Freedom, Community & Sustainability

The human tragedy behind Free Software

January 6, 2011 -- Webmaster
Last modified on August 2016

One of the most interesting things about the Free Software world is the psychological stories at play and the human tragedy that unfolds before your eyes as you discover it. Not a single person agrees completely with another and there are as many opinions as there are users out there. Contrary to proprietary software where the opinions are only a few threads on a forum (helpless discussions about the decisions of a corporation) , Free Software opinions get to life into real world applications and real world activists of such or such things. I will step here in muddy waters as I'll be speaking about my own opinions and opening the doors for criticism by the millions of users that disagree with me.

The creation of the Free Software movement is maybe one of the most inspiring and beautiful initiatives of all computer history. Against all odds, Richard Stallman took the most counter intuitive path of software development, gave up on greed and ego to create a truly collaborative community that would give out for free their hard labor. I find unlikely that someone would take an initiative like this today. Maybe because at the time the hippie movement was still present or maybe because he was just at the right place at the right time to understand the issues of proprietary software but nevertheless, Richard Stallman did announce the Free Software movement and inspired a bunch of other people to work for the profit of the community rather than individual profit. He was the pioneer in this direction and the least he should have is the credits for doing it. Strangely enough, the Free operating system today is called Linux and not GNU. Despite the fact that he is very insistent in calling the kernel Linux and the whole operating system GNU/Linux, the reality is that GNU/Linux will never catch up because its longer to say and it's awkward. On top of it all, people are already confused enough by the fact that there is something else than Windows to start considering names that contain a slash in it. Let's be frank also about the whole point of Free Software, giving everybody the permission to use and modify the programs also entitles them to use it on a Linux kernel and the kernel is maybe the only piece of software that all distributions have for sure. GNU and Linux just happened to go together very well and Linux was the name that people started using to refer to the operating system. Linux had momentum (thanks to GNU too) and created the hype.

One question still stays in my mind, why didn't GNU start with building the kernel? Since Richard claims today that he do not use any non-free software, then why not starting with the first software needed to run an operating system? Maybe it's because the success of GNU depended on its visibility, and visibility is obtained with utility software. I don't know, really.

Richard also claims that Linux is not an operating system but only an essential component. Linus Torvalds though claims that it was intended to be and it is an operating system. The fact that the Linux kernel takes advantage of all the software repository from GNU doesn't diminishes the idea that it is indeed the very basis of an operating system. Linus does not accept the term GNU/Linux as a general description and is by far the person who gets the most credit from the name Linux. As brilliant as his contribution is to a free operating system, Linus is overestimated. Let's not forget that in-spite of the dispute of credits between those two man, there are hundreds of other developers that contributed to it as well. Their names are unheard of.

Free software vs open source

To make things worse for Richard, the Free Software movement split into branches with the creation of the Open Source movement. When you hear Bruce Perens talk about Open Source you hardly see the difference with Free Software. Open Source is actually a strange thing but it makes sense after all. It takes the model of development from Free Software to the business world. Looks like completely opposite goals but it helped to have companies accept and start investing and sharing software. Once again, Richard got his credits erased, not only GNU gets called Linux but now Free Software is called Open Source...

The real tragedy is to notice how the ideology and the heart of the movement gets hidden by the shadow of the more commercial and business-driven derivatives. No drawing of a muscular gnu on top of a tiny tux can change this reality. Is it just an unfortunate fact or is it the way things are? It's amazing and somewhat symptomatic how people, even experts, do not have clearly in mind the definition of Free Software, Open Source, Freeware and Shareware. These are often found mixed up and used instead of one another. The thing is that people don't really care about all these discussions as long as they can keep using their computer for things of their interest. Is it really worth then to fight for freedoms that people don't care? I believe it is and one day we will all be thankful to those who have fought for us without we ever noticing nor realizing it's importance.

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