OSS: the real point is software control

Ah, the morning aroma of a freshly brewed flame war… With our restless Matt Asay that sternly observes that in the free software/open source war, open source won and we are all the better for it. Of course, this joins the rack of those that consider Richard Stallman a relic of a passed era, or the thoughtful comments of my favourite thinker, Glyn Moody, or the pragmatic and reasoned views of  Matthew Aslett of the 451 group.

If there is one thing that emerges clearly from all these discussions, is that fundamentalism is wrong. It is wrong when it is spelled “OSS is better”, it is wrong when it claims “Microsoft is better” without any reasoning. Because rational thinking should be the basis of discussion, not religion. This is not to say that religion or moral motivations are bad- but beliefs should be recognised beforehand, to avoid turning any discussion into a flame war. That’s why I may feel at ease in criticizing Stallman for what I perceive as personal attacks, and at the same time recognize the fact that without him and the GPL the free software and open source world would be much less developed and relevant.

My perspective is simple: every user, developer, administrator that depends on software (and basically everyone does, today) should think before using a software or service, and understand who control it, and if this “who” is not the user, what can happen. It is not just a question of “religious beliefs” but practical thinking: is the software yours? Does the service you are using gives you the opportunity of moving somewhere else? What happens if the developers are not going in the direction you need?

If we consider this as the basis for discussion, lots of arguments in the OSS/FS camp become much simpler. The crusade against software patents is a way of defending the rights of use of the end-user against arbitrary legal attacks; in this sense, the only real reason for being not happy of having something like Mono is not the fact that it is a Microsoft “standard”, but the fact that it is probably covered by unknown patents. The same thing applies for Flash- most people is dependent from a single company for what amounts as a platform, still not replicated by OSS alternatives (like Gnash) and in any case potentially covered by patents not only by Adobe, but by many other companies as well. The “victory of pragmatism” that Matt proclaims is not actually related to FS and OSS (that are the same exact thing) but the general overcoming of emotional based arguments, that is absolutely a positive thing.

But the “new pragmatism” should also be viewed with suspicion, exactly as the claims that free software is “better” without reason. I will make the example of Mono: now it is pushed as a way to overcome what is equally proprietary, that is Flash. What happens when Microsoft stops promoting it? It is OSS, s0 it can theoretically go on forever, but very few will risk infringing patents with it, and so it will remain more or less limited to those shops already using .NET elsewhere (thus having paid for the right of use), limiting its growth potential. The scenario is not so unbelievable, after the unveiling of a real Silverlight port to Moblin, that makes Mono more or less redundant. Some “open core” systems suffer of the same problem: the user is forced, by the proprietary part, to abide to whatever decision is made by the vendor, independently of what OSS license the “open” part is licensed with.

The uncritical embracing of online services is similarly flawed: what happens if the company goes bankrupt, or discontinue the service? If you use EC2, you can always create your own infrastructure using Eucalyptus and continue your work. Can you say the same of all the services that are being promoted right now? Can you get a complete copy of your data, move it somewhere else?

Control is what really matters, on-premise and online. Who, how such control is performed, what it may affects. You may prefer the ethical angle (like Stallman did) or the economic angle (like I do) but the end result is the same, exactly like free software and open source are the same. The critical aspect is being able to assess this control and weight if the lack of control is compensated by the features you get (which is reasonable) or what kind of risk are you accepting in exchange. You like the integrated set of features proposed by Microsoft? That’s good as long as you know that some of the actions that they did in the past were not exactly transparent, and that your control of their offering is very limited. You like Google? Good! Just understand what happens if Gmail does not work. You prefer open source? Good! But with the increased control you get with it, you also get responsibility and increased effort.

Always ask yourself: it is your software, or not? Think about it, and don’t let the question disappear from your mind, because your business may depend on it.

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