You Can't Hack your Way to Freedom

Subtitle: Or, Why Open Source isn't about Freedom.

There is a major segment of the open source/free software movement that believes that open source is important because having non-proprietary software is a key to individual liberation and freedom.

While this "camp" has done a lot for the open source movement, and in some respects they're right: an educated user can deal with his own bugs, tweak the code, and verify that the software is secure. Also free software makes it possible for everyone, not just the very wealthy, from using very powerful tools. Money is still an issue around hardware, but free software helps. These features of free software are indeed powerful and likely make the undertaking worthwhile in its own right. So I don't want to dismiss the political importance of this idea or faction but I'd like to offer another theory of why open source is so powerful and important.

The marker of a successful proprietary piece of software and a successful open source program are completely different.

Proprietary software is successful if people [1] buy it. And when people buy anything really, for the most part they do a cost-benefit analysis, usually between features and cost. Does this do what I need it to? Will I have to buy something else to finish the task at hand? In this environment the most successful programs will be the best programs that do the most for the least amount of money.

So I guess I'm being an armchair economist in this, but I think that it makes a lot of sense for both developers and purchasers to keep the overall number of discrete programs down. Why develop and support (and buy on the other end) an address book program, a mail reading program, a mail composing program, a calendar program, a task manager when you could just get Outlook? Hell, why buy business/office software a la carte when you can get it as a suite?

Open source doesn't need to operate like that, [2] especially historically a good piece of open source software did one thing well. There are a lot of reasons for this. Unix works best when everything is a modular widget widgets, but getting a bunch of hackers to agree on how to accomplish more than one thing is sufficiently non-trivial to have had a great impact on the methods of the movement. Perhaps most importantly, there's no need for any single piece of software to do everything because open source software doesn't exist in a vacuum.

And this is the strength of the model. You could never market on or sell application on a large that did one thing really well, but if you asked it to do something else related, the developer would say "not my problem."

The classic example is mutt, and email client that just reads email, while recently (after much "not my job" protesting,) mutt has added support for connecting to the servers that send and receive email, it historically hasn't and I suspect most users still don't use these features. Imagine if Outlook said "nope, sending email is someone else's problem, I'm just a mail reader." Mutt succeeds because it's really good at reading email, but also because there are a lot of really great tools for doing other email related tasks. Fetchmail is a great and reliable program, but it only downloads email, and for sending email I've never had a problem with MSMTP, but I think there are a number of popular mail-sending options.

So you get that open source makes a more widget or ecosystem based computing environment viable and stable, but are still wondering why this is a good thing? Because it sounds that this kind of open source just makes things more complex? Right. Here's why I think the ecosystem is the way to go:

  • It's easier to build programs that only do one thing. A program either is really good at downloading your email or it isn't, and it's pretty easy to tell if that's the case. More complex programs, can't be as reliable as consistent.
  • This system is more responsive to technological development. If there's a new revolution in email downloading, it's easy enough to take fetchmail out of the picture and put some other widget in place that works better. Non-modular systems put you at the whim of someone else.
  • Your data is (more likely) to be accessible and open. The real reason that open source hackers are interested in open standards and formats is, if we rely on an ecosystem of widgets our data has to be readable by all of the different widgets. The only way to ensure that this is the case is to use open and standard data formats. This is good for the user and good for the programer as a creative constraint.
  • This model more closely reflects the way we actually think. Our minds are made up of a bunch of smaller abilities. The ability to recognize written words, the ability to parse those words for sounds and meaning, the ability to take what we read and relate it to things that we've seen and read in other contexts. In both the software and cognition the really cool things happen with novel collections of different ideas and tools.

But wait you say, OpenOffice and Ubuntu Linux aren't widgets and they have very high feature counts. This is very true, and to be honest projects like GNOME/KDE and open office mystify me because they fail so amazingly, they're too disjointed to really compete with desktop environments from proprietary makers and try to do too many things to really work ideally on their own. [3]

In the case of Ubuntu--like all linux distributions--the "product," is a specific and tailored collection of widgets. And this is a pretty good open source business model: take a bunch of tools, customize them, make sure they install and work together, and then package them as some sort of suite. While I think that this software ecosystem thing is pretty cool, it's not easy to get started with, and unless users really know what they're doing it requires more than a bit of fidgeting. Distributions solve this problem and make a space for individuals and groups to monetize this "free" software. Which is of course good for (almost) everyone involved.

Anyway, I've been going on for way too long. I'm not--by a long shot--done thinking (and writing) about these issues, so expect a continuation of this soon.

Onward and Upward!

[1]In the case of software, I think people should be understood as cooperate IT devisions, more than individuals
[2]There are clearly a lot of exceptions, particularly in this particularly moment, where we're seeing projects that in this respect look more like proprietary software. This is I think in part intentional as a means of competing with proprietary software. And I'm building to the other "in part." So lets wait for it, shall we?
[3]Clearly this is just my opinion. Every so often I want to try and like GNOME, but I always find it to be a less then pleasurable experience. The GUIs don't make a lot of sense unless you know what the shell commands that they're wrapping are, to say nothing of the really poor use of space (that's tangential, but probably my largest gripe with GNOME). Interestingly I started using a different window manager (awesome), which accesses gtk, and I was very surprised to find that some of the gnome apps were actually pretty decent. Who knew!
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