October 2, 2008

FSF high priority list becomes a campaign, seeks donations

Author: Bruce Byfield

After marking the GNU Project's 25th anniversary with an endorsement by Stephen Fry and the relicensing of OpenGL, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) is concluding the month-long celebration by relaunching its high priority list, which enumerates as-yet unwritten or incomplete software needed to run a completely free computer system. Instead of being simply a page on the FSF's Web site, the list will become a campaign, and be actively promoted and discussed, and given a new emphasis in the Foundation's activities.

FSF will now make a greater effort to promote the list in its blogs and public appearances and statements. The relaunch, says FSF campaign manager Joshua Gay, "is really about integrating [the list] into our work. It's really a case of engaging the public and the media as often as we can."

The new campaign will be seeded with $10,000 donated by Russell Ossendryver, the owner of WorldLabel.com. Ossendryver, a long-time free software advocate, is known for his blog entries on the OOXML-ODF standards controversy in the last couple of years. Two years ago, he also funded a template contest for OpenOffice.org.

The fund begun with Ossendryver's donation will not be used to pay developers directly, he says, but will be used for general promotion, and, perhaps, such activities as developer sprints. Documentation and artwork might also be funded if needed.

Other companies and individuals can pledge donations on a new page on the FSF site.

Ossendryver says, "I'm optimistic that the reboot of the high priority list will start a conversation and aid the development of software required by the free and open source community. I feel it is especially important for the community to work on our own technologies, especially in cases where we need to bridge the gap with proprietary software."

The politics of priorities

According to executive director Peter Brown, the FSF has been planning to give the high priority list greater emphasis since the start of this year, but it held back because of the discussions with SGI about relicensing OpenGL. "We were concerned that, if we were to announce the high priority list, it would bring more attention to the SGI code, so it seemed sensible for the sake of negotiations to postpone the relaunch of the list," Brown says.

While the list includes software gaps that affect everyone, such as 3-D video drivers or the completion of Gnash, the free Flash replacement, Brown explains that "sometimes things on this list do have a political nature to them." For example, the FSF added GNU PDF to the list last spring while the project was seeking funding, and later removed it after it obtained it.

Similarly, GNU Octave, a project to replace Matlab, a numerical computation system widely used in academic research, has been added to the list not because it is likely to be on every user's desktop, but because the FSF considers researchers an audience that is likely to be sympathetic to free software goals.

In the same way, the FSF is calling for software that will allow nonprofit organizations to manage their affairs, including programs to help to manage their contacts and fund-raising. "Once we have that," Brown says, "it will make it easier for them to be on a complete GNU/Linux infrastructure, where many of them want to be, because people are starting to become aware that free software is an idea that is allied with many nonprofits and their mission. I think that nonprofits can be a good accelerator for free software."

Still other items, such as Xiph, are being removed, says Gay, because free media formats and software are already well advanced, and the effort of encouraging more people to use them can more easily be coordinated through the FSF's Play Ogg campaign.

In other situations, the exact item is important. For example, one of the just-added items is a VoIP client. "It's important that we don't just encourage people to develop a free Skype client," Gay explains, "because that would be encouraging other people on a call to use Skype." Not only is Skype proprietary (although free for download), but its use raises issues of consumer privacy that are close to the FSF's concern for individuals to have control of their computing.

Being on the list can have a major affect on the resources available to a project. "Both Gnash and GNU PDF report that being on the list has been good for them so far as fund-raising is concerned," Brown says, "because what [being on the list] is telling fund-raisers is that there's a community here, that there's a need and a group of developers already working on the problem. We hope that other projects will see the list as a way to get funding and exposure."

Opening up a conversation

As part of the relaunch, the FSF has expanded the explanations of why each item is on the list, and is encouraging more discussion in the community about what should be on the list.

"We live with free software," Brown says, speaking as an FSF employee. "So we don't always hear about non-free software. It would be great to hear about non-free software that people are forced to use, so that we can add it to the list."

"We can really have a lot of talk about what should be on the list and what can come off it," Gay adds. "We expect more people to write in, that there will be some complaints about why this is on or that's not on. We might not always have great answers, other than, 'Thanks, we'll look into it,' but we'll keep the discussion thread going."

Even if a project does not make the list, discussing it may still bring it a certain amount of community attention. "This isn't really about the GNU Project," Brown says. "It's about projects across the free software world that are doing great work that we want to draw direct awareness to."

Refocusing on the final goal

While the high priority list may be subjective and frequently changing, Brown suggests that it can come to serve as an important statement of goals for the free software movement. "It's very easy to regress if you don't have stated goals," Brown says. "You need to get the community to see that there is an end point where all free software is free, and as Richard [Stallman] points out, where the idea that people would actually create proprietary software would seem preposterous.

"We've had 25 years of GNU, and I'm sitting in a modern office environment where all the software is free and we're installing a free BIOS in all our new desktop systems. So it's an encouraging, very satisfying point from which to look back and say, 'Yes, we've achieved a lot.' But the launch of the high priority list is a rededication and focus on the mission that we have and the work that is still being done. And perhaps more important than the bits of code that get written is the rededication of the community toward freeing ourselves from proprietary software."


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