The fundamentalist FOSS mentality

By David Power

I’m writing this article so I don’t have to keep repeating myself on social media. It’s fair to say that my last article stoked quite a bit of controversy. So much so, that I’ve been compelled to write this follow-up to clarify my position a little. The offending statement in the article was:

The main challenge remains getting the word out. Unfortunately, the fundamentalist FOSS mentality we encountered on Reddit is still alive and well.

A lot of folks have taken offence to the wording of this particular statement.

First, let me clarify what I meant by “fundamentalist FOSS mentality”. This does not mean that I am anti-FOSS. On the contrary, FOSS is an absolutely admirable endeavour. If you like, use, support and promote FOSS, I salute you. I’m a fan.

But some people seem to think that proprietary software should be wiped off the face of the planet. This is, in my view, a fundamentalist FOSS mentality. The word ‘fundamentalist’ carries serious baggage. And I chose my words carefully. You have made a choice based on an ideology. You have chosen a literal interpretation of scripture, blind to the realities of the world you live in. On the Linux user bell curve, you are far to one side, hugging the horizontal axis.

Of course, you are entitled to your opinion. But my contention is that it does more harm than good.

The arguments come in different flavours. Some are high minded and admirable. Some are simply ignorant. In particular, there are three types of argument that I would like to discuss in the rest of this article.

On the high minded end of the spectrum, some FOSS fundamentalists argue that proprietary software inhibits progress. Richard Stallman encapsulates this view nicely:

What does society need? It needs information that is truly available to its citizens — for example, programs that people can read, fix, adapt, and improve, not just operate. But what software owners typically deliver is a black box that we can’t study or change.

This is a utopian view that I can actually get behind! I’m a trekkie after all. I want to live in a world where we are free to follow our curiosities without having to worry about our bank balance.

Super! So we should Open Source Hiri tomorrow. And I would love to. But there is a serious problem with this argument. If we do Open Source Hiri, there is nothing to stop someone from forking it and selling it for less /offering it for free. We die. And I do worry about my bank balance. More on that in the next section.

I get it. I really do — if there were no restrictions on IP we could all build on the sum of human knowledge. But like most utopian views, it’s naive.

Simply put, where value can be added, profits can be made. It is unrealistic that the “Hacker ethic” described by Steven Levy in his book Hackers — Heroes of the Computer revolution would or could be adopted by everyone. It’s a pipe dream. And for me, those that use this ideology to dismiss proprietary software and claim that it’s holding society seem to fit the mould of fundamentalists. Like all fundamentalists, they simply ignore some inconvenient truths. There is ample evidence that companies competing using proprietary knowledge is actually a pretty good model for more productivity / technological progress. It’s why we have anti-trust laws.

Let’s get back to Stallman. Stallman is not blind to our economic needs. He goes on to give examples of how software can be open and developers can still make money. For example:

I made a living from custom enhancements of the free software I had written.
Some free software developers make money by selling support services.
In the early 1990s, companies including Intel, Motorola, Texas Instruments and Analog Devices combined to fund the continued development of the GNU C compiler.

Clearly, with the purchase of GitHub and Red Hat, it is absolutely possible to make money from these models. But the three monetisation models above are not a panacea. Would they work for Hiri?

Custom enhancements: I have no idea if we could make a living building custom enhancements for Hiri, but I suspect not. It means we have to find a customer who wants us to customise something and is willing to pay a good chunk of cash for this service— this is not easy. Talk to any startup. Finding one business model that works is difficult enough without adding constraints.

Support: We are certainly not going to earn a living providing support. It’s an email client — you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to install and use it. Also, we are not set up as a service company. It would require significant change.

Get funded by a big company: maybe we’ll get bought by Microsoft and they’ll open source Hiri. But probably not.

My point is that they are not going to work for every business. And as long as they don’t work in some cases, there is a case for proprietary software.

Opening up your code is a double edged sword. If your project has a large community, there’s a very good chance the code is clean, well documented and safe. On the other hand, if you only have a handful of contributors, mistakes may not be caught. Worse — you have now published your code, making life a lot easier for a bad actor to pick it apart. It’s worth noting that overall, 87% of projects have 5 or fewer committers per year (granted my source is a little old).

Secrecy is not necessarily a bad thing provided a proprietary software vendor’s incentives are aligned with your own objectives. Let me give you an example. One of our competitors was ‘dialling home’ and a security analyst figured it out and blogged about it. Can you guess what happened to that competitor? Market forces can be a bitch if you don’t align your business with your users. Just look at what happened to Volkwagen when it was discovered they were cheating emissions tests. The CEO of Enron spent 11 years in prison.

Also, you literally trust your life to proprietary software every time you jump into a car or onto a plane.

I’m not arguing that proprietary software is better or more secure than open source. If I need a web server, it’s Linux every time. And that’s because it’s the best tool for the job — secure, cheap performant and reliable. But these aren’t always a primary consideration or a massive concern.

I use a mac. I use a mac because for most of my life I’ve been a designer. But the thing that really locks me in is not the shiny, overpriced hardware (I loathed paying so much for my poorly spec’d laptop), or MacOS. It’s a product called Sketch. It’s proprietary, and it’s only available on Mac. I choose it because it’s simply the best design tool on the market. Just like in the physical world, I pay for the value it offers. My main consideration is how can I achieve quality work quickly.

Interesting side note: I paid almost $2k for a laptop to use software that costs $99. Crazy. If Sketch was on Ubuntu, that’s where I’d be. A great example of how proprietary software could further the adoption of great Open Source software.

I do not. I’m a keen technologist. I’m a big fan of human progress whatever form it takes. When my parents Windows 98 machine became unusable, I got sick of constantly fixing it and installed Dapper Drake instead.

However, I can’t help but think the fundamentalists are doing open source a disservice when they write comments like this:

A proprietary app, no matter what it is, is temporary, greedy, and worthless in the long term.

Yes, this is an actual comment.

Like many of you, my goals in life are pretty simple. I wish to spend time with friends and family. Have new experiences. Work on something meaningful. Starting a company and building a product was a personal ambition. It gives me enormous satisfaction to see people using and enjoying our product. I get to earn a living working on something I love. If I could continue to work on Hiri using an open source model, I would. I just can’t see how we can make it work. I’m open to suggestions.

To the guy that wrote the comment above — I’ve added value to this world. And I do not apologise for trying to make money whilst doing so.

The purpose of software is to do a job. You should seek the software that does the best job for the task at hand. Sometimes that means FOSS should be the primary consideration. But sometimes FOSS is not the best tool for the job. If you choose it anyway, you are preventing yourself or others from doing their best work. Your ideology is holding you back. Surely that’s fundamentalism?

I believe the Linux community should embrace proprietary software with open arms. It would enable many more users to adopt Linux as their daily driver. Depending on your source, Linux accounts for somewhere between 0.5–3% of desktop users. It’s simply not having the impact it could. If you are passionate about Linux/Open Source software, it’s time to think of the ecosystem as a whole and embrace proprietary software.