April 14, 2004

Unite and conquer

Author: Evan Leibovitch

A recent commentary by Robin Miller regarding squabbling within the free software and open source communities was a useful wake-up call. This bickering is having a detrimental effect on our ability to confront those who are trying to convince policy and opinion makers against the use of free and open source software (FOSS). These challenges are neither severe nor insurmountable, but they do require the parties understand the differences between internal and external debate.

It's not my intention to quell debate; in fact the community thrives on it. Diversity of opinion is the source for much of our clear thinking, innovation, and best practices. However, the fact that our community is, by its nature, so open does not mask the need to differentiate the benefits of such internal debate from our obligation to confront our common adversaries. Let's not let the minor -- though real -- differences within the community make us forget that our common interests are far bigger than our differences.

First of all, let's not deny that there are no significant differing philosophies -- differing movements if you will -- between those who identify themselves as part of the "free software movement" and others who prefer the term "open source." Since both sides generally agree on what constitutes an acceptable software license, the differences in philosophy are generally over the role that proprietary software should be allowed to play. Free software advocates, equating proprietary distribution models with slavery, see the abolishment of such models as an ethical imperative. Open sourcers are more welcoming to hybrid approaches, seeing obvious social benefits for FOSS, but allowing that proprietary models can play a useful role, and that truly open "competition" between the models is not only tolerable but beneficial.

The debate between these two points of view can be healthy, but it's generally of no interest to an outsider looking at the larger issue of FOSS versus proprietary. Someone who is looking for the most basic information about why to dump a "closed" operating system in favour of FOSS cares little about whether the replacement is "Linux" or "GNU/Linux" or "Fred's Linux." The big-picture benefits of FOSS can easily be lost on people who continually get dragged into arguments on details. Sure, the details are important, but let's get some general consideration of and buy-in for FOSS before we take society to the next level. Constantly mixing the low-level debate with the high-level one simply alienates those whom we seek to convince.

As we confront the proprietary software vendors and their proxies who seek to maintain and create new anti-FOSS obstacles, we need to focus on what our audience needs to hear from us. The public cares less about our (quite real but relatively small in the big picture) internal diversity of points of view, and more about the rationale for why the status quo (proprietary power) is intolerable.

At very least, I'd like to suggest the use of the term FOSS when working with policy-makers. Yes, the term is clumsy and Robin has already poked fun at all the possible alternatives. However, use of this term indicates to the high-level decision makers that we can rise above the petty squabbling and truly make best use of our only real resources -- ourselves.

The fact remains that the status quo is a far cry from where either the free software or the open source movement would like society to be. As such, both groups have something to contribute, because they appeal to different aspects of humanity. Our mission is to overcome bias in favour of proprietary software on both logical and ethical grounds. As the mainstream is still composed of individuals, different messages will resonate with different targets. The supporters of each approach must spend more time advancing their positions and less time trying to marginalize other FOSS strategies. When we get to the point that the IT mainstream is engaged enough to participate in the internal debate, the various players will be ready. But we need to acknowledge that we're not there yet, and we need to stop acting as
if we are.

Evan Leibovitch is president of the Linux Professional Institute (LPI),
a non-profit organization committed to the development of professional
standards and ethics for the open source community.  LPI offers the premier professional certification program for the Linux
community worldwide.


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