For a community that's supposed to rally under the noble banners of freedom, fairness and fraternity, the world of free software is chockfull of disagreement, feuds and simmering rivalries.
Rather than promoting the use of open source, this division does more harm than good. The Gnome desktop is pitted against KDE, while Xfce dislikes them both. Google sells 60,000 locked-down Android phones a day while Intel and Moblin are forced to merge their open source strengths into MeeGo in order to compete.
Command-line junkies argue that menus and mice are unnecessary, while Linux distributions bicker over the freedoms they offer and the deals they've made.
Just look at the last decade of development: Fedora held on to the moral high ground while OpenSUSE forged an alliance with Microsoft and Ubuntu, sacrificing freedom for usability and jumping straight to the top of the popularity list.
Behind the scenes, developers squabble over the virtues of GTK+ against Qt, Python versus Perl and everything against Mono.
Then there's a raging storm of debate that follows any discussion over which free software licence to use, or the true definition of 'free' software, or who should use it, or whether it should always cost nothing.
This division starts at the core of the Linux operating system and works its way outwards. Everything else hangs off the kernel, and Linus Torvalds, its progenitor and chief maintainer, plays the pragmatist. He wants people to actually use his work and he's not overly concerned how they do it.
This eclectic position slowed progress toward version 3 of the GPL licence – used by most open-source projects – and Torvalds stubbornly clings to version 2 for the Linux kernel and his Git version control system. This matters – it's difficult for other people to have confidence in the new version when the world's largest free software project can't make the jump.
More importantly, Torvalds has openly criticised the Free Software Foundation, the non-profit corporation whose job it is to protect the rights of people writing GPL-licensed open-source software.
The FSF has to take a harder line than Torvalds. It ensures loopholes are closed by stopping companies like Tivo locking down its Linux-based hardware. FSF does this by following the letter of the licence, though its zeal can also take it too far.
Recent campaigns have lambasted Apple with 'Five reasons to avoid the iPhone 3G', attacked Microsoft and Windows 7 for 'threat[s] to the user's freedom' and seen an assault against the iPad. All a bit embarrassing.
If you follow the second link on the FSF's website, you'll be taken to the Free Software Definition. Here you'll be educated on why free software is a matter of liberty, not price. After that, there's a list of four essential freedoms, geekily numbered 0 to 3.
If that doesn't scare you off, take a look at some of the articles by the FSF's President, Richard Stallman. Even worse, try looking for his rendition of the Free Software Song. We've got a lot to thank Stallman for, but helping to erase the anti-social geek stereotype really isn't one of them.
Freedom to choose
It is important that people understand the advantages and some of the ramifications of using open-source software, but it's more important that these issues don't put people off trying to use it in the first place. Nothing is perfect, and the FSF seems to forget that we all need the freedom to choose for ourselves, whether we end up going for Mac OS X, Windows 7 or Ubuntu 9.10.
In a video created to mark the FSF's 25th anniversary, you'll find our very own Stephen Fry sitting in a comfy chair while waxing lyrical about the joys of free software. He explains why sharing code is good and why closed systems are the software equivalent of bad science. On a small desk to his right, sitting conspicuously open, is his MacBook Air, presumably running the evil, locked-down and proprietary OS X. And that's just fine.
What the open-source community needs is a little less division, a little less evangelism and a little more compromise and understanding. It's a movement built on high ideals, but most people use the software because it works and they like the way it feels.
In the end, those are the only things that are important, because without users there would be no work for the Foundation to do at all. It's high time everybody lightened up.
First published in PC Plus Issue 294
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