FLOSS - history and concepts

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Motto: If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. - Thomas Jefferson, 1813

Preface

During the last quarter of the 20th century, computers evolved from elite, complicated scientific machinery into household tools comparable to radio, TV and telephone. Likewise, software which used to be a black magic -like creation of brilliant academic minds turned into an everyday item - while its creation mostly remained a highly professional activity, its usage became easy enough to be handled by everyone. This in turn helped to create a market, and along with other factors, contributed towards software becoming a discrete product similar to a record or a book. During the almost three decades, a couple of generations of computer users grew up who took the commercialised nature of software for granted and were suspicious of 'freebies' (there ain't such thing as a free lunch). And many of those people are sincerely surprised to learn that commercialised software is a relatively new thing in the history of computing.

Yet there has always been another way of thinking - the one that stems from the historical principles of academic freedom and peer-review knowledge building. Just like science has always been based on building on previous knowledge, this kind of approach to software implies that it must be free to share, modify and build upon. While sometimes labelled idealistic and unbusinesslike, this has turned out to be not the case - as proved by IBM, Red Hat, Sun, HP, Dell and many other big players in information technology industry.

Definitions

FLOSS (Free, Libre and Open-Source Software) is an umbrella acronym that tries to contain a number different understandings and aspects. The concept is rooted deep in computing history, dating back to the early hacker communities of MIT and Stanford, yet its current wide spread has only been possible due to the ubiquity of the Internet.

Free Software

In 1983, a former staff member of the famous MIT Artifical Intelligence Lab Richard Stallman laid the groundwork of what would later become the free software movement. The rule of Microsoft in software industry had begun and the sharing culture of MIT lab was generally seen as incompatible with the new times. Deeply dissatisfied with the tendency, Stallman decided to start working on a new operating system he called GNU - a complete rewrite of the popular Unix.

Most importantly, Stallman denied the strict "intellectual property" approach and formulated his views in the GNU Manifesto, which stated the four rights of software users:

  • to copy the software on whatever purpose
  • to study the software - therefore, all software should have the source code included
  • to modify the software, including developing new software based on old ones
  • to redistribute the software on the same terms

(read more from the FSF website)

Later on, these principles became the backbone of new type of software licenses like GNU GPL (General Public License) and others. Therefore, "free" in Free Software means the freedom of users, not price. Proponents of Free Software often use the explanation "free as in freedom, not as in free beer".

Stallman's Free Software school of thought goes farther than just technology - it views all proprietary software as not only a suboptimal technical solution but also an unethical approach. While the movement has lots of supporters, it also has produced vocal critics who accuse Stallman of zealotry and overtly agressive stance on business.

Open Source

The other school of thought called Open Source is based on the former, but branched out of it around 1998 (quite typically to the culture, it initially had much to do with clashing personalities - Open Source movement was started by Bruce Perens, Linus Torvalds, Eric S. Raymond and others whose views on software dissented from Stallman's) to create a more "business friendly" approach. They typically refrain from political and ethical statements and consider the four rights of free software just a better technical solution than closed, proprietary program code.

The Open Source Initiative, a leading body of the Open Source school of thought, has defined Open Source as follows:

  1. Free Redistribution
  2. Source Code
  3. Derived Works
  4. Integrity of The Author's Source Code
  5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups
  6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor
  7. Distribution of License
  8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product
  9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software
  10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral

(read more on the OSI website)

The nagging colleagues

Since the beginning, those two have been quite uneasy allies. Free Software proponents often think of Open Source as a watered-down, sellout version of their views. Open Source in turn considers the Free Software a sort of fringe movement and attributes the wide spread of FLOSS ideas to its more moderate approach (especially in business cases). Yet they both subscribe to the same core principles and do cooperate on practical level.

Thus FLOSS as a term bridges two different schools of thought which are present in IT landscape. Both of them agree that software should not have artificial obstacles for distribution. It should be noted that while software being gratis (no price) often seems to be the uniting feature of FLOSS, it is actually just the visible tip of an iceberg. Neither Free Software or Open Source movement demand software to be zero-price - the four principles are what counts.

What's in L?

Inclusion of L in FLOSS came after the two movements became increasingly popular in Latin America where a number of countries took official steps towards adopting FLOSS as a national policy. In addition to economic reasons (lower costs), many of them also viewed the decision as a political one, to combat the U.S. influence (which was epitomised by Microsoft). Therefore, the FLOSS movement in Latin America often declined towards Stallman's more radical ideas, making Software Libre a concept similar to Stallman's ideas but with a local touch.

Many people tend to classify Software Libre under Free Software and use the abbreviations FOSS and F/OSS. Probably due to better pronunciability, FLOSS has however become the most popular of the acronyms.

Freeware - a different beast

There is another term which is often mistakenly related to FLOSS - "freeware". At first, it may seem to make sense - freeware has no cost, most of FLOSS has neither. But in fact, freeware has much more in common with Microsoft-style proprietary applications than with FLOSS. Of the four principles, it only complies with the first (and sometimes even that with reservations). It does not have open program code, it does not provide rights to study the code or develop new things out of it. Due to different philosophy behind it, freeware has only very marginal share in FLOSS systems (like Linux or BSD), being also quite limited on MacOS X. In many cases, it also has very practical reasons - much of the freeware for MS Windows are developed using proprietary tools which often make it difficult to make the creation FLOSS.

History

Final words

Peter Salus concludes the preface of his "The Daemon, the Gnu, and the Penguin" with the following assertion: "Over four centuries have passed since our static heliocentric universe was replaced by a dynamic one. Today, the business model that has persisted since the late eighteenth century is being replaced." While many people may argue with him, it is quite clear that FLOSS is not a passing fad and has already had thorough impact on software industry.


Readings