Software Freedom Day: Freedom, Control and Responsibility


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Sep 15, 2012 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Today is Software Freedom Day, and as part of that I would like to discuss what Software Freedom means to me, and to talk about one of its greatest defenders, Richard M. Stallman.

Recently Richard has come under “discussion” about his remarks regarding Valve putting their games onto, ah GNU/Linux. Richard seemed less than ecstatic about it. His concern was that closed-source games coming onto Linux would reduce the drive to create games based on Free Software.  I understand Richard's concern, but I do not share it.

I have known Richard for more than a quarter of a century. I first met him when I was working at Digital Equipment Corporation, and he was still at MIT. By this time he had started the GNU project and various tools were being created by the project, including Emacs and the beginning of the compiler suite.

Digital had just brought out Ultrix, a binary version of the 4.1c Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) that ran on the VAX architecture.

Now when you first bring out a new OS, or a new hardware architecture, or both, there is a lack of applications for it. This was especially true in the time before fast emulators or fast virtual machines, where applications would be run without being ported (or at least compiled).

Someone in upper management decided it would be good to give Richard a VAX with Ultrix on it so he could port his applications to it.

A salesperson from Digital went to MIT to arrange this Loan of Products (as is was known), but Richard refused to sign the Loan of Products form because the agreement said that he could not copy the software that was on the machine to another machine and he was supposed to prevent other people from copying the software. He pointed out that he had no inclination to copy the software, since it was of no interest to him, but he would not sign the paper saying he would block others from copying it because it went against his principles.

Our salesperson tried desperately to have this paper changed, but it was a stock legal agreement and the Digital lawyers looked suspiciously on anyone that would not sign it.

Eventually she got the wording changed and rammed through Digital's legal department so Richard felt comfortable signing the form, and I took the machine (a MicroVAX I, if I remember right) down to MIT.

That is when I met Richard briefly, and for the first time, probably around 1986.

Now at that time I had been using the equivalent of “Open Source” or “Public Domain” software my whole life. It started when I was a student in 1969 through organizations like DECUS and SHARE, through programs published in magazines, and through the fact that I either worked for companies so big they demanded the source code for the software they used (Aetna Life and Casualty), or they developed most of their own software (Bell Labs and Digital), so I mostly worked with software that included accesses to the sources.

Richard, however, had gone from a time when much software was distributed in source code to a time when more and more software was delivered as a binary blob, including Ultrix. He saw software progressing into the mode of a fixed, closed-source business, and it bothered him.

Most of the world at that time had never really used a computer...they were too expensive. But with the advent of the Apple II and the “IBM Personal Computer”, computer stores started to flourish with their binary applications wrapped in shrink-wrapped plastic.

To be fair, the cost of an application such as a commercial compiler dropped from 100,000 dollars a copy to fifty dollars or less due to mass production and marketing.

In May of 1994 I met Linus and the (GNU) Linux operating system for the first time at DECUS in New Orleans, Louisiana. I knew about the *BSDs, but they were still hampered by a lawsuit war between BSDI and AT&T. Here was this nice young man from (of all places) Helsinki, Finland who had this (almost) cult following who would yell “Linux...Linux”. In addition there were several distributions of this software that ran really well on a cheap, miserable, crappy Intel PC platform. [Note to my friends at Intel, I say this with tongue in cheek, but you have to admit that in those days new Intel chips were designed on VAX processors.]

I understood at the time that this software I was seeing was not just the work of Linus or even Linus and the kernel developers, but also consisted of software from the Free Software Foundation....but I also saw it used software from BSD (vim, sendmail, etc.) and MIT (X Window System, Kerberos) and others. And everyone was calling it “Linux”.

Now I was not into “Freedom” for software in those days. I was into “commercial value”, and I could see the commercial value of having this software on the Alpha processor. First of all, a 64-bit machine (Intel was 32-bit in those days) and secondly a RISC processor (to get the “Intelism” shortcuts out of the code) would be good for both Digital's business and as a research tool for 64-bit systems in general. That was what inspired me to get Linus the Alpha processor. Not an issue of “Freedom” at all.

Then I had Digital join “Linux International” (LI), an already existing group of small companies...a brainstorm of Patrick D'Cruze, an Australian, and (at that time) under the command of Alan Fedder, the President of Uniforum, a commercial forum for Unix-based companies.

Patrick had seen a lot of Local User Groups (LUGs) and technical bodies start to show up, but he had seen no organization addressing the needs of the commercial community, and the commercial parts of Linux (which is what he, and everyone else at the time, was calling the operating system).

Digital's membership fee at that time to Linux International was 1000 dollars, and amount so low that I remember my boss laughing as he wrote the check.

Shortly after that Alan resigned, and I took the helm. But LI's focus was still on commercial aspects, not “Freedom”.

With that LI:

  • Defended the Linux Trademark when it was under attack, had it assigned to Linus and developed a set of procedures for people to use the term “Linux” in their names today. This continues to be maintained by the Linux Foundation.
  • Helped to start the Linux Standard Base Project (an idea brought forward by Bruce Perens), which also continues to do work today under the Linux Foundation.
  • Helped to finance and start the Linux Professional Institute (today a non-profit aimed at certifying Linux Professionals, allowing them to choose their method of training, and creating a pool of Linux talent for commercial use)
  • Helped to market Free and Open Source Software to the world

Still, no focus on Software Freedom as Richard sees it. We practiced a fairly pragmatic approach to producing software.

Then came the whole issue of “Open Source”. As Executive Director of Linux International I was on the call between various people who wanted to get around the fact that most people thought “Free Software” simply meant “Gratis Software” and this was creating problems in the commercial realm. I admit to being in the bathroom when the term “Open Source” was selected, and I was never happy with that term, but I went along with it.

After a while the “GNU/Linux” issue came up, and I began to recognize that “Linux” followers had indeed slighted all of the other people who had contributed software. However, from a commercial standpoint the Linux “brand” was very strong, and many companies had already trademarked brands and names that included the word “Linux”, not “GNU/Linux”. And there was the issue of the BSD, MIT, other university software and other software packages in general that went into a “Linux” distribution that were also not covered under the broader umbrella of “GNU/Linux”.

Nevertheless many people (including myself) started going through our slides to make sure that we mentioned the FSF, GNU and Richard, making sure that as many people as possible get credit for what they have done.

But we are still not taking about Freedom, are we? I am just explaining where I and a whole lot of other people came from in this long strange trip....

Several years ago I was at a meeting when I heard Richard speak again. I had heard him many times talking about “Free Software”, but something was different this time.

Perhaps I was musing over some customers I used to have, who would have benefited from having the freedom to change their software, or perhaps I was thinking about how much value people could get in a solution (this is business-speak) that value-added-resellers could offer if they could just change the application.

Perhaps I was wondering why IBM would sell off their desktop and laptop division to Lenovo, then buy Price Waterhouse-Cooper, and in the same breath invest a billion dollars into “Open Source”.

And then it came to me....from a business standpoint it is not Freedom, but Control.

“Freedom” is so hard for some people to understand today, particularly in the United States. If you have never seen slavery or never had Freedom, it is hard to really comprehend how horrible is the lack of Freedom.

But “Control” is something that business people understand. To control how many systems you can put the software on, to control when you update it, how many users can use it, and whether you can extend it to meet your needs and not have to wait for a large company to change it for you.

Business people and governments often develop a project that has to meet certain time constraints. Every time you lose control of some aspect of that project's development, you put that project's timely completion at risk. This is what business people know and understand.

Control is what is afforded to a an “emerging economy” when they are struggling to raise the money to pay USA programming rates when they could easily take the source code of their program to a local college student and get them to change it for a six-pack of beer....assuming it was “Free Software”.

Companies used to look for second sources of critical components because they wanted to make sure that they would not be at the mercy of a single source. They seem to forget that business practice when it comes to software...therefore they lose control.

In the early days of software, when computers were few and software was typically written from scratch, companies could work with individual customers to fix the problems they had and make the extensions they needed.

In the days of mass produced software, the number of customers of most “software as a product” companies make this impossible, and even more impossible if you want to be profitable. The only customers that get this type of service are the REALLY large ones, and most of the business of the world is done by small to medium business, who can not get the attention of the large software companies. Trust me, I have the experience to know this.

This is what IBM recognized, and although they produced a lot of their own software, they relied on other closed-source packages to deliver solutions to their customers. Free Software allowed them to deliver better solutions of a higher value (and more profit).

Richard believes that “sharing software” is fun, and it is the “morally” right thing to do. I believe it is the commercially right thing to do.

I am not “pure”. I try to use Free Software whenever I can, and I try to convince others to do that too, but if I need to do a job and there is no Free Software, then I will use something closed source. Fortunately for me, using closed-source becomes less necessary every day, so I have more Freedom.

To me, Freedom is a continuum.... a path.. and I am on that path.

I think of Richard as “the rock”. I think of him as so far to the left, with his arm wrapped around a big tree, that he could pull Ronald Regan (a conservative president of the United States) into the middle, and Ronald Regan is dead! If Richard was to take one step away from that tree, he might be pulled into the middle....he might compromise on his great quest.

I still do not agree with everything that Richard says....and I am relatively sure that he does not agree with everything that I say. But we both want the same thing in the end...good quality software, with the source code freely available, and the ability of people to make a good living while creating this software.

So on this day, if you have not yet done so, seek out your Software Freedom Day celebration, and remember that with Freedom comes control, and with control comes responsibility.

Carpe Diem.

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