Terminology Advocates Protect FOSS

Open Source Initiative (OSI) president, Michael Tiemann, discusses adherence to the “open source” definition. I read his article with two interests in mind. First, of someone who feels semantics are important (I’ve always felt the poor argument “it’s only semantics” is little more than an attempt by small-thinkers to belittle what they are unwilling to invest effort into understanding). Second, because I think the labeling of software as open source or free has a profound impact on the communities that have grown from those movements. Advocates are important.

I think it’s positive that Tiemann is moving to be more adamant in ensuring correct usage of the “open source” terminology. I often read commentary on web sites that belittle Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) because he publicly promotes accurate usage of the “free” terminology in reference to the different ideology espoused by the FSF from the OSI. But among whatever else his efforts at promoting accurate terminology do, I think they also benefit the user in the way a consumer advocate’s efforts do (or in this case maybe, a community advocate).

So why does open source need such terminology and definition advocates? FOSS communities have put in considerable amounts of labour not just in developing and distributing software, but also in the methodologies that ensure its viability and business practices. When portions of the community (including what we’d normally identify as the “consumer”) decide to use open source software on the recognized benefits it provides, they’re right to expect those benefits. Those benefits flow from the common recognition and identification of “open source” as specified in its definition.

The open source community includes vendors and customers. If the meaning of “open source” is lost to its participants, what sort of cohesion could it still command? I think that a company calling its non-open source software “open source” in order to capitalize on the market seeking such software betrays the confidence of its customers. As a customer, I would question my willingness to transact business with a company that has misled me. So from those two perspectives, major segments of the community are alienated. In other words mislabeling software as “open source” actively harms the participants demanding and supplying the market for open source in the first place.

Dissecting Proprietary Doublespeak–ISC Letter Criticism Part 2

Now to continue what I started yesterday–criticising the letter (PDF) from the Initiative for Software Choice‘s (ISC) Hugo Lueders. Why bother criticizing this? Is it of any consequence? I think so, if not because the letter itself may actually influence policy, but rather because this kind of thing is visible to many people and can spread opinions based on poor reasoning or misleading statements. I think it’s useful to debate such things openly and at least offer alternate lines of critical thought.

Really the last thing that I wanted to comment on was a point in the ISC letter, which discussed fiscal stimulus for R&D in relation to FLOSS/proprietary models and it went a little something like

“Government support that rewards the most innovative and appropriate technological solution without discrimination between different models/standards is the most effective way to stimulate innovation.”

At first glance this sounds fair. But in the context of FLOSS versus proprietary development models, I think sound policy requires deeper and more encompassing thought. From the proprietary perspective in which the statement originates, it neglects the issues involved insofar as who is rewarded and from whom does the reward money originate?

It is after all government support that is in question here so I suppose the money is the money of the people. In FLOSS development terms, any support of FLOSS projects, by default, is freely accessible by anyone and thus the possibility of continued, further innovation is guaranteed. In proprietary development terms this possibility is at best questionable. The government rewards would go into software development without guarantee that any further innovation stem from that development, nor that any part of the public (who’s money went into rewarding its development) would necessarily be able to gain access to the source code. How is that fair to the people funding these government innovation rewards? It’s not.

That’s all I was going to say on the issue. Except then I noticed in today’s news, Wendy Seltzer published an insightful analysis of Microsoft’s new Windows Vista license (oh model of proprietarians). She highlights seven points. To summarize:

Vista’s use is limited unless you agree to the vendor’s proprietary rules. The software checks up on you every now and then to make sure you’re still agreeing, and if you don’t continue playing by the vendor’s rules, it starts cutting off its own functionality. The vendor gets to revoke your rights to your media. You’re not allowed to fix bugs or develop work-arounds to certain problems you may encounter (this is an anti-innovation red flag if ever there was one). Even though you’ve paid for the software it has an artificially imposed life limitation for two instances of use.

This is the sort of example of what a proprietary vendor does. Does it sound like a license that promotes further innovation? It sounds to me like all it does is spread restrictions and limit users’ freedom. What’s worse is to think that anyone could argue this deserves consideration for public funds equal to the consideration given to FLOSS development. What shameful distortions you present, ISC.

Dissecting Proprietary Doublespeak–ISC Letter Criticism Part 1

What would we do if George Orwell hadn’t enabled us to come up with doublespeak neologisms? Matthew Broersma of Techworld.com wrote about a “leaked” letter (PDF) from the Initiative for Software Choice (ISC) regarding a UNU-MERIT study on FLOSS in the economy. Broersma describes the ISC as a “Microsoft-funded pressure group” which sounds like an appropriate description to me. Essentially the letter presents proprietarian interests as the software underdogs who will be cut from fair consideration in software purchasing and implementation choices. The reality is that FLOSS ecosystems are often a reaction to the unfair restrictions engendered by proprietary software. The ISC letter is a real piece of work. I’ll criticize it in the following.

In the interest of understanding what the letter was a reaction to, I tried to find a copy of the UNU-MERIT “Study on the Economic Impact of Open Source Software on Innovation and the Competitiveness of the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Sectors in the EU” but was not successful. I did however, find the university’s policy brief (PDF) on a similar subject (Open Source and Open Standards: A New Frontier for Economic Development?), which I suppose would present a consistent point-of-view. I only mention that because it offers a few good points that I’ll bring up.

The author of the ISC letter, Hugo Leuders, says early in his mucking about, that

“FLOSS is merely a business model for distributing software, just like many other software business models including hybrid and proprietary software.”

Why would he say this? Strategically this is fantastic. He’s set the stage for his doublespeak by wresting control of the issue and taking ownership of it by phrasing it for his own goal rather than the actual situation. The real issues of FLOSS (free/libre and open source software) are multifold. But initially the point is either one of the freedom to copy, modify, study, and distribute software, or one of the pragmatic benefits to this manner of development (depends on whether you’re considering the Free Software Foundation’s philosophy or the Open Source Initiative’s). No doubt there are business models centered around FLOSS, but as I just stated, the FLOSS philosophies themselves are not business models. So in reading Leuders’s letter, we have no choice but to kick him off the stage right away. It’s hard to blame him though, he tells you shortly thereafter why the ISC proprietarians are worried in reiterating the report’s results:

“…open source software has been actively adopted by European firms over the last two years so that by the end of 2005 the overall share of companies using such systems amounted to 40 percent… the report predicts that the annual expansion of FLOSS participants will be around 20 percent per annum.”

Based on that success he argues that there is no need to offer further support to the FLOSS business model. The problem is that argument makes sense only if FLOSS is itself a business model, which I just pointed out, it is not.

Next, Leuders attacks the report for not acknowledging his proprietarian brethren. saying

“…it acknowledges other models in a denigrating manner, that they only contribute ‘headaches to FLOSS’ instead of informing the competitive dynamic.”

Hasn’t one of the more recent and notable impacts on the software industry been the loosening of proprietary monopolies by FLOSS movements? I’d argue FLOSS growth has done more to counteract the competition killing environment bolstered by proprietary vendor strategies than even government regulation has.

Today’s Market and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)
With the ISC stage for business models in place, Leuders presents a fable of today’s market. He claims (with his emphasis on proprietary software) that

“…the software market that exists today works extremely well in developing innovative solutions for all spheres of business and governmental operations.”

But is that true? If it was working so well, how can he reconcile that with the FLOSS growth statistics he stated at the beginning? Clearly something is changing and I’d suggest it’s because the model hasn’t been working very well. In particular I’d address the notion of government operations.

Shouldn’t government operations serve their people? After all in societies with democratically elected officials, the government is composed of its people and is, in principle, beholden to their goals. Thus supporting that, government processes and access to government information and services ought to be transparent to citizens. This is certainly a problem with proprietary software, which is solved via FLOSS. Handy real world examples are not difficult to find. Just search for the problems with proprietary voting machine software in the United States, review the way some governments make important bureaucratic forms available on-line yet require non-free third party software to be installed to access these forms. There is no shortage of examples. Even a report cited by UNU-MERIT from the UN Joint Inspection Unit on open source software, recommended:

“All Member States and other stake-holders should have the right to access public information made available in electronic format by the organizations and no one should be obliged to acquire a particular type of software in order to exercise such a right…”

Next, the ISC letter breaks into intellectual property rhetoric. Leuders assumes any change to the fundamentally problematic notion of IPR is negative. He says

“Many of the proposed policy recommendations as identified within the report [the UMU-MERIT report] could further weaken IPR throughout Europe, potentially deflating venture capital levels and EU innovation.”

Leuders and the ISC attempt to paint proprietary methods as the safeguard of innovation and technological progress with broad societal support. I’d reiterate the stats on FLOSS growth at the beginning and note that the wording of most FLOSS licensing practically guarantees innovation. Consider the possibilities FLOSS opens to a wide range of people, as stated in the UNU-MERIT policy brief.

“The opportunity to ‘create and add value’ provided by open source is particularly important for developing countries and other economically disadvantaged communities. Access alone limits them to the role of passive consumers in the knowledge economy; the ability to create transforms them into active participants.”

In the scheme of things, the proprietary software model has only existed as a brief blip in time. It took early advantage of a new industry at a time when few people knew how to adapt to and fewer still, understood the nature of what the industry could grow to offer. It’s unlikely that the proprietary software distribution business model (which I’d argue is flawed from conception, but that’s another article) can stand the test of time as the software industry continues to evolve and mature. The societal experiences that Leuders argues spawned IPR, is far too ambiguous a concept to actually pin to the value such rights might confer on innovation, much less support the questionable notion of proprietary software. Leuders has a lot more work to do in order to prove this value in combination with proprietary software models.

Enough for now. That covers about half of the ISC letter. I’ll comment on the other half tomorrow or the next day.

Are Co-ops the Ideal FOSS Business Structure?

Free and open source software is a community affair. One would think it might be a perfect fit for a cooperative type of business entity. Businesses surviving and growing in virtue of FOSS ecosystems develop some interesting business models–the support and services model for example (though becoming increasingly common) relies on the collaborative efforts of, sometimes huge, communities of people as a basis for its existance. Another model that I once thought was pretty innovative came from Transgaming Technologies, which had this idea of letting users pay for a subscription to (among other things) vote on the company’s product roadmap (this was a while ago, I don’t know if they still operate this way). But in spite of these group collaboration and voice-of-the-people aspects, most FOSS-related companies operate in a pretty regular corporate fashion. I may be ignorant of some company out there that is already doing this, but I cannot think of any FOSS-based companies that have organized themselves as cooperatives.

Sure, there may be many differences between the operation of FOSS-based companies and their proprietary counterparts. For example, Linux distributors have all kinds of organizations, processes, and ways to facilitate community participation, which they not only rely on for their well-being but also put great effort into nurturing. Doesn’t this go hand-in-hand with the idea behind a cooperative? I thought Strategy+Business Magazine’s recent article, A Cooperative Solution, was incredibly interesting and enlightening on just how successful co-ops can be (perhaps I’m naïve–the scale, power, and apparent efficiency that some have, hadn’t dawned on me before). Not only did it explain, in-depth, how massive organizations like the Dutch Rabobank or Italian retail COOP thrive (sometimes even moreso than their traditional counterparts), it also focused on how beneficial the co-op structure is to its communities of participants.

Here is a quote from the article concerning thousands of people involved with Rabobank. I’ll make two points about it.

“The members of the bank took part recently, for example, in voting on whether to merge some of its branches. That is the kind of crucial decision usually made by top management. But at Rabobank, it was the focus of long debate among all the members. It took Rabobank’s central organization nine months, many personal discussions, and two general assemblies to build consensus throughout its vast constituency on the consolidation issue.”

First, doesn’t that sound similar to how things often take place in Free and Open Source Software communities? Second, while it may sound like it took a long time, the article later details why some of these group decision making processes, while on the surface sound like they’re hugely inefficient or time-consuming, end up actually making the company, as whole, much more lean and responsive down the road. The Strategy+Business articles explores these co-op features:

  • Consensual decision making
  • Better communication
  • Leadership development in the company and community
  • Long-range planning and experimentation
  • Opennes to learning best practices
  • The social dimension

The processes they evolve to facilitate these areas and the effort they put into doing things “right” in the first place, tends to flatten out all kinds of problems that other non-cooperative organizations face.

Co-ops greatest strength are their constituents. The co-op is, by nature, for the interest of its members and the communities those members constitute. So while a public company might, for example, have to constantly be on guard to increase its earnings every quarter and thus satisfy share-holders (who are likely to have motives outside the scope of what is good for the employees/communities affected by the company), a co-op doesn’t face that problem. Even though (as is the case of the co-ops profiled in the Strategy+Business article) they may be very successful, co-op money flows to its communities, to its own success.

Lastly, in Tim O’Reilly’s recent blog post, Four Big Ideas About Open Source, his second point concerns the way open source companies have an ability to change the rules of the game. I suppose I argued for this advantage too when I wrote about what I thought a Linux distributor should do to in order to gain the typical mass customer mindset for choosing an OS (change the whole rules of the game). Mr. O’Reilly said

“One of the most powerful things about open source is its potential to reset the rules of the game, to compete in a way that undercuts all of the advantages of incumbent players. Yet what we see in open source is that the leading companies have in many ways abandoned this advantage, becoming increasingly like the companies with which they compete.”

And he concludes that these companies should be Web 2.0 companies. Ok, that might be the case, I haven’t formed any intelligent or unintelligent thoughts on that yet. However, I can’t help but think that maybe this is a chance for the dispersed, open, development model to wed its counterpart in business, the co-op. It would certainly be unlike the competitors. I have a smirk on my face just imagining the article fallout that would happen with all the proprietary vendors crying “see, we told you FOSS is communism!”