Linux

Fifty shades of open source

To many, open source is black and white -- software is either open or not. Jack Wallen sees the new world order in shades of gray and begs the open source community to be more open in their attitude.

I wanted so badly to not use that title -- but honestly, it fits. I've been thinking a lot lately on exactly what it means to be open source. I only moments ago read an interview of one of the founders of the Free Software Foundation and was reminded of the phrase:

Everything in moderation.

Up until recently, there have been three levels of open source users:

  • Those that will not use anything until it is 100% open
  • Those that will use anything, so long as it gets the job done
  • Those that will not use open source, regardless

Like so many things, it is that middle sector that seems to be winning out. But even within that group, there are shades and variations. And, to make matters more interesting, there are developers and businesses who are starting not only to see and reap the benefits of that gray area, they are starting to drive it forward. This means the open source community might well have to become a bit more open to a few new shades in their world.

Let me explain.

  • Steam is close to being released unto the world.
  • The auto industry is proclaiming the release of the first "open source" car.
  • Social networking APIs are flying rampant across the internet.
  • Governments across the globe are trying to figure out how to save money.
  • Businesses are adopting open source at blinding speeds.
  • The Android platform is arriving as a front-runner in the M2M space.

What do all of these things have in common? On varying levels -- open source. What is, however, becoming abundantly clear is that the majority of the prime movers aren't purists -- they need to mix and match metaphors and technologies to create the best solution for the problem at hand. This means some will be using open source in one area and closed source in another. It also means there will be situations where open and closed source technologies must function together to create a seamless whole.

And that, my friends, is the real and true rub. That rub, however, rubs some of the open source community in the wrong way. To those that have issue with amalgams, I have this to say:

It's 2013 -- time to realize "World Domination" will never happen for any one technology company (that is, until the Singularity hits).

Even beyond that, all of us open source advocates need to finally come to grips with the idea that a few new shades of openness are evolving. Companies are taking advantage of open source technology; using it to drive forward their (mostly) proprietary software. So long as those companies do not obfuscate the open source technologies, all is well. Instead of the open source community getting up in arms about this, they should be celebrating the fact that their technology is being use to further another project.

At the same time, these businesses must also be thankful in the form of giving back. Should that company improve the open source code, it is their duty to hand those improvements back to the community that created the piece that helped them.

There are also companies out there hoping to make a profit from open source software. Those businesses cannot (nor should not) be frowned upon. A lot of the open source community I know feels profit should not be made from the GPL. To them I say, if a company can leverage open source to turn a profit, they should not only be allowed, they should be encouraged.

Think about it this way: Let's say Company X uses open source and creates a product that everyone wants. Company X makes sure to keep the source available, but also creates proprietary features or add-ons that help them make a profit from the original project. Instead of the open source community bemoaning the fact that Company X created software with code that will never be released to the public, the open source community should be raising their hands in celebration to say, "Without us Company X would never have made it!"

It's like Facebook. Facebook was built, from the ground up, using open source technology. It's rare I hear the open source community celebrating this. Instead, more voices are raised in protest to what Facebook is monitoring on their feeds. It's the same thing happening to Ubuntu now -- the open source community crying out that Ubuntu Unity is allowing the great and powerful monster that is Amazon to monitor our searching. It's not, "Look at this cool feature that is helping to bridge open source to business." It's "I don't want Amazon knowing what I search in the privacy of my own home."

To that, I say -- let 'em monitor my searching. Why? First and foremost, I've nothing to hide. Second, I shop Amazon a lot and find the Unity Dash actually makes that easier now and my search results are generally far more accurate now. But that's just me. And even though I am just as paranoid as the next, I'm also open to the idea that businesses will continue to work together to help one another -- like Ubuntu and Amazon.

The world is changing faster than we can possibly manage to keep up. That change is driven by technology -- and, on nearly every level, open source. The whole of the open source world is not nearly as black and white as it once was. Shouting out, "I want everything 100% open!" is like saying, "I want to use a computer that was 100% made in America!"

Yes, you can use a 100% open source computer. But, if you are truly a purist, you:

  • Aren't accepting documents from anyone who created or modified that document in anything that isn't open source.
  • Aren't going to any website, of any kind, if it isn't 100% open.
  • Aren't watching videos or listening to music.
  • Probably aren't actually using a computer, seeing as how that hardware wasn't created in an open environment.

Do you see where this is going? It's a new world. With that new world comes a different shade of open source. I like to call that shade "open, open source". What exactly does that mean? It means the definition of open source, and its driving community, is a bit more fluid and accepting than it once was. If you're still living in a reality where open source has but two shades, I can honestly say that digital life is going to get more and more challenging for you. It's time to open your eyes and accept the fifty shades of open source.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

19 comments
Duke E Love
Duke E Love

Open Source is communist in nature and is one tiny step away from being socialist. Socialists want to destroy capitalism and America. So it must follow that Open Source's goal is to destroy capitalism and thus America. Not only is it treason but anything and anyone that wants to destroy capitalism and America should be viewed as being terrorists. Dear Open Source developers, why do you hate America so much?

C-3PO
C-3PO

So why can't the GPL include statements that take this into account - for instance, should the open source be used as part of a profitable endeavor, a portion of the profits must be filtered back to the continued development of the open source software... rather like shareware - if you use it freely and don't profit from it, then it is yours to use for free. If you profit from it, then please make a donation - only the please becomes a requirement in the legalese. I'm sure that happens somewhere.... Just a thought.

Sagax-
Sagax-

They said "Linux" - how do you pronounce that? Or does Apache really work? As time goes by we often covered the landscape with the acronym LAMP. Even that is now insufficient. Open Source has taken on a life of its own and we can all take our opinions of what it should be and put them in the rubbish bin. What will be, will be.

janitorman
janitorman

Whether I usually agree with Jack's articles or not, I think he's dead on, on this one. Agreed, who would ever heard of cheap tablets flooding the market without Android, made by one of the largest open source users in the world, albeit painted evil by some? Otherwise we'd be stuck with all-proprietary, albeit pervasive iThis and iThat devices, I suppose, or Windows motley offering, even though they're TRYING to catch up with Surface (I personally don't see that happening.) Now that all these Android devices exist, Ubuntu gives you the CHOICE to install it with dash on them, OR choose something else like Xubuntu, for your desktop. And yes, Canonical would never have been able to get this far without making a profit off something. I don't begrudge them their Amazon integration, although I never use it and know how to TAKE IT OUT if i want (the beauty of Linux allows that, easily.)

Mmorris2009
Mmorris2009

I foresee the event in which most businesses grab open source technology for their own use, and have a resident developer adjust the code, add to the code, and modify that open source code to meet the needs of the business. Companies would be spending less money for a product that is catered specifically to their own needs.It would be within this innovation to spawn new ideas, concepts, and perpetually new software or technology. Open source software will also give businesses the ability to increase efficiency and productivity with their self-created software. It can not get much better than that.

threebirds
threebirds

From inside America, we're still frequently snobs about Apple and Microsoft operating systems as the purer choice. Go outside and look at the global community. They see the power of open source bringing them up to par with reduced committment of resources. That is real creativity: achieving the same or better with less. OpenSource puts computing in the hands of millions. Open source is a fantastic act of kindness. Bits and pieces that are "closed" are necessary to keep things stitched together. Who can't live with that?

wamorita
wamorita

Hard core Open Source is justified for some projects. Just look at what has happend to many of the open source projects out of Sun. Because of Open Source, Libre Office was able to break off and proceed with development while Oracle diddled. mySQL now has some proprietary components and interfaces.

todd_dsm
todd_dsm

I use a postfix/greylisting email gateway to protect MS Exchange. Also, Samba has the facility to auto-delete files of a type. This, coupled with Windows home directory redirection is hot. I can't tell you how many .pif, .bat, and .exe files are logged after removal; so samba is effectively another layer of virus/trojan protection. I derive alotta joy explaining that Linux can protect MS in a way it cannot do for itself.

sysop-dr
sysop-dr

Open source is about sharing. If I make something, it works for me and hey maybe someone else might like it too. And if you do like it and want to improve it (say a bug fix or a new feature) please share that back to me. This is what makes open source work. And most people who use any open source products don't have anything to share back and that is not a problem, hopefully they report bugs and can test things but if not it's ok.

Divergex
Divergex

I agree wholeheartedly. I am an open source guy myself but I recognize that proprietary software has its place in the tech world. Also, profit does not mean evil. Gaining some financial reward for the hard work of writing code is really nice, and can help push projects forward. Many don't want to accept this.

todd_dsm
todd_dsm

maybe a friend helped you wash your car? It's more like that. You see, junior - all software was written to cure some pain in the ass; some cures are klugey while others have an elegant simplicity. But I can't think of one Open Source project that has: *Stolen $74 billion in pensions and payrolls; thanks Enron, or *Assist them in the crime; thanks Arthur Anderson, or *Simply lose $3.85 billion in a sad and confusing accounting snafu; thanks WorldCom, or *Flat-out steal $150 million from the company that feeds them; thanks Tyco or, lest we forget... *Goldman Sachs for promoting credit default swaps into legislation, then laughing as Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and AIG get kicked down the stairs for dabbling in it. But to this day, I can't think of even one piece of open sourced software designed to wreck capitalism unless... you were talking about Windows Viruses? But we really don't need those either... We already have something designed to efficiently wear-down capitalism - greedy CEO's. Dude, I know you were kidding when you said that but you tee'd it up so nicely I had to swing at it.

todd_dsm
todd_dsm

It's better to just not ask it of the GPL. If the merit system fails, humanity has more problems than it can reasonably deal with anyway.

SimonHobson
SimonHobson

The GPL was very carefully written so as to prevent anyone imposing restriction on what anyone else can use the software for. The whole point is that a commercial licence is all about restricting the user - they read as "you can't do X, you can't do Y, ..." and this usually goes on for page after page. If you look back through history, pretty well all "new stuff" is built on a foundation of "old stuff" - the old "Standing on the shoulders of giants" saying (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_on_the_shoulders_of_giants). Commercial licences are all about keeping everyone else with their feet on the ground. The GPL is about making it expressly allowed to stand on the shoulders of those who've put work in before. If you were to try and impose a "we take a cut of any commercial receipts" clause then that would have two very important effects. The first is that it would undermine the principal bit of the GPL - that you may not restrict how and for what someone else may use the software. The second is that it would open the biggest can of worms imaginable. What is "for profit" to start with ? I'll give a real example of something I'm working on right now ... I'm setting up a small box that we can plug inline with a customer's internet connection and it will log their traffic - broken down by IP address, and eventually by service. It's running Debian, and the customer will be fully aware of that - and if they want access to the box then they will get it (subject to the usual "don't pork around and break it" talk first). So, what parts of that are for profit ? We won't be charging them a penny for the software - but we will be charging them for the hardware and (some of) my time to set it up. Secondly, if it were to fall within such a "for profit" rule, then who would get the money ? Will it runs the Linux kernel, so that's one chunk. It relies on coretools, so that's another. Then it runs Shorewall, so should Tom Eastep get a share as well ? And RRD Tools, so a share to Tobias Oetiker ? There may well be other "primary" packages involved, and then a load of dependencies as well - so where do you stop ? Do I end up paying 1c each to many different developers ? How will that work given that it would cost orders of magnitude more than that to simply send them the money ? Or should the money go to some central collecting agency like music royalties ? Same issues will apply in determining who should get the money - only this time there'll be the middleman to take his cut first. I think we all know how well that works in the music industry.

TRgscratch
TRgscratch

Users (individuals, typically) who don't have the ability to add functionality or fix bugs (or even report them)? Are they excluded?

SimonHobson
SimonHobson

As Divergex says, it takes all sorts. Personally I'm a pragmatist. I like free*/open software, but I use all sorts. I'm not averse to paying for software - and do. But I also look to see if something free/open will do the job for me. One of the great things about free/open is (as long as you are aware of the licences you are using), you can be free of inhibition when it comes to spawning off a new box to do something - unlike some of my colleagues that spend a certain amount of time each month doing their "tax returns" to a certain commercial outfit. But while it's easy to say "we need to be flexible", we also need the hardcore like Richard Stallman (RMS). We may (partially) agree with those that think he's "somewhat eccentric", and may find him "rather irritating" to have a conversation with (I've met him, had that experience) - but without those that have stood their ground over the years then we'd see a creeping closed-ness infecting more and more software. You only need to look at Android to see how someone like Google can take something that's ostensibly open, and start closing it off round the edges. Without the "no compromise" GPL then I think there's be a lot less free/open software around today. And even those that will only use closed/commercial software need to thank people like RMS. Look at what happened to internet browsers once Microsoft had no competition. Not only did Windows users get stuck with IE6 for a long long time with naff all development, but also non-Windows users got stuck with a web designed for IE6. Only when others (notably Firefox) came along and gave them some real competition did MS wake up and do some work. I've even worked with people who until fairly recently took that attitude that because company systems work with IE6 then it's my fault for using a Mac, not their fault for making systems that don't work with it. They've since had to do a lot of catching up, and they've found it a "challenging" experience I think. * Free as in speech as RSM would say (I think).

C-3PO
C-3PO

Valid points, and perhaps my view was a bit simplistic. Comparing it to the music industry is a good one though. It is out of the kindness of their hearts that these developers are sharing the code, just as it is usually the passion for music that makes most musicians write. In an ideal world we could all do what we love and share it freely (I would honestly love to see that), but at some point, we all have to eat, build a house and feed our kids... I feel for these developers who's hours of work are simply taken and used - and then on top of that, there are those who make a profit from it! That somehow seems wrong. There must be *some* way to give back to them for what they give us. Perhaps if we find a way with Open Source software, we can apply it back to all the starving artists in every other discipline as well. Thanks for the depth in your reply.

tdrane
tdrane

... but at least if I do incur a bug or a glitch, I try to repeat it and pass it along to the developer. The only thing I know about code is to stay away from it. Oh, I do use open source, and will either donate or click ads on websites, browse, and even sometimes, (gasp), purchase something. So, I do try to support it.

j0nn0
j0nn0

My dear sir! I think you'll find, if you examine the literature, that RMS would object to the term "open source", preferring the term "Free Software". But then, let's not get into /that/ debate again ;)

SimonHobson
SimonHobson

If you look, you'll see I only talked about free/open, not mentioning "open source". Whether he (or anyone else) likes it or not, "open source" is the popular phrase that most people use when they mean "free (as in speech) and open" and that's not likely to change. In the same way that it's not likely people will stop saying Linux when they mean GNU/Linux, or stop saying "Hoover" when they mean vacuum cleaner, or any of a miriad of similar common terms. The fact that open source is also used to mean things that don't meet the definition of free and open is another problem. Personally I think it's important not to get too hung up on it. While I can see where RMS is coming from, I do think his hard line attitude does put a lot of people off and they fail to hear the underlying message.

Editor's Picks