Saturday, June 23, 2007

Open Source's Death Greatly Exaggerated

It is always interesting to see how many ways a smugly dismissive post about free and open source software can be wrong at the same time. George Siemens writes:

Web 2.0 is killing open source. We too often equate free tools with open tools. Not the case at all. Google offers great software tools to make money and capture market share. Not because they adhere to a higher ideal of a better world. The ideals of open source software (and related concerns, including content) are usurped by ease of software use (hmm, install squirrelmail or use Gmail? Set up WordPress or use Blogger?

First off, as is usual in this genre of posts, Siemens does not recognize or acknowledge the meaning of the word "open source," which was coined for the express purpose of describing a process or methodology that does NOT "adhere to a higher ideal of a better world." The idealistic movement is Free Software. This is like not knowing the difference between someone who does not eat meat to keep his cholesterol down and someone who does not eat meat for religious reasons. It is like writing a post about "connectivism" but calling it "constructivism" or "constructionism."

Of course, neither open source or free software are being killed. They are both healthier than ever. There is simply no evidence to the contrary.

And of course, "Web 2.0" is overwhelmingly built on free software: Linux, Apache, Ruby, Rails, Java, Python, MySQL, etc., etc., etc., so any kind of either/or analysis is fundamentally flawed. But you already know that, don't you?


George Siemens said...

Hi Tom, thanks for your comments.
First, I don't intend to be smugly dismissive about free/open source...though I have a feeling that you portray the spirit (of which you accuse me) in your own post. In my writing over the last 5 or 6 years, I've equated the importance of open source movement as an indication of what needs to happen with academic material/content: and .

The foundation of open source is found in free software...but is more palatable than Stallman's representation (addressed in the first article linked above).

My frustration, and reason for writing the post, is that 5 years ago, I would talk to educators who were eager to adopt open source tools because of the functionality they enable and the philosophy they express. But today, due to ease of use of web 2.0, instructors are using tools that do not enable the freedom we previously pursued. Convenience is selected above principles. Instructors select tools for the monetary concept of free, and seem more willing to sacrifice the more important freedom - ownership, flexibility, control, etc.

Jody Baty - in reply to my post, questioned as well the statement of open source's death, citing that numerous open source projects exist . You equate the success of open source with Linux, Apache, etc. Yes, these tools are being used well by most web 2.0 products. The problem for me isn't the tools being used to create platforms and serve content. It's that the final iterations of these tools - in the form of gmail, wikispaces, odeo, are closed. This may impact the longevity of a resource (which may not be an issue with Google, but may be with startups) or it may impact our ability to do what we want with the content we've created with these tools (or, in the case of youtube, money is being made from content, but the producer is not (yet) receiving a share). The choice of tools may well determine what we can do with our content in the long run...and I see many educators very excited (as they should be) about google docs, blogger, and misc tools. While free in $$, they are not free in the spirit of open source (or free software). Might not matter much to most people today. But I'm concerned it will in the future.

Tom Hoffman said...

I don't know, George. I think your writing on this subject is a mess. You know the difference between the Free Software movement and open source, but you obfuscate the difference in your writing. You say Stallman is unpalatable and write his work out of your non-historical discussion of the topic, but you lament that people are selecting convenience above principles. If people like you won't even talk straight about the principles, why would anyone worry about following them?

Bill Kerr said...

Free as in free speech makes some people nervous. Then Stallman's approach is described as "unpalatable' or "controversial" (George article 1). Why should we be nervous about advocating that our new platform for discussion (software) be free, as in free speech? Historical clarity as being advocated by Tom here is one important way to understand this issue. I think it's really important that move beyond seeing software as just another commodity to be sold, bought and used; that we see software as imbued with social and historical meaning. Social relations are built into software, in the way the user is treated. The centrist open source source position was intended to blur this perspective.

Paul Carduner said...

I find this quite timely as just yesterday I decided to leave blogger for wordpress. Go figure. Thank God for open source web2.0

Gnuosphere said...

Tom says, "This is like not knowing the difference between someone who does not eat meat to keep his cholesterol down and someone who does not eat meat for religious reasons."

I disgree slightly. More accurate would be - This is like not knowing the difference between someone who does not eat meat to keep his cholesterol down and someone who does not eat meat out of pity.

A subtle but key difference. Sorry, but if free software really was fundamentally a religious-like dogma you wouldn't find me anywhere near it.

Tom Hoffman said...

"Pity" doesn't sound quite right either. Perhaps just "moral reasons."

Gnuosphere said...

Sure. That's probably a better place to start from. Though from where do authentic moral reasons originate?

Authentic moral reasons/ethical considerations are born from the observation of injustice committed against other beings. I suppose that is what I'm getting at when I say "pity". Free software is an empathetic, not religious, movement.