Stallman: "we still have a fight on our hands"

Richard Stallman on the state of GNU, 25 years on

One positive side to the popularity of free software is official vendor support for GNU/Linux. A higher profile means more companies taking the operating system seriously. And even if companies like Canon don't offer any official support, they still have to acknowledge the demand. "We've been getting this kind of support from hardware vendors for many years now, way before Firefox was ever created, or even Mozilla for that matter," says Greg Kroah-Hartman. "So it's not a new thing at all."

And Richard Stallman thinks free software is making good progress too, despite the lack any significant dent in Microsoft's market share. "Nowadays hardware developers are also increasingly likely to publish the interface specs so that we can develop free software that works with the hardware. Perhaps we are turning the corner, but we still have a big fight on our hands before all computer users have freedom."

Everybody needs good neighbours

Kroah-Hartman made another point in his opening keynote for the Linux Plumbers Conference in Portland, September 2008. The highest-profile Linux distributions aren't necessarily the biggest contributors to Linux kernel development. He used Canonical as an example. Despite the obvious success of Ubuntu and the rapid expansion of the company behind it, there have been comparatively few Canonical-sponsored patches to the Linux kernel.

Over the last three years, there have been just 100, which according to Greg puts Canonical in 79th place as a company, and 195th place as an individual contributor, way behind the likes of Red Hat, Novell and Mandriva. Canonical has obviously done a lot of good for the acceptance of GNU/Linux and free software, but it hasn't made a corresponding commitment to kernel development.

This could mean that free software has reached a large enough install base that companies are happy to use it for their own gain, but aren't quite so willing to make their own commitments to free software development. How important this is to the success of free software depends on how strong your stance is on freedom.

Search Google for 'free software' and the top result is a site dedicated to mostly proprietary software that's free to try, but often crippled by shareware licensing or demo restrictions. Ask the author of one of those applications for the source code, and you're likely to get a rude response.

The idea of freedom doesn't seem to have caught on quite so well in the world of Windows in particular. Even the programmers of small utilities like a desktop shadow effect, or a virtual cube, expect some financial recompense before they'll unlock the full features version of their software. If you've been stuck in the land of GNU/Linux for a while, it all comes as quite a shock.

If you want free software, you often find yourself looking for proper GPL applications, and these are going to be the same you use on your favourite operating system. Whether their availability on other operating systems is a good thing or a bad thing has always been a contentious issue for free software advocates.

Freedom isn't free

On the one hand, the more people using free software, the more people there will be who are interested by its principles and try switching to ever more free alternatives. On the other hand, there are plenty of people whose only concern is that the software is functional and saves them a few pounds. The latter tendency isn't going to further the cause, but it's not exactly harming it either.

How many of us actually run an operating system that Richard Stallman would consider free? Many of the more popular GNU/ Linux distributions, including Mandriva and Ubuntu, bundle proprietary code with their free software packages. Nvidia's graphics drivers and Adobe's Flash are the two worst offenders. And despite many attempts over the years, neither of these technologies have been recreated under a free software licence.