Matt Asay set the cat amongst the pigeons late last week with his post declaring that “Free software has lost. Open source has won. We’re all the better for it.”
There have been a number of responses picking apart Matt’s claim, of which I would recommend Glyn Moody’s.
To my mind, there is actually a lot to agree with in Matt’s post but where it falls down is in its generalisation of the Free Software movement. Like many others Matt has long since stopped seeing the difference between proprietary and open source as black and white so it is unfortunate that he chose to describe the difference between free software and open source in such terms. (I should point out, by the way, that this is something that a lot of people, myself included, are often guilty of).
Mark Stone points out that historically there are three camps on the FOSS side: Berkeley Unix, Linux and GNU. It is also true to say that that there are differences of opinion within the Free Software movement itself.
For example while Free Software Foundation sometimes appears to be more concerned with attacking Microsoft than it is promoting freedom, a recent article in Free Software Magazine demonstrates total opposition to proprietary software is not universal.
“A policy of promoting free software and opposing proprietary software no matter what the production consequences are is unethical,” wrote Terry Hancock. “The real world is a big place with lots of different people who think in lots of different ways. Trying to convert them all to your own way of thinking is probably a lost cause.”
For some people that remains a cause worth fighting for while others have elected to move on. Many others have simply chosen to pick their battles. The difference between Free Software on one side and proprietary software on the other is not black and white – it is much more complicated than that.
At the Open World Forum event in Paris on Thursday I will be discussing whether the the open source/proprietary war is over, including the fact that we are seeing an increasing amount of push back from free and open source advocates attempting to prevent what they see as the dilution of not just free software philosophies but also the open source brand as a result of increased involvement of proprietary vendors, licensing and development strategies.
I will therefore return to this issue later in the week but for now I wanted to make the point that the FOSS movement is not a community as much as it is a loose coalition of communities, parties and individuals all of which have shared interests, but also significant differences.
The biggest threat to the success of FOSS is arguably not proprietary software or isolationism but in-fighting and Balkanization.