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What "Free software" really means...

Jun 28, 1999, 09:12 (6 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Benjamin Smith)

By Benjamin Smith

Open source.

It's everywhere. It is making headlines, and growing in geometric waves in popularity and pervasiveness.

It's really easy to get into the excitement of the moment, as a loose, international band of software coders create free, quality, stable, commercial-grade products. (products that in many cases outperform their "commercial counterparts"!)

It's easy to get caught in Mindcraft II, or the latest benchmark from ZDNet, or the latest hack/add-in to PoPToP, the Point-to-Point Tunnelling protocol hack now well underway.

But with all of this, perhaps, it is a good idea to see the terrain the road we travel leads us through.

The invention of the car led us through the seemingly unlikely creation of strip-malls, like Costco and Wal-mart. And, who would have thought, in 1920, of the drive-thru restaurant?

Any major invention leads to unexpected results. It could easily be argued that the Internet itself is but an unexpected outgrowth of the telephone company.

So, what outgrowths are coming from Linux and the Open-source movement in general?

One unexpected result is an opening of business practices. Suddenly, things that were out of view and hush-hush are being pried open, and corporate entities that were once carefully private can no longer be.

It is my feeling that software companies will become, over time, more of a service-related business. How long will people pay more for a word-processor that, fundamentally, still just takes words and puts them on paper? As open-source grows, the software company must then provide some sort of continuing value, and the power of computing will finally, and permenantly, rest with the people who use computers, rather than people who program them.

It is clear that the powers that be at Microsoft feel this way as well, as they invest their many assets increasingly into the entertainment businesses. (such as MSNBC and Disney)

As we move increasingly into a digital world, a world where people meet other people, shop, do business, in short, live their lives, it is important to define how that life is to be lived.

As was done in Britain with the Magna Carta, the United States with the U.S. Constitution, so is now being done through the GPL, in cyberspace.

Yes, perhaps that is a bit of a stretch. But here this out.

Communist Russia was, as communist China is today, a very "closed" country. Freedoms of speech, religeon, etc. are either non-existent, or weakly enforced at best. People could not scrutinize their ruling entity, their govornment, and control, be it political or economic, was extremely centralized. Whatever the ruling body decreed, the citizens endured.

So long as things weren't "too bad", the power base remained.

The ruling body went to great lengths to ensure that nothing ever challenged them, while telling their subjects of the oppression they oppose.

How is that significantly different than the standard, proprietary, corporate software model?

Features deemed good enough by the august body of Microsoft are the features that we, the netizens of this world, must (in their perfect world) live with. In short, they have the power and the control, and it is we, the netizen, who must endure.

New features are often just a calculated ruse to ensure that nobody else can seriously challenge them, all while we are told about the attempt to "limit" the free enterprise by those who oppose their proprietary, anti-competitive business model.

Now, enter in the open-source model. This gives us the power to vote, in effect, by giving us the full control of the computing environment. We choose the features by building into our open source projects the features we most want.

We decide what freedoms, restrictions, safety and security we are comfortable with, and whether or not we choose to take on ourselves the effort of self-governing.

We live with our own efforts, as a people, and not by the decree of any self-proclaimed authority.

This is democracy. This is rule of the people, the netizens.

For it is the operating system, and the applications used on it, that determine the rights, responsibilities, and rules of the digital society we are fast fabricating.

And fast fabrication is the order of the day. The Internet is exploding rapidly, and easily forms the foundation of what we call cyberspace. Cyberspace can legitimately be called a "place". It is a place where people shop, transact, meet, date, and in some cases, marry. It is a place, now, just like any other. So what are the laws of this "place"?

Can "Open Source" be likened to its big brother, "Open Communication"? We see it all around us, here in this new "place" called cyberspace. Fast becoming some of the most used portals are special interest sites that merely link to other sites. See www.slashdot.org, or www.linuxtoday.com, or any of a growing number of such "communities", that take advantage of a maxim similar to Open Source: "Web pages are free to download, and if you add to them, what you add is available to everybody else for free download".

Open source is not a new way of doing business, it is the foundation of the Internet itself, and its out-growths, like the world wide web.

So, next time you read about the latest Mindcraft debacle, or the next windows virus, think about this:

The well-being of our posterity depend on what we do here and now.

What form of govornment will YOU vote for?