30 Nov 2003

Giving Thanks

On November 12, ZDNet UK reported that Bradley Tipp, Microsoft’s UK National Systems Engineer, proclaimed the death of the free software model at the Monopoly’s IT Forum in Copenhagen. Had Mr Tipp been right, our death would have been one of the most temporary on record. From where I sit, two weeks later at the season of Thanksgiving in the United States, the Free World has much to be thankful for in the year now ending, and little to fear from the year to come.

Microsoft’s position, apparently, is that Red Hat’s decision to end direct support for non-enterprise free software and Novell’s acquisition of SuSE somehow validate Microsoft’s proprietary approach and put, as the reporter summarized their view “the last nail in the coffin of the free-software model.” I yield to no one in my respect for Microsoft’s ability to misunderstand the software industry, but this is richer than usual: if this is indeed the Monopoly’s current party line, Mr Gates is entirely confused about who’s in the box and who’s holding the hammer.

These recent industry developments are indeed significant, but their meaning has nothing to do with the demise of freedom. Red Hat and Novell-SuSE are both basing their business strategies on the recognition that not only OS and application software itself, but also primary packaging activity, are commodities now. The free software model of community development and community support has broadened its reach again. In addition to developing all the individual programs, the community is now at a level of maturity at which it can assemble the software into thousands of packages that work together smoothly, can manage the release cycle, and the task of providing security fixes and other patches, as rapidly and accurately as any commercial organization, including especially Microsoft. Red Hat and SuSE can no longer successfully add value by putting together an operating system kernel, windowing system, desktop manager and applications suites with compatible versioning and support for updates. Making a “distribution” is a commodity activity: Debian, and the increasingly large number of distros built on Debian, along with other community-based packaging projects such as Gentoo, have convincingly assumed the role of primary distributors of free software. What the commercial providers will now do is build “enterprise products” on that base, centered around the provision of comprehensive 24x7 support and integration services.

Far from representing the death of the free software model, these steps show that the global transformation of the software industry that freedom initiates is building momentum. Despite the claims of proprietary producers like Microsoft, this does not spell the end of commercial activity, just the end of low-quality software the user can’t understand, modify, improve, and redistrbute. High-quality software is becoming a public utility, and as any student of economic history can tell you, the growth of public utilities (such as canals, roads, clean drinking water resources, public education systems) is a source of economic growth, not an obstacle.

This relationship between public utility intellectual activity and economic development is the reason that government adoption of the free software model is also rapidly expanding this year. As I write, the Brazilian Government is preparing to announce the first government-produced free software to be released under the GPL: the first fruits of its decision to release all publicly-produced software under the FSF’s licenses. Where the Brazilian Government goes, the Brazilian private sector will soon begin to follow: the world’s eighth-largest economy is becoming a bulwark of software freedom. Microsoft has pressed hard against this development in Brazil for two years, ever since we began our campaign for government adoption of free software, and it has lost. Just one more way in which the reports of freedom’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Not, however, for lack of trying. SCO, too, in its own small way, continues to announce that freedom’s end is just around the corner. SCO’s CEO, Darl McBride, told an interviewer this week that “we think the GPL is not going to make it.” His reason is that free software is “so unfriendly to business.” Some businesses, at any rate—those that seek to profit from free software while simultaneously trying to destroy freedom. As its primary lawsuit against IBM founders and its threats to sue users of free software look increasingly untenable, SCO has launched an attack against the Free Software Foundation. SCO is trying to use a subpoena issued as part of its lawsuit against IBM to gain access to our confidential records of our activities in securing compliance with GPL for the last five years. I will have more to say about the subpoena and our defensive activities next month.

But as I look forward from this moment, when we in the US take stock of our blessings in the year coming to an end, I feel very grateful indeed. With all our colleagues around the world we have had a most successful year: the state of freedom is strong, and growing stronger. The year to come will be a year of wonders, as the opponents of freedom find themselves increasingly marginalized, as programmers, users, businesses and governments around the world continue to adopt the cause of freedom. Everywhere, and more all the time, Free Software Matters.

This column was first published in the UK in Linux User. It is also available in PostScript and PDF formats.

permalink | columns/lu | 2003.11.30-00:00.00

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