The Use of Open Source and Free Software in Education: November 6-26, 2006

What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Heather Ross -
Number of replies: 14
This question popped into my head after reading Bruno Vernier's post.

The one that comes to mind for me is patents and subsequent lawsuits like the attack from WebCT/Blackboard against Desire2Learn. While Blackboard has indicated that they will not go after open source, I don't know how long they will hold to that view. I think that the outcome of their case against Desire2Learn make have an impact on the software industry in general.

What are your thoughts on this?
What other things do you think might pose a threat to the growing open source movement?
In reply to Heather Ross

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Christie Mason -
Besides the other barriers that I've mentioned, I see two trends that could be classified as threats.

1. Fee based middlemen like IBM etc separating the consumer of the code from maintenance/improvement of the code.

2. Becoming popular.  As you read the support forums for some of the most popular open source applications, you start to notice the types of questions changing from "where in the application is XYZ set"  to very basic, general questions like "how do I create a connection string, what is a variable, what is a field, how do I install MySQL"?   As those types of questions clog the support area it becomes difficult to discuss valid application bugs and workarounds .  I don't know how far that trend will go, but it's been disquieting to see it begin.

It's assumed that you know the basics before you use open source applications and attempting to use open source applications just because they're "free" can cause difficulties for all levels of users.

Christie Mason
In reply to Christie Mason

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Joyce Paisley -
As a real beginner who is just starting to explore the topic--What are the "basics" that you think must be known before attempting to use open source applications??
In reply to Joyce Paisley

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Heather Ross -
I think that it depends on the application. I'm using Firefox and I don't need to know anything about coding to do this. I downloaded and installed NeoOffice (Open Office for Mac) and installation was at least as easy as installing MS Office. Installing Moodle would obviously be more difficult.

It also depends on what you plan to do with the application. Are you going to be strictly a user or do you want to work on the development of the application?

In reply to Joyce Paisley

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Bruno Vernier -
I notice that there are at least 4 kinds of "Real Beginners"

1. beginner opensource USER
2. beginner opensource PROGRAMMER (with no experience programming)
3. beginner opensource PROGRAMMER (already proprietary programmer)
4. beginner opensource ACTIVIST

About beginner USERS:

Technically, there is nothing different to know about opensource software compared with proprietary software:   Whatever can be said of the first, applies just as much to the second (technically speaking)

In my experience, Users rarely really care (unless they like politics or economics) if the software they use is opensource or not, concentrating most of their energy on wishing it were more "user-friendly" and allowed them to get the job they need done quickly and painlessly.

I have not yet found a magical solution to remove the feeling of helplessness beginner USERS feel (other than old fashioned "hand-holding", avoiding changing the interface which they are accustomed to, and basic principles of good user interface design), nor the feeling of being taken for granted that voluntary opensource programmers often feel when exposed to such beginning users in support forums

So I propose that the basics for such beginner USERS be to not take for granted the work of opensource programmers (at least within their earshot, and in forums) , and to find a mentor who will walk them through their first steps

About Beginner opensource PROGRAMMER (with no experience programming):

These are the people who having heard the hype now want to taste the goodness of opensource for themselves.  I notice that few of them actually learn programming by participating in forums but this group is immensenly valuable because they perform the following work:

A. they test the software thoroughly under real conditions and publish lots of bug reports (almost half of any programming project whether open source or proprietary is spent fixing bugs which therefore must be found.)

B. they report user experience anecdotes and formulate valuable feature requests, helping mold the evolving software in a good direction

C. they are cheerleaders for the programming team, providing them with energy and motivation to carry on (thanks to the complex synergy at play)

D. they write documentation, tutorials, put on online workshops and demonstration sites and "evangelize" the project (Public Relations)
In reply to Christie Mason

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Bruno Vernier -
This question assumes we agree on the goals of the "Open Source Movement". 

The term "Open Source Movement" makes it sound like a political party but as I hope I demonstrated with the GPL vs BSD posting,  this is not a monolithic movement sharing the same political or economic goals. 

For example, RMS (Richard M Stallman) who invented the GPL wants all software to be free (freedom-ware) as his ultimate goal.  A computer program is a series of zeros and ones (binary digits), and therefore it is a number.  Who would think of copyrighting numbers in mathematics?  So he and his followers measure success by the proportion of software that is freedom-ware and exclude BSD-style licences from that calculation

On the other hand, a major leader for the BSD side like ESR (Eric S Raymond) measures success by the proportion of companies that adopt open source either as users (consumers) or as producers even if they convert it to proprietary licences like Apple.  He (reluctantly) includes GPL style licences in his count. 

But a lot of people (like me) are satisfied with the goal that all opensource licences be accepted alternatives everywhere we are likely to work and play in.  So for example, as long as my school district allows me to use opensource, and give equal consideration and weight to opensource alternatives when making software acquisition decisions, I consider the "open source movement" successful.

Based on the above, Christie's fear of IBM-like middlemen is not shared by ESR and the business-centered BSD-style crowd.  The GPL purist have no problem with companies making lots of money from providing middlemen services as long as the licence stays GPL.  And guys like me use the information that IBM is pro-opensource as an easy talking-point when arguing in favour of opensource alternatives in school districts.

Finally, Christie's fear  that opensource projects  lose efficiency due to  syphoning of energy towards  newbie education is  very  interesting.  As an info tech (computer science) high school teacher, I am thrilled that more and more people are learning computer science by tackling opensource projects as users, bug reporters, documentation writers, forum responders and of course programmers.  In a community like moodle, the core programmers don't spend too much time helping newbies although I believe it is valuable for such people to rub shoulders with newbies to keep the user interface friendly.  Personally I don't judge the success of an opensource project entirely on the quality or level of discussion in the support forums;  I also look at the quality  of the code and the official bug tracking mechanisms, the mechanisms for cooperation among programmers, and the reaction of ordinary non-forum using users when exposed (forced to) use opensource programs. 

Christie, I do agree that the quality of support via forums varies widely (over time and over projects) in opensource as well as commercial software projects.  There is much to be written about that aspect but I personally don't see it as a specifically opensource issue, more as a challenge for the entire computer software industry.

Finally, I think the greatest risk to opensource is in the same area where it all started:  Copyright Law.   Blackboard's lawsuit  is a danger only if the courts accept patenting of concepts like "online courses".   Anyone really interested in helping the opensource movement really really should study copyright law to some extent and follow the work of champions such as groklaw and creative commons
In reply to Bruno Vernier

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Heather Ross -
Bruno,

You raise excellent points. I don't mean to lump every bit of open source or open source user/developer together. I know that there are different views, different experiences, and different types of users/developers.

I agree that with what you said about Blackboard, but I am concerned about the way the courts will handle this. After all, a company in the US was granted a patent on a gene (something inside of us) and at least one court has already upheld that.
In reply to Bruno Vernier

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Julia Hengstler -
Bruno,
 I'd like to clarify a bit more around the Free Software Movement, the Open Source Movement, and BSD licensing. You said that "RMS (Richard M Stallman) who invented the GPL wants all software to be free (freedom-ware) as his ultimate goal.  A computer program is a series of zeros and ones (binary digits), and therefore it is a number.  Who would think of copyrighting numbers in mathematics?  So he and his followers measure success by the proportion of software that is freedom-ware and exclude BSD-style licences from that calculation."
I have recently finished corresponding with Mr. Stallman for a textbook chapter I'm writing, and I think such a description does him and the Free Software Movement a disservice in its ethical and political aims.

  For an upcoming text, I wrote about this:
"Why is public access to source code so important? It is because technology has become an essential tool for progress on so many fronts and the Internet has played a significant role in the democratization of information. C. DiBona, Ockman, and Stone (1992) illustrate this importance with the following analogy:

Imagine for a moment if Newton had withheld his laws of motion, and instead gone into business as a defense contractor to artillerists following the 30 Years War. "No, I won't tell you how I know about parabolic trajectories, but I'll calibrate your guns for a fee." The very idea, of course, sounds absurd. (p. 11)

Stallman believes this analogy doesn’t go far enough: “[It’s] is an understatement.  Compared with software in 2000, physics in 1700 had a very small role in affecting people's lives” (personal communication, September 11, 2006 12:58 PM). " (Hengstler & Rees, in press)

The issue of proprietary commercial software versus open source and free software (what I now call freely sourced) has a cultural context. When you review the history of the Free Software Movement, you follow a cultural history where program development was a collective, shared, intellectual activity of programmers--much as the scientific model--prior to the rise of a proprietary approach to software in the late 1970s and following:

"As Williams (2002) points out, for members of the younger generation of programmers, proprietary programs have always been part of the landscape:

…grown up in a world of proprietary software. Unless a program was clearly inferior, most saw little reason to rail against a program on licensing issues alone. Somewhere in the universe of free software systems lurked a program that hackers might someday turn into a free software alternative…Until then, why begrudge..[a company] the initiative of developing the program and reserving the rights to it? (chap. 11)

Ultimately, such a philosophical disconnect would cause tensions in the hacker communities." (Hengstler & Rees, in press)


Here is an excerpt from the conclusion of the chapter section detailing the issue of terminology (free software or open source):

"As the commercialization-proprietarization of programming in the 1980s divided hackers, the 1990s saw the freely sourced communities begin to divide around the terms and concepts of free software and open source.  While the meaning of “free” could be confusing, the implication for the philosophy of the movement has been popularized by the phrase, “‘free'’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer’” ((Free Software Foundation, Inc., 2004).Stallman continued his strong ethical stance for maintaining the terminology of free to emphasize the implied freedoms. Stallman also continued his campaign against proprietary software of any type. At the same time in the freely sourced communities, there was a growing faction seeking to ally with commercial players in the interests of wooing them to freely source their proprietary products—as happened with Netscape—and to avoid ethical implications in their work. Add to this, Stallman’s past confrontational history with proprietary agents and Raymond’s highly public portrayal of Torvalds’ and Stallman’s divergent development styles and you have a recipe for community polarization.

An undeniable fact of the Free Software Movement is that that free software is an issue more than price with an attendant value system. This affects its popular appeal when contrasted with the Open Source Movement. While a portion of the population does make conscious choices based on values, there is a large segment which avoids self-examination. Instead, their choices are guided by expediency and price point. From the perspective of price point and expediency, the value system of free software can be an extra feature some are not willing to contemplate as a conscious choice; thus, open source provides an alternative.  The division is very similar to the difference between megastore marketing strategies (e.g. Walmart-like) and green/socially conscious marketing strategies.  Perhaps, Stallman (2004) sums this up best when he speaks of  “an "economistic" approach to all these issues, and economics, as it often does, operates as a .. [vehicle] for unexamined values.”

Without a doubt, terminology continues to be fuzzy and problematic. As Stallman said, “In nearly all cases, the software which is called ‘free’ is also open source, and the software which is called ‘open source’ is also free (though there are occasional exceptions to the latter).  The difference is a mainly matter of the philosophy that the speaker endorses” (personal communication, September 10, 2006 6:05 AM). If as Stallman and the FSF contend, the name is reflective of values, the question is whose values—the values of the original programmers of software, the values of the contributors, distributors, or end-users? While a programmer might make a political statement by calling a work free software ala Stallman, if others do not share that value system may they be equally justified in calling it open source as they use it or expand it—or would they be bound by the preceding intentions? Clearly, literal terms can only take us so far." (Hengstler & Rees , 2006, in press)


Here's an excerpt on the history on the BSD licensing as well:

"So it was in June 1989, Berkeley distributed Networking Release 1, “the first freely-redistributable [BSD] code from Berkeley(McKusick, 1999, p. 7). The licensing for Networking Release 1 would provide one of the earliest examples of freely sourced licensing. Under the terms of the contract,

A licensee could release the code modified or unmodified in source or binary form with no accounting or royalties to Berkeley. The only requirements were that the copyright notices in the source file be left intact and that products that incorporated the code indicate in their documentation that the product contained code from the University of California and its contributors. Although Berkeley charged a $1,000 fee to get a tape, anyone was free to get a copy from anyone who already had received it. Indeed, several large sites put it up for anonymous ftp shortly after it was released. Given that it was so easily available, the CSRG [Fabry’s Computer Systems Research Group at Berkeley] was pleased that several hundred organizations purchased copies, since their fees helped fund further development. (McKusick, 1999, p. 7)

In contrast to copyright, the copyleft approach that would surface in Stallman's (1985a; 1985b) GNU Manifesto and 1989 General Public License (GPL) (Free Software Foundation, Inc.), the BSD license and its successors have become known as examples of “copycenter”.  While copyright secures the proprietary nature of the work and copyleft obligates any subsidiary or ancillary work to include the rights to redistribute and copy, copycenter falls in between. Copycenter licenses effectively put the licensed work in the public domain for people to do with it as they would. While the BSD license was implemented about the same time as GPL, Stallman stated, “…it had no effect on the GNU GPL.  Its only effect on the GNU Project was that it made some free software available that we could use” (Stallman, R. M., personal communication, September 17, 2006 2:04 PM)."  "(Hengstler & Rees, in press)

BSD provided a platform to launch a series of businesses.



Julia Hengstler



In reply to Julia Hengstler

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Therese Weel -
Thanks for sharing this Julia

I see the confusing array of these supplementary licenses part of a larger renaissance.   How can we develop value, distribute that value and share in the benefits in a global connected economy.  Glad we have had open source software to work out some of these issues.    I agree with your comments about proprietary and open source licensing co-existing.  If there is a healthy open source alternative, the user will benefit by adopting it.  However if you are on the leading edge there is nothing wrong with charging for your software under a user license or as a service. If it has value people will buy it.  If not...well maybe it`s time to try your hand at something else.  

I spent years installing enterprise systems. We took our clients processes and business knowledge, turned it into software and sold it back to them.   If a healthy open source alternative existed,  it would be much less expensive and the software would eventually be better as a whole than what free market competition would produce.  Plus you could choose who you wanted to help you and would not get stuck in a legal quagmire with a single service provider.

I've been looking at this stuff for a few years now and it's still clear as mud.  I get the gist of it and that's good enough for me.

Open source is an attractive buzz word,  there are a few venture backed ASP platforms built on open source software.  These applications use the "peace love and open source " meme to reel in the unsuspecting while less popularized products actually provide better value.  Also, I have found that in some communities, IMO the code is deliberately flawed and hobbled in the same way that some freeware applications are.   We'll have to look a bit more into human nature to work that one out.
In reply to Therese Weel

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Julia Hengstler -
Therese,
I hope that I don't come out as strongly as Stallman does--he's an all or nothing type of guy and he ONLY runs free software (freely available source code) on his computer. He's the first person that I've ever met that uses the word "evil" and means just that--using it in relation to proprietary software. But, hey, he's the leader of the Free Software Movement and is passionate about his cause.

I think that there's a place for each type of software, but as the Unix Wars, Lisp Wars and burgeoning GPL Wars have shown, that co-existence can be anything but peaceful--especially when market domination is an imperative. In the Unix Wars ,AT&T and it's partners sought the lion's share, in the Lisp Wars it was Symbolics, with educational learning platforms--some call them VLEs (virtual learning environments)--the Blackboard/WebCT conglomerate is exhibiting many of the AT&T and Symbolics behaviours.
Julia
In reply to Julia Hengstler

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Bruno Vernier -
thank for honouring me with a critique of my posting, Julia:  I am impressed both with the academic quality of your posting and the fact that you are a co-author of an upcoming book on the subject!!

You state that I may be doing a "disservice" to RMS and the GPL community by misrepresenting their ethical and political goals ... but then the rest of the posting essentially repeats in formal academic style what I have been saying ... with the possible exception of the relationship with BSD or copycentre licences.

In a personal communication with RMS, you found out that he was neutral towards the BSD and (in a minor way) made use of its licencing provisions to incorporate some BSD code  as GPL as needed.  That is great!  and as far as I know no one is upset by that.  So that means I overstated the case, and should remove the clause about him measuring success from "the proportion of all software that is GPL excluding BSD style licences" to "the proportion of all software that is "free-source", meaning preferentially GPL-style but also including in a neutral (and may i say: un-enthusiastic) way BSD copycentre-style licences"

would that work for you?  And since my post caused you to post such a top-level response, would you consider re-evaluating  the value of my contribution :-) ?

I like RMS as a person (I was in the audience when he visited UBC in the late 90's) and I have deep gratitude for his contribution to civilization: the GPL   (ok, and maybe emacs too :-)

Recently, the debate seems to be switching to GPL3 vs GPL2 and how GPL3 can avoid the need to go through expensive lawsuits in the upcoming struggle between the bizarre microsoft-novell deal  and  the "free-source" world
In reply to Bruno Vernier

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Therese Weel -
I like RMS as well. We need more like him.

His ideas resonated quite strongly with me and the behaviors I had seen in government and industry.  Which are evil - or in my words selfish, dishonest, disempowering and exploitative. The Blackboard WebCT patent thing is one example

I ran free software on my laptop for a year to learn linux and see what  could be done.  With the exception of Skype everything was FOSS.  My laptop was my only computer at the time. 

I enjoyed using linux  and the learning curve. It is a different animal.   I was disappointed that major manufacturers of peripherials such as cameras and PDAs dont cater to linux users. I was able to work out most of the device issues  with the help of those who had gone before me.  In fact everything was fine until I  downloaded a  proprietary client and messed up my sound card so badly that I decided to buy a new windows box to keep going.

I prefer working in linux.  No advertising, no viruses, no nonsense, if you want some software - just download some. 

It`s a refreshing change.

With that said.  The downside is the time and effort it takes to use this stuff. I would appreciate some "Coles Notes" to help me wrap my head around it.

Re-reading your first post - here is an excerpt I like because it nicely describes a key point.

While a portion of the population does make conscious choices based on values, there is a large segment which avoids self-examination. Instead, their choices are guided by expediency and price point.... Perhaps, Stallman (2004) sums this up best when he speaks of  “an "economistic" approach to all these issues, and economics, as it often does, operates as a .. [vehicle] for unexamined values.

Thanks again Julia for this opportunity to examine and express my views on this subject.
In reply to Bruno Vernier

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Julia Hengstler -
Sorry, Bruno.
No disrespect to your post was intended. In your encapsulated definition, I didn't think that your post really reflected the ethical/political passion behind Stallman and his development of the Free Software Movement--which is one of the key separations between the Free Software and the Open Source Movments: for Stallman, GNU and the proponents of Free Software--as opposed to open source--it is a truly ethical and political battle/war against proprietary software of any type as opposed to the more symbiotic nature of the open source/proprietary-commercial interests.
Julia
In reply to Julia Hengstler

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Bruno Vernier -
Julia and Therese,

I really think the GPL is such a great invention that it goes way beyond its creator.  Let me explain:

RMS speaks of economics (negatively) as a [vehicle] for unexamined values. Stated positively, economic benefits happen without us having to make any moral effort (that is a central thesis of Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations)

RMS thus argues that choosing the GPL is morally higher than choosing BSD style licenses.  I don't want to or need to argue for or against this point, rather:

Ironically and happily (for reasons i will explain), once a piece of software has been licenced GPL, it becomes itself a vehicle for unexamined values ... in the same sense that economics happens without us having to make any moral effort... GPLed software automatically goes to work (those against calling it "viral", those for it calling it "protecting our rights and freedom") for  that  initial version, every version derived from it from now till eternity and even arguably for anything that includes it as part of an integrated collection ... as long as a tiny part of an integrated mass of software uses GPL software, the entire mass is "contaminated" (according to the naysayers) or "legally and ethically obligated" (according to the enthusiasts) ... for example microsoft lost face when it was shown it was using a tiny piece of GPL software in its TCPIP stack ... not just because it was hypocritical (what else is new) but because it is on shaky legal ground, and likely losing arguments in debates, confusing some discerning clients and worse, confusing some its own key employees perhaps contributing to a mini-exodus.  Let's not forget that around Microsoft's birth, Bill Gates spent a lot of time preaching the gospel of the morality of respecting proprietary intellectual property, and its economic benefits. At the time, almost everyone was sharing (he called it "pirating") software, thinking they were helping spread this new technology for the betterment of society.

My point is that despite RMS's motivations for the GPL, once it has been attached to a program, perhaps forever, much like capital in a free economy, it will take on a life of its own, benefiting the original author for sure, but also multiplying its benefits in countless other situations (like circulating capital)

and ironically, in contrast, BSD copycentred licenses, once adopted, still promote examination of conscience whenever a new version is created or an integration is contemplated ... at each of those points, the original intent of the author can be either morally abandoned or  maintained ... 

personally, I think the BSD is free-er than the GPL in the sense that even original intent can be changed at will anytime in the future (so human decision making is possible in perpetuity).  But the GPL is stronger in the sense that the original great freedoms are maintained forever and I can bank on it (as much as we can bank on anything) ... backed with the confidence that the GPL works just like the hidden hand of Adam Smith:  we do not need to make any particular moral effort to ensure it works as advertized... it just works.  And with GPL version 3, it seems that we can even protect ourselves from litigation!  Even if this is only very partially true, it is very amazing and most sustainable

After spending the first part of my life un-successfully looking for a magical way to help all humans make socially-conscious decisions i.e. going into morally high ground,  I finally saw the wisdom of instruments that do good without requiring participants to examine their values constantly (or at all).  And in the GPL, I think we have one such rare bird:  it pleases both idealists (like RMS) and liberal economists (like Linus Torvalds) ... therefore it is a huge phenomenon.

In reply to Bruno Vernier

Re: What Do You Think Might Be Threats To The Open Source Movement?

by Therese Weel -
Thanks Bruno

I really appreciate your insight.   We need to do more than read the wikipedia definition or the various licenses.  Experience is the best teacher as it allows us to get a feel for how to work in open source and the implications of doing so.

Found this recent article in Information Age, thought I would offer it here.

Open Source Grows Up.   Information Age November 2006

http://www.information-age.com/article/2006/november_2006/open_source_grows_up