Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Has Open Source Become a Buzz Phrase?

I remember going to meetings and walking out again thinking "Bingo". Why? I'd be in these meetings listening to buzzwords and buzz phrases. There was actually very little content - anything of substance - to these meetings. It was possible to play a game of "buzzword bingo" although, if you can only announce that you've got bingo at the end of the meeting, the game becomes pointless. Because EVERYONE would have won by then.

I would perk up when I used to hear the term "Open Source". Companies weren't advertising the fact that they were using open source products and so to hear the term was brilliant! This is around the same time that a document crossed my desk saying that we should avoid "Shareware" and "Freeware". This document came with a copy of the GPL (General Public License). Scariness personified and a sentiment that did not match reality. The reality was that a lot of back end stuff was running under open source software. Some of the product development parts of the business were also using open source tools such as 'R'. As far as I know, the document was largely ignored.

Hell, New Zealanders have contributed a lot to open source software. Mahara, e-portfolio software, was developed here. Silverstripe, a content management system, was used by the American Democrats for their national convention website. Koha, an integrated library management system, was also developed here (though there is some dispute brewing around the use of the word "Koha". This is a conflict of commercialism and community).

A few years ago I had an Internet router. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it ran Linux (busybox). It had a problem where a delay was set just low enough to cause me problems. It would try to reconnect 3 times and then wouldn't do anything else. You couldn't get it to try again afterwards. It was essentially a brick. It would work but if it became disconnected, there was a very good chance that you'd never get the damn thing on again without resetting it.

But it's running free software! I can just get in there, change a couple of values and everything will just work! No such luck. I couldn't make any permanent changes. In fact, most of the configuration was hidden. I asked the company about the source code. They were quite happy to supply it with a $30 distribution fee (it takes that amount to send a couple of files over the Internet?). Oh, and it still wouldn't allow me access to the inner workings of the router. i.e. I could have the source code. I couldn't put anything modified on there.

This is known as "Tivoization" - something that the GPL v3.0 tried to address. Has this helped? Well... it probably would have if it weren't for the fact that some people had objections to the GPL 3. Linux (I'm talking about the kernel here), for example, is still under GPL 2.

Apple's OS X, and iOS, is still opensource. The opensource bits are downloadable as "PureDarwin". It doesn't include any of the GUI bits and instead, Free software fills the gap with windows managers and the like. Does it make either OS X or iOS platforms any more Free?

The question is, does open source inherently make something more Free? This is the question I was missing a few years ago. That router - essentially useless though I did end up finding some horribly patchy way of making it work (sort of). My phone? Runs Android and yet the vendor does not support updating on Linux (or Mac OSX for that matter). My mother owns a TomTom device (Sued by Microsoft a few years ago over a frivolous patent involving Linux). It's based on a Linux infrastructure and it's update facility is built on top of a Mozilla framework that was made to be run on multiple platforms, yet TomTom will not support Linux based systems.

I used to think that Richard Stallman was a bit of an extremist. That the distinction between Open Source and Free software was all just semantics. But as time has gone on, I've come to realise that there are some really important implications to the term Free. The open source part of "FLOSS" (Free/Libre/Open Source software) doesn't cover the bits that actually matter to me. It's not just about being able to see the source code, but also, to be able to run the code. Otherwise, what's the point?


As more and more companies embrace an open source model, it's becoming more and more apparent just how many holes there are (and why the GPL 3 is such a good thing) in the GPL 2 and the term "open source".

The problem though, open source has a relatively low point of entry. It just takes a bit of sharing. To be told that you're not Free - that you don't actually own the shiny, unibody, aluminium device you're holding only gets people's backs up. Capitalism doesn't really account for abstract ideas such as Freedom either - another barrier. Though the argument can be made that the Freedom to customize a piece of software to a business' operations is a HUGE benefit (rather than the normal pattern of making a business work to a piece of software).

So has Open Source become a buzz phrase? Well... no. It has meaning. It's what it's lacking that really makes the difference.

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