Who reaps the benefits of Free Software?

I feel silly to have to start this post by having to boast about my own achievements, but my previous post has stirred up a lot of comments (outside my blog’s own, that is) and a number of those could be summed up with “I don’t know this guy, he’s of course new, has no idea what he’s talking about”. So let’s start with the fact that I’ve been involved in Free Software for just about half of my life at this point.

And while I have not tied my name to any particular project, I have contributed to a significant amount of them by now. I’m not an “ideas man” so you can count on me to help figuring out problems and fixing bugs, but I would probably start hiding in a corner if I built up a cult of personality; unfortunately that appears to be what many other contributors to Free Software have done over the years, and this brings weight to their own name. I don’t have such weight, but you probably better off googling my name around before thinking I have no stake in the fire.

Introduction over, let’s get to the meat of this post.

If you’re reading this post, it is likely that you’re a Free Software supporter, creator, user, or a combination of these. Even those people that I know fiercely criticized Free Software can’t say that they don’t use any nowadays: at the very least the two major mobile operating systems have a number of Free Software components they rely upon, which means they are all users of Free Software, whether they want it or not. Which means I have no reason to try to convince you that Free Software is good. But good for who?

RMS notoriously titled his essay anthology Free Software, Free Society, which implies that Free Software is good for everybody — I can agree to a point, but at the same time I don’t think it’s as clear cut as he wants to make it sound.

I wrote about this before, but I want to write it down again. For the majority of people, Free Software is not important. You can argue that we should make it clear to them that it is important, but that sounds like a dogma, and I really don’t like dogmas.

Free Software supporters and users, for the most part, are geeks who are able to make use of available source code of software to do… something about it. Sometimes it’s not a matter of making changes to the code, because even making changes is not enough, but for instance you can reverse engineer an undocumented protocol in such a way that can be reimplemented properly.

But what about my brother in law? He can’t code to save his life, and he has no interest in reverse engineering protocols. How is Free Software important to him and benefiting him? Truthfully, the answer is “not at all, directly”. He’s a Free Software user, because he has an Android phone and an iPad, but neither are entirely Free Software, and even all the more “libre” projects are making his life any easier. I’ll go back to that later.

In the post I already referenced, I pointed out how the availability of open-source online diabetes management software would make possible for doctors to set up their own instances of these apps to give their patients access. But that only works in theory — in practice, no doctor would be able to set this up by themselves safely, and data protection laws would likely require them to hire an external contractor to set it up and maintain it. And in that case, what would be the difference between that and hiring a company that developed their own closed-source application, and maybe provide it as a cloud service?

Here’s the somewhat harsh truth: for most people who are not into IT and geekery, there is no direct advantage to Free Software, but there are multiple indirect ones, almost all of which rotate around one “simple” concept: Free Software makes Free Market. And oh my, is this term loaded, and ready to explode a flame just by me using it. Particularly with a significant amount of Free Software activists nowadays being pretty angry with capitalism as a concept, and that’s without going into the geek supremacists ready to poison the well for their own ego.

When Free Software is released, it empowers companies, freelancer, and people alike to re-use and improve it – I will not go into the discussion of which license allows what; I’ll just hand-wave this problem for now – which increase competition, which is generally good. Re-using the example of online diabetes management software, thanks to open-source it’s no longer only the handful of big companies that spent decades working on diabetes that can provide software to the doctors, but any other company that wants to… that is if they have the means to comply with data protection laws and similar hurdles.

Home routers are another area in which Free Software has clearly left a mark. From the WRT54G, which was effectively the easiest hackable router of its time, we made significant progress with both OpenWRT and LEDE, to the point that using a “pure” (to a point) Free Software home router is not only possible but feasible, and there even are routers that you can buy with Free Software firmware installed by default. But even here you can notice an important distinction: you have to buy the router with the firmware you want. You can’t just build it yourself for obvious reasons.

And this is the important part for me. There is this geek myth that everyone should be a “maker” — I don’t agree with this, because not everyone wants to be one, so they should not be required to become one. I am totally sold that everybody should have the chance and access to information to become one if they so want, and that’s why I also advocate reverse engineering and documenting whatever is not already freely accessible.

But for Free Software to be consumable by users, to improve society, you need a mediating agency, and that agency lies in the companies that provide valuable services to users. And with “valuable services” I do not mean solely services aimed at the elites, or even just at that part of the population living in big metropolises like SF or NYC. Not all the “ubers of” companies that try to provide services with which you can interact online or through apps are soulless entities. Not all the people wanting to use these services are privileged (though I am).

And let me be clear, that I don’t mean that Free Software has to be subject to companies and startups to make sense. I have indeed already complained about startups camouflaged by communities. In a healthy environment, the fact that some Free Software project is suitable to make a startup thrive is not the same as the startup needing Free Software contributions to be alive. The distinction is hard to put down on paper, but I think most of you have seen how that turns out for projects like ownCloud.

Since I have already complained about anti-corporatism in Free Software years ago, well before joining the current “big corporation” I work for, why am I going back to the topic, particularly as I can be seen as a controversial character due to that? Well, there are a few things that made me think. Only partially, this relates to the fact that I’ve been attacked a time or two for working for said corporation, and some of it is because I stopped contributing to some projects — although all but one of those cases, the reason was simply my own energy to keep contributing, rather than a work specific problem.

I have seen other colleagues still maintaining enough energy to keep contributing to open source while working at the same office; I have seen some dedicating enough of their work time to that as well. While of course this kind of jobs do limit the amount of time you can put to Free Software, I also think that a number of contributors who end up burning themselves out due to the hardships of paying the bills would probably be glad to exchange full-time Free Software work with part-time one if they were so lucky. So in this, I still count myself particularly privileged, but embrace it, because if I can contribute less time but for a longer time, I think it’s worth it.

But while I do my best to keep improving Free Software, and contribute to the public good, including by documenting glucometer protocols, I hear people criticizing how the only open-source GSM stack is funded, even though Harald Welte is dedicating a lot of his personal time, and doing a lot of ungrateful work, while certain “freedom fighters” decide to cut corners and break licenses.

At the same time, despite not being my personal favourite company, particularly after the most recent allegations of its conduct, GitHub’s Open Source Friday is a neat idea to convince companies that rely on Free Software to do something — sometimes the something may just as well be writing documentation for software, because that’s possibly more important than coding! Given that some of the reasons I’ve read for attacking them is that they are not “pure enough”, because they do not open their core business application, I feel it’s a bit of a cheap shot, given that they are probably the company that most empowered Free Software since the original SourceForge.

So what is that I am suggesting (given people appear to expect me to have answers in additions to opinions)? If I have to give a suggestion to all Free Software contributors out there, that is to always consider what they can do to make sure that their contributions can be consumed at all. That includes for instance not using joke licenses and not discriminating against requests from companies, because those companies might have the resources to make your software successful too.

Which does not mean that you should just bend to whatever the first company passing by request you, nor that you should provide them with free labour. Again that’s a game of balance: you can’t have a successful project that nobody uses, but you’re not there to work for free either. The right way is to provide something that is useful and used. And to make this compromise work, one of the best suggestion I can give to Free Software developers, is to learn a bit about the theories of business.

Unfortunately, I have also seen way too many Free Software supporters (luckily, less so contributors) keep believing that words like “business” and “marketing” are the devil’s own, and do not even stop thinking of what they actually mean — and that is a bad thing. Even when you don’t like some philosophy, or even more so when you don’t like some philosophy, the best way to fight it, is to know it. So if you really think marketing is that evil, you may want to go and read a book about marketing: you’ll understand how it works, and how to defend yourself from its tactics.

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