Is FOSS heading for an identity crisis?

In his recent Forbes article Cash Me Out (by way of The Register’s Open Season) Dan Lyons likens the assimilation of open source into the mainstream IT industry to the incorporation of gay culture into mainstream culture.

In his article, Lyons references The End of Gay Culture, an essay written by Andrew Sullivan and published in The New Republic in 2005 that argued that the gay rights movement had been so successful that gay culture had been absorbed into mainstream culture. While the success was something to celebrate, it also challenged former definitions of gay culture and identity, according to Sullivan.

The assimilation of any sub- or counter-culture into the mainstream is a divisive moment – signaling as it does both the success of the movement in reaching a wider audience, and the watering-down of its principles by external forces. There are signs that an identity crisis is already impacting the Free- and Open Source Software movements.

[CLARIFICATION – In this post I have tried to be very careful with my use of the terms ‘Free Software’ and ‘Open Source’ in order to recognize that they are two separate, but linked, movements. When the term ‘FOSS’ is used it is used deliberately to refer to both movements collectively (hence the title). Otherwise I have used the phrase ‘Free- and Open Source Software movements’ to indicate that I am referring to two separate movements at the same time. I have also been careful about my use of the term ‘adoption’ as opposed to ‘assimilation’. I am not for a moment suggesting that increased adoption of FOSS is a problem for Free- and Open Source Software vendors, and have edited those occasions where I am referring to adoption to avoid confusion.]

An example of the assimilation of FOSS into the mainstream was provided by Microsoft’s successful attempt to have two licenses approved by the Open Source Initiative. There are those that see Microsoft’s creeping engagement with open source as pernicious, and some that thought that the OSI should have discriminated against the software giant by blocking its move.

While this is an obvious example of the blurring of the line between open source and the mainstream, a more subtle – but perhaps more significant – example was revealed in the recent Port25 post by Sam Ramji that revealed how open source has influenced Windows Server 2008.

Here is a clear example of how Microsoft has taken lessons from the success of the open source development model and applied them to its own proprietary code development – observing what works for open source and adjusting its development practices accordingly while retaining control over the project.

As Savio Rodrigues noted: “this should scare any OSS proponent. It seems like the folks at Redmond have been busy while the OSS movement has been prematurely readying Microsoft’s eulogy. I hope I’m wrong. But Microsoft simply appears to be meeting the challenge of OSS better than OSS appears to be meeting the challenge of displacing Microsoft.”

And Microsoft is just one example. Everywhere you look in the IT industry there are examples of how proprietary vendors have taken the benefits of open source and applied them to their own products.

“Appistry’s new open distribution program combines the best of open source and commercial software. By making this download available we’re able to let developers experience its benefits immediately, for free, and with no strings attached. Plus, they have the benefit of knowing that the product is commercially supported should they ever need it, and customers like FedEx and GeoEye count on it for mission-critical applications.”
Kevin Haar, Appistry chief executive officer, earlier this week.

I picked that example not only because it is timely but because you could replace the name Appistry with that of any vendor in the IT industry and it would still make sense. How many times have we read variations on this theme in recent years? The trend is set to continue.

Of course, giving software away for free does not make it open source any more than applying a collaborative development methodology within a restricted development team does – so how are the Free- and Open Source Software movements to respond to these developments?

Clearly while there are things FOSS vendors and groups can do to stop the misuse of FOSS code and the term ‘open source‘ there is little that can be done to prevent the benefits of FOSS development and distribution being applied to proprietary products. Indeed, whether you want to do anything about it depends on whether you see the assimilation of open source into the mainstream as a threat or an opportunity.

Sullivan ultimately saw “The End of Gay Culture” as an opportunity – specifically for the gay movement to define itself on its own terms, rather than as a reaction to exclusion from the mainstream. A major difference with the Free- and Open Source Software movements is that they have already defined themselves on their own terms, either to deliberately exclude the mainstream or to encourage inclusion.

The challenge faced by FOSS is more akin to that faced by the Green movement, which previously defined itself on its own terms but now finds its core message being rewritten by corporate agendas and external forces.

During a recent meeting with open source services firm Sirius it was suggested to me by Tom Callway and Mark Taylor that the Green movement could provide a model of how open source will come to be more widely adopted in the UK despite current ambivalence.

Certainly there are parallels to be drawn between the Green movement and FOSS , with the tendency of some sections of the mainstream press to dismiss Free- and Open Source Software supporters as sandal-wearing and beard-toting troublemakers or romantic idealists, for example. It’s an image that is almost identical to the one applied to environmental activists in the past.

[Aside – It is not beyond the realms of fantasy to see how open source could become more widely adopted in a similar fashion – particularly the way in which the ecological arguments are now being presented hand in hand with economic arguments.

Perhaps in years to come we will see big businesses boasting about lowering their proprietary licensing footprint through the more efficient use of computing resources, just as today they boast about the efficient use of natural resources. Maybe the laggards could pay someone else to adopt open source for them via proprietary offsetting schemes.

While I am being flippant here, it wouldn’t seem unreasonable for shareholders to demand that businesses justify their spending on IT resources to ensure that profits are being reinvested efficiently. We’ve already seen an attempt Oracle to publish an Open Source Social Responsibility Report, although there was a different agenda behind that move.]

The Green movement has been astonishingly successful in recent years at placing environmental issues further up corporate and personal agendas, but now faces the challenge of maintaining its own identity in a world where the very companies once attacked for destroying the world’s natural resources are now positioning themselves as leaders of the ecological agenda.

Where environmental protesters were once dismissed by the mainstream press in the UK as unwashed eco-terrorists, The Daily Mail now runs style guides enabling “middle Britain” to spot the different types of environmental activist in their local health food shop.

The success of the Green movement in moving beyond the beard and sandals stereotype has not been without a degree of compromise.

“Green consumerism is an oxymoronic phrase,” Paul Hawken, author and environmental activist told the New York Times in 2007. The NYT added that “He blamed the news media and marketers for turning environmentalism into fashion and distracting from serious issues.”

As can be seen from the article, one of the implications has been to split the Green movement between those that see eco-consumerism as a step in the right direction and those that see it as watering down the message to the extent that it becomes meaningless.

It appears that the Free- and Open Source Software movements are on the brink of a similar schism between those that see the assimilation of FOSS into the mainstream as an opportunity and those that see it as a threat. Additionally while there have always been philosophical differences between Free- and Open Source Software, they are now being highlighted by external factors.

Examples include DRM, with the Free Software Foundation clearly on one side with its Defective By Design campaign and the likes of Linus Torvalds on the other, shying away from such ‘crusades‘. Then of course there is the issue of patents, where there is a much clearer delineation between the haves and have nots, the related issue of interoperability, and licensing – particularly the use if non-OSI approved ‘open source’ licenses called out by Michael Tiemann.

[UPDATE – To be clear, the relationship between the Free- and Open Source Software movements could be described to date as an uneasy alliance in which the focus, as a means of fulfilling their separate goals, has been on what unites both sides. It is my contention – based on observation – that the external forces referenced above are placing increased pressure on that alliance. The Free Software movement has always defined itself in way that excludes it from assimilation by the mainstream and will naturally resist any dilution of its principles. The Open Source Software movement, on the other hand, was formed specifically to encourage mainstream interest. As many mainstream IT vendors respond not by adopting open source methodologies but by adapting them to fit proprietary models there appears to be increased tension between a Free Software movement exhibiting a strengthened resolve to stand by its principles, and an Open Source Software movement in which individuals have to decide where they draw the line.]

What do you think? Is it time to pick sides, or is there middle ground that will enable the principles of FOSS to flourish despite – or even because of – assimilation into the mainstream?

Further reading:

Thoughts on an (impending) identity crisis for FOSS, Open Source Unleashed

Dear Dan Lyons: Open Source was Never ‘Counter Culture’, There is no Open Source Community

Don’t be Freetarded, The Keene View

19 comments ↓

#1 Hans Bezemer on 03.12.08 at 12:41 pm

You’re mixing up several things – which is not good. Microsoft has learned very little from the FOSS business model. The article at Port 25 (a big no-no for FOSS supporters) only shows that Microsoft has adapted a modular architecture, which is hardly typically FOSS. With a bit of imagination you can say it is Unix-like. But Unix does not equal FOSS by definition. ReactOS is FOSS, but tries to imitate the Microsoft architecture. The only thing that resembles FOSS with a stretch of imagination is that MS now allows 3rd parties to develop modules. Still, those modules can be closed source.

In short, are you sure you know what you’re talking about? There are better examples that the IT world adopts *real* FOSS practices and business models after all.

#2 Matthew Aslett on 03.12.08 at 3:31 pm

Sam Ramji’s article explains how Microsoft applied not only modular architecture but also programming language agnostic, feedback-driven development, built-for-purpose systems, sysadmins who write code, and standards-based communication. As I stated, Microsoft taken aspects of open source development and applied it to its own proprietary development.It wasn’t supposed to be an example of the IT world *adopting* FOSS practices, it was an example of some of he benefits of FOSS being *assimilated* by the mainstream. There is a difference.

#3 Business Intelligence Analysis and Commentary on 03.13.08 at 12:21 am

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#4 Roy Schestowitz on 03.13.08 at 1:42 am

When will people finally learn to stop quoting an anti-FOSS brigadier, let alone invite him to a FOSS show? *sigh*

#5 Matthew Aslett on 03.13.08 at 8:23 am

Just because you don’t agree with his comments, it does not mean they should be ignored.

#6 Roy Schestowitz on 03.14.08 at 12:57 am

Hi,

My prejudice is based on his attacks against critics of SCO claims and Microsoft claims. I suppose you heard about “Show Us the Code”. Like several others, I consider his ‘covert ops’ and his role (alongside Sam R) in EclipseCon is trouble.

#7 Namae on 03.13.08 at 7:45 am

FOSS software is heading towards an identity crisis because of the increasing adoption by the mainstream public? I fail to understand what identity FOSS software currently has or how that identity changes because of increasing adoption.

If by identity crisis you mean incomplete compliance of the ideals of the OSS movement, you may have a point. There are many companies hawking software products that claim to be open but have some sort of restriction that makes it incompatible with the open source definition. A good example is the Appistry EAF community program that restricts the number of computers that the user is allowed to run the program. It’s as if they wanted to hop on the Open Source bandwagon without actually releasing their products as Open Source.

Also, why do you present false dilemmas? Do those that believe in the principles of open source inherently have a problem with OSS being adopted by the mainstream? Do propronents of OSS require to compromise their belief in order to be further assimilated into the mainstream?

#8 Matthew Aslett on 03.13.08 at 8:22 am

“FOSS software is heading towards an identity crisis because of the increasing adoption by the mainstream public?”

Not because of increased adoption, no. I tried to avoid using the word adoption in the post in order to avoid confusion.

“If by identity crisis you mean incomplete compliance of the ideals of the OSS movement, you may have a point.”

That is exactly what I am talking about.

“Also, why do you present false dilemmas? Do those that believe in the principles of open source inherently have a problem with OSS being adopted by the mainstream?”

No, that’s not what I meant.

“Do propronents of OSS require to compromise their belief in order to be further assimilated into the mainstream?”

Perhaps, yes. I was raising a hypothetical question to that effect.

#9 Open Source Unleashed on 03.17.08 at 11:25 am

Thoughts on an (impending) identity crisis for FOSS…

For those who may not be aware, Matthew Aslett (one of my personal favorite blogging analysts) has tendered a strong post titled Is FOSS heading for an identity crisis?I thought the points raised therein are well-stated and spot-on, especially the…

#10 Open Source Unleashed on 03.17.08 at 11:29 am

Thoughts on an (impending) identity crisis for FOSS…

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