acknowledgement and celebration. We hear too much about hate, and not nearly enough about pride.
Doing the impossible
One of the aspects of the free software movement that has always impressed me is that it continually confounds expectations. When the mainstream first started hearing about free software in
the early 1990s, the conventional wisdom was that competition and profit drove innovation. The idea that cooperation and pride in exercising your ability could replace these incentives was Utopian, communistic, hippy-dippy, anti-American, naive -- anything except practical.
You still hear echoes of these attitudes today. The difference, though, is that while free software was the fringe movement fifteen years ago, now it's increasingly the detractors who are dismissed as unrealistic. Quietly ignoring all the explanations of why free software methods would never work, the community has patiently plugged away, doing what needed to be done. And, in the end, it has proved all the conventional wisdom wrong.
GNU/Linux will never scale, the critics said. Yet for years, the operating system has been a major player in servers, until today it is one of the main drivers of growth in that market. Releasing code makes for insecurity? Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find a security expert of any note who doesn't believe that free software is securer than proprietary code. Free software can't scale to larger applications? Today, programs like Apache are standard parts of the developer's tool kit. Free software can't be user-friendly? Handle quality assurance? Time and time again, the free software community has done what everybody said couldn't be done -- not by those methods, or with that idealism -- and, for the most part, done it superlatively well.
Admittedly, part of my interest in these accomplishments is a contrarian's delight in seeing what everybody knows debunked. But mostly it's a deep-seated appreciation for the independence and determination of those with the courage to succeed in their own way.
As in development, so in business. Less than a decade ago, cooperation between companies was limited largely to developers working on the definition of international standards. The idea that cooperation was sometimes as an appropriate a response to rivals as take-no-prisoners competition barely existed.
Now, not only do thousands of developers from rival companies interact daily in free software projects, but their managers meet to protect everyone's mutual investment in free software via The Linux Foundation, or to talk about free software procurement in Hewlett-Packard's FOSSBazaar. Meanwhile, CEOs are attending meetings organized by The Olliance Group to discuss the unique problems of being a company with an open source business model. What was unthinkable a decade ago is now commonplace -- and all because free software was too much of an advantage to ignore.
Who would have thought that new companies would stop selling software, and start selling services and extras instead? While open source business models were dismissed in much the same terms as free software itself, companies from Red Hat and SugarCRM through to IBM and Sun Microsystems now draw untold billions from them.
The same massive change has happened in customer relations, too. Not only has the Internet -- which was built by free software -- forced companies to develop two-way conversations with customers, but it was members of the free software community who first explained the implications of this new accessibility to the corporation in documents like The ClueTrain Manifesto. In much the same way, Web 2.0 technologies, although frequently falling short of free software idealism, are directly inspired by the philosophy and practices of free software.
The fact that some executives falsely imagine that they are the first to think of exploiting free software idealism, or that others water down its philosophy in concepts such as crowdsourcing or non-free online applications hardly matters. The point is that free software ideas have become the norm in business, particularly in IT, and thousands in business are now doing what would have been unthinkable not so long ago.
Social change and technology
All this influence is impressive in itself. Yet the greatest influence of free software lies elsewhere. Starting with the idea that free software was a necessary corollary of freedom of expression in a computerized society, the free software community has done more than any other group to publicize the social implications of technology, and to make its benefits accessible to all.
For average users, free software represents the opportunity to take control of their computing. Paradoxically, because no one owns free software, everyone has owners' rights in it. Instead of receiving a license to use software in a limited way, they can redistribute and modify it as they choose without any need for activation or concern about the legality of their actions.
Moreover, free software has introduced freedom of choice. Where Internet Explorer once monopolized the Web browser, Firefox now has a healthy and growing market share. Where MS Office was the only choice (or perhaps WordPerfect, if you could find it), OpenOffice.org has provided an alternative. Similarly, in the struggle against so-called Digital Rights Management, free software advocates have emerged as protectors of consumer rights.
For other users, free software has made the difference between having a computer and not having one. Being concerned with other things than profit, free software has become the choice for both poor citizens and cash-strapped governments and academic institutions. In developing nations, it is the only way that a technological infrastructure can be constructed. For minority language users, it is the only way to participate in modern technology in their own languages, instead of being forced to learn English. For endangered languages defenders, it is a way to preserve and restore pride and interest. And for people with disabilities, applications like the Orca screen reader offer access to computers without spending thousands of dollars.
Wherever you look, free software is addressing the interaction between society and technology. Moreover, it does not do so in a charity carefully calculated to result in the maximum of publicity, but quietly and with an emphasis on human dignity in which anyone involved should take satisfaction.
To anyone active in the free software community, this list of accomplishment may seem commonplace. But perhaps that is the trouble. When you deal with something everyday, you easily take it for granted, no matter how important it may be. For this reason, it's worth reminding ourselves now and then just how impressive the community's accomplishments actually are.
All of us -- even well-known figures like Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman -- only play small roles in this list of accomplishments. Yet, if you have even the slightest role, you can take pride in having assisted with something well-worth doing.
Personally, I'd like to see more of that pride and less badmouthing of Microsoft. In the end, I suspect that such pride will be more satisfying to you, and more attractive to others than a banal and outworn expression of hate.
This article was corrected from its original version. In the first version, the author referred to the beginnings of free software in the early 1990s. What he meant to write was "When the mainstream first started hearing about free software in the early 1990s." This sentence on the first page has been updated.
The correction was made at the request of Richard Stallman, who wrote a letter to the editor:
I agree fully with the point of your article that focusing on hatred
for Microsoft is missing the point (see
http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/microsoft.html), but the article errs
regarding when the Free Software Movement began. I announced in 1983
the plan to develop the free operating system GNU, and the development
started in 1984. The GNU/Linux system, which became available in
1992, represented almost a decade of work for the free software