Nine Current Flame Wars in Open Source

Wednesday Feb 16th 2011 by Bruce Byfield

Want to pick an argument about Linux? You’ve got a lot of choices.

Whatever else you can say about the personal computer, the Internet, and social media, all of them have greatly increased our ability to argue with each other. In the last three decades, flame wars have become the norm, with some, like the Mac vs. Windows shouting match becoming part of popular culture long after the original distinctions ceased to be relevant.

However, no part of computing ignites flame wars like free and open source software (FOSS) and the Linux community. The intelligence and multiple interests of the community -- to say nothing of the frenetic pace of development compared to the rest of the IT world -- make disagreements inevitable, and the general outspokenness guarantees that many disagreements will run wild and become flame wars.

The number of flame wars at any one time is impossible to count. However, here are nine of the hottest arguments in FOSS at the moment:

1) Ubuntu vs. Everybody

As one (if not the) most popular and influential distributions, Ubuntu is a magnet for criticism -- some valid, some less so.

Ubuntu has been criticized as a freeloader on Debian, the kernel, or free software in general, and as an effort to make over Linux in Windows' or Apple's image. Even small development and distribution decisions, such as whether to include The GIMP in the default install or the positioning of title bar buttons have been attacked. Sometimes, Ubuntu cannot seem to do anything without attracting criticism.

The criticism is aggravated by the fact that, although Ubuntu often acts like a community distribution in day-to-day matters, major decisions are often made -- and unilaterally imposed -- by either its founder Mark Shuttleworth or his circle of advisors at Canonical. Often, too, Ubuntu's leaders are slow to respond to public opinion.

But whatever its sources or validity, the criticism of Ubuntu is a sign of its influence in FOSS. The criticism is probably not so much a sign of jealousy as an indication that what Ubuntu does matters.

2) GNOME vs. KDE

As the two most popular desktops for Linux, GNOME and KDE are natural rivals. Each has its own set of productivity applications and utilities, its own widget toolkit, and its own guidelines about how applications are supposed to look and operate.

However, some of the intensity seems to go back to the earliest days of free software, when KDE's Qt toolkit was not available under a free license, and the GNOME project was started as alternative.

The rivalry is mostly among users. Developers sometimes express it, but, these days, the two projects work to maintain common desktop standards to improve interoperability, and have even shared conference space. The rivalry may intensify when GNOME 3.0 is released, and users have the choice of two very differently designed desktops.

3) Mono, Pro and Con

Mono is a FOSS implementation of Microsoft's .NET Framework. Although MONO is FOSS in itself, Mono is dependent on resources that Microsoft has not released for general use, and many worry that it might become the basis for a patent infringement case. Supporters counter that Mono is a first rate development platform, and suggest that the current licenses on .NET resources are adequate guarantees for their safe use.

Ordinarily, such a geeky flame war would never attract popular interest. But the debate is especially bitter because of the widespread distrust of Microsoft in the FOSS community. To further complicate matters, Miguel de Icaza, the founder of Mono and its chief public representative, is outspoken even by FOSS standards, and many of the criticisms of Mono become personal attacks on him.

Currently, the debate is relatively quiet. However, the issue never quite goes away if you search the blogs, and is certain to flare up again. It always does.

4) The Cloud vs. Local Applications

Regardless of what operating system you use, cloud computing raises issues about privacy and accessibility. However, cloud applications also become less desirable when measured against FOSS.

To start with, both are free of cost and are always available. But, in addition, most cloud applications are proprietary software, and require users to trust the skill and integrity of those running the servers.

True, the Affero GNU General Public License does exist for cloud applications. However, it is not widely used, which is why Richard Stallman, the Free Software Foundation's founder and president, continues to warn routinely against it -- and, just as routinely, is attacked for this position.

5) Users and Developers

Twelve years ago, users and developers were almost completely synonymous in FOSS. Now, as the FOSS desktop has become more widely used, many users have no connection to development. Many do not even submit bug reports.

In the last three years, this situation has begun leading to user revolts. First seen with the release of KDE 4.0, user revolts also seem about to happen with the upcoming GNOME 3.0 and Ubuntu's Unity desktop.

Some of this reaction may be a conservative fear of something new. Yet users also complain about changes being made to interfaces that already satisfy them, and of developers not listening to them. For their part, developers often complain that users make hasty judgments and do not give new features time to mature.

The problem is made even worse by the fact that many FOSS developers are not accustomed to listen to users. The argument also complicates the problem for projects that wish to attract new developers, because adding a new feature is usually a far more satisfying piece of coding than making micro-changes to an existing application.

6) Full Vs. Quick Desktops

The most popular Linux desktops, like KDE and GNOME, have always tried to provide a complete range of applications for their users. This goal sometimes leads critics to dismiss them as "bloated," a term usually used for Windows or Microsoft Office, although both KDE and GNOME require considerably less RAM or hard drive space than Windows.

All the same, a smaller but definite movement towards emphasizing speed over completeness exists in open source. Some users, of course, have always preferred minimalist window managers for graphical interfaces. Increasingly, though, window managers like ICEWM and Fluxbox are being joined by smaller, quicker desktops like LXDE.

Other desktops, like Xfce, try to strike a balance between completeness and speed, although increasingly critics are pointing out that Xfce is less lightweight than it claims.

The same dichotomy exists among applications. For instance, many people prefer a light-weight word processor like AbiWord to a full-featured one like LibreOffice's or's Writer.

7) The Command Line vs. The Desktop

Traditionally, UNIX-like systems such as Linux were run from the command line. However, as distributions like Ubuntu have increased in popularity, the focus has rapidly shifted to the desktop. Now, command line users decry the desktop as over-simplified, while desktop users dismiss the command line as too arcane for task-oriented users.

The truth is more mixed. The command line takes longer to learn, but is the only interface that gives a complete set of options. By contrast, the desktop is usable almost instantly by anyone, but, because of its design philosophy, only offers the most commonly used options. These differences mean that, for advanced used, the command line is more efficient, but that, for beginners, the desktop is. Not that the virtues of either the command line or desktop are generally considered in context -- only as absolutes.

8) The Rise of Geek Feminism

Open source has always been dominated by men -- perhaps fifteen times more than computing in general. Over the years, various groups have been founded to change this focus, but it has only been in the last couple of years that the problem has been widely reported.

This documentation of the problem has created widespread denial. In its milder forms, the reaction ranges from claims that it doesn't matter to reluctance to admit that the community is less enlightened than most members like to believe. However, in its extreme form, the reaction is openly hostile, and includes declaration of male supremacy, threats, and hate mail.

To complicate matters, those criticized for sexism include community leaders who are often widely admired, including Richard Stallman and Mark Shuttleworth.

The issue may have reached a new level with last week's creation of The Ada Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging women's participation in FOSS.

9) Free software vs. Open Source

The Free software vs. Open Source debate is the flame war that never quite goes away – it’s the one that regularly splits the community down the middle.

When "open source" was first coined thirteen years ago, the intention was to popularize a more business-friendly term than "free software." However, today the division is between those who emphasize the philosophical and political implications of free licenses (free software) and those who emphasize the enhanced quality of software with free licenses (open source).

The division isn't always so clear, of course. The more thoughtful open source advocates hold that quality applications are a means towards the personal freedom emphasized by free software. In addition, free software supporters vary from those who will never use proprietary software to those who will only do so reluctantly until an alternative is available.

However, at times -- for example, during the debate over the third version of the GNU General Public License -- the two viewpoints can become so distinct that supporters on both sides seem to forget that they are allies, and closer in viewpoint to each other than anybody else.

Other Open Source Flame Wars

These aren't the only flame wars I could have mentioned -- not by any standard.

If I wanted to focus on operating systems, I might have mentioned Linux vs. Windows, or dredge up early history and talk about Linux vs. Minux (otherwise known as the Tannebaum-Torvalds debate, or the micro-kernel vs. macro-kernel debate).

Taking a geekier approach, I might talk about indent styles in code, or the editor war that pits Vi against Emacs, although that is mostly a source of jokes these days.

I could mention popular distributions being pitted against each like Fedora and Ubuntu, or browsers like Mozilla and Chrome, or licenses such as the GNU General Public License and BSD-style licenses. The choices are as endless as the arguments themselves, and no doubt will only increase in the future.

For example, now that Debian ships with a free kernel, other distributions may find themselves under increasing pressure to do the same.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw once described England and the United States as "two countries divided by a common language." You could say much the same thing about the FOSS community -- at times, it seems like hundreds of users and developers divided by a common selection of software.

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