Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Developers of the world -Unite!

A spectre is haunting the proprietary software industry: Free-Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS).

Karl Marx would have been elated at the success of FLOSS today as a subversive and alternative to the global behemoths of proprietary software. As little as ants would be but equally hardworking and persevering, as diverse as workers may get to be, the FLOSS community across the world has rewritten the rules of intellectual contribution and technological growth. They have broken the shackles that tie them in respective nationalities and units and have created a new chain formed from intellectual and autonomous solidarity. They have created a business model so powerful and so transcendent that this has forced even proprietary software to adopt it in its own way.



Any primer on the software industry in the world today would tell you that the industry was dominated by corporate units. For example, in the most important operating system and word processing/office applications business, Microsoft Technologies has had a huge monopoly. This has been buttressed by a variation of ‘license raj’ that allows code written by Microsoft to be available in the form of high ‘APIs’ or keys that are available for licensees to buy. In essence, users are denied access to proprietary software’s code base and all one gets to have is the ability to ‘consume’ the product without having the ability (or only having a limited and constrained one as defined in the copyright license) to alter the product to their choice.

Free and open software on the other hand makes a qualitative leap by allowing the consumer to build upon/alter and improve the product. The success of operating systems such as GNU/Linux, internet browsers such as Mozilla Firefox and office applications such as OpenOfficeare and other FLOSS applications has meant that the user not only has enough choice on the product to consume, but that he/she has the power now to become a product developer since the source code is available. The availability of the source code comes with a license too, albeit of a philosophically and instrumentally different kind: a ‘copyleft’ license. This license does not come with a negative freedom aspect of preventing users to do something outside the license, but actually comes with a positive freedom that enforces users to keep the software ‘open’.

There are some basic differences between the ‘free software’ and ‘open source software’ streams. The former harps upon the philosophical notion of liberty in using and modifying software, while the latter talks about the fundamental leap in performance because of the advanced community-oriented business model that ‘open source’ provides.

Despite such distinctions, however, very few software products exist that are exclusively ‘open’ and not free or vice versa. The success of the free and open source movement was seen particularly in the collaborated effort that went into designing an OpenDocument Format (ODF) standard for word processing and electronic office document applications. This standard was arrived after nearly three years of toiling by the developing community across the world, which included individuals and other big companies specialising in enterprise applications such as Sun Microsystems and IBM. Now the ODF standard is widely accepted as an Office standard and has been adopted by Open Office, Google Documents and other applications. The presence of a unifying standard made the job of users using various applications easier. These multiple applications could communicate to each other sparing a headache for the users to have to face the problem of incompatibility of various application file formats even though they performed one single documentation/word processing function. Evidently this affected the monopoly strength of office applications offered by the biggest software company in the world, Microsoft Applications.

The logical thing to do would be to adopt the ODF standard for Microsoft Office products keeping the philosophy of universalisation intact. Yet, Microsoft chose to introduce its own open source standard OpenOffice Extensible Markup Language (OOXML). The logic that Microsoft provided was that the presence of many standards helped foster the free market as has been the case in other areas such as Picture Readers. The adoption of OOXML as a universal and full international standard, however, hit a roadblock as a majority of countries affiliated to the worldwide standards body, International Organisation for Standardisation decided to reject it in September 2007. OOXML still had a lifeline thrown in the form of a ballot resolution process that gave the countries another chance to review their decision based on Microsoft’s responses to their complaints made in September 2007. The most important complaints were the fact that the standards document was unwieldy and cumbersome and also fact that OOXML was not truly ‘open’ and was written in a manner to continue the monopoly status of Microsoft in the market. The ballot resolution process is to come out with a verdict next month holding in the balance the acceptance of OOXML as an international standard.

In the meantime, in another blow to proprietary software, Microsoft was fined a huge amount of $ 1.3 billion for having violated anti-trust laws by a European Union (EU) court. Such setbacks have had an unintended effect: Microsoft recently affirmed to make available several sections of source code interoperable with open source, signalling a change in philosophy to a gradual acceptance of the open source policy. Open source advocates and others have, however, reacted with cautious optimism but seen in the light of things, it is clear that the subversive called the open source movement has had a tremendous effect on the way the industry is run.

Not long ago, advocates of the proprietary software model were calling the open source movement as ‘communist’ and ‘market-unfriendly’. But the relative cost-free nature, liberating outlook and transparency offered has made open source hugely popular. In India, for example, FLOSS advocates have been successful in getting a state government announcing statewide education and use on FLOSS. FLOSS makes immense sense for resource constrained governance bodies in India as well as help creating myriad developer communities in a participative model.

The challenge remains for FLOSS evangelicals to take forward the process of educating the populace in the country to be familiar with basic programming and application usage skills. This requires the state to play an active role to facilitate this process.

Monopoly and proprietary software have an advantage in influencing state and governmental institutions because of their large market base and ready capital. Unscrupulous ways of influencing state governments have persisted in India, for example, where executives of proprietary software cajole government heads to promote their brands in lieu of some form of charity given. FLOSS activists must overcome this huge challenge in order to get their philosophy accepted and model implemented for the good of people who are still on the barren side of the digital divide.

11 comments:

Mahesh Panicker. said...

the basic philosophy is quite interesting indeed. the monopoly of microsoft is something that needs to be countered, as it is against the basic philosophy of globalization and open competition.

but the fact remains that microsoft products do have considerable hold over markets, and in many areas the open-source softwares are not developed to the needed level. so introducing open-source softwares in the educational sector is too early a change, and the government of Kerala in my view has made the wrong choice.
computers have liberated many a life. the new screen reader technology has opened up a brant new world for the visually challenged throughout the world, and has created new opportunities. in the field of OCR softwares and screen readers, quality products are available only through MNCs like Freedom Scientific. in such a situation, without investing on developing enough on these sectors, the forced introduction of opened-source software by the state will only lead to exclusion of the disabled and other marginilized, who have started to find a new world and a new confidence through technology.

Srinivasan Ramani said...

Mahesh,

You should read this article:

http://www.hindu.com/2008/02/13/stories/2008021359871100.htm

Krishnakant Mane does not share your view on Open Source's usefulness in OCR and other software.

Thisis said...

I also believe that countries like India should promote "Free" software movements and make use of the GNU/Linux-like operating systems. But I am not a person who believes that there should exist no proprietary software at all. Both should exist and there should be a balance between the two. My favorite example is Apple, the company by Steve Jobs (Babe Ruth of the silicon valley! :-) ). Their Mac OS-X, arguably the best OS in the world (at least 5 years ahead of the rest), is a combination of its own "free", open software Darwin and its own proprietary components. A healthy combination of these two gives raise to the best. And our society benifits. (Apple keeps giving us the best we can imagine, let it be the the "mouse" we all use today, ipod, iphone -- after all, "software" is the main ecomponent in all of these). Even for apple, the proprietary part is necessary, because that is what fetches its money for its research and development. But one shouldn't be greedy; with the money you get, you should also contribute to the society, as apple does with Darwin and through other channels.

I guess the same true with google. Their search software, i guess, is proprietary. But they seem to be highly committed to contributing to the society and not the greedy microsoft types.

Mahesh Panicker. said...

Srini, its not about ideology or politics. although I don't completely share his views, what I am trying to say here is entirely different issue.
the issue is that there are not enough quality OSS available when it comes to screen readers and OCR even on the windos platform. things like NVDA, which you might know, are below avrage when it comes to quality. at the moment I am typing it out with JAWS, which is the best available screen reader in the world. its too expensive, and therefore, development of open-source softwares that would ensure quality would always be welcomed. but before doing enough investment on that front, introducing OSS will result in exclusion of a section that has been benefited out of these screen reader and OCR technology.
and its not just about education. many a new job opportunities are available in the private sector for the VC people now a days. but almost always, the OS used is windos. so I doubt how much good would be the transformation that has been initiated in Kerala. at least, the present situation, where both OSs can be used should be continued.

Srinivasan Ramani said...

Dear Mahesh/ Ranjit,

You haven't understood the philosophy of "free software". You should re-read my article. Free is not defined as in "moofth" but as in the same meaning as liberty.

FLOSS/ OSS/ Free Software therefore doesn't militate against good software; they only enhance the prospects of production of good software. Nor does, FLOSS stop commercial realisation of the developed software, it only wants the recipe for the product to be available for other developers to work upon.

It is as simple as this. Just like coffee is filtered and brewed in a manner that is made appetising and the recipe is given for that product, so is commercial software provided in a manner that the recipe is available for further development.

In essence, therefore, to make a claim that Apple's OS is better off because of it's proprietary nature is not true; as it would make more sense for the code to be made available for further modification by the user/developer to enhance it so well enough that the process is not dependent upon financial investment by venture capitalism/ CFO-CEO investment alone.

As for Google, while it has patented it's search technique (the Page Rank algorithm), quite a few of its software are available as Open Source and Google is a purely technologically driven company (with some caveats here and there). In contrast, a monopoly like Microsoft relies on market capture through financial muscle that combines with proprietary and restrictive technology and no wonder it has invited anti-trust violations and problems.

In my opinion, FLOSS only suggests that there is a vibrant alternative that derives from a different philosophy. This philosophy is a step ahead from the formal rational approach of getting software done in business form through restrictions on usage via the Intellectual Property mode.

Thisis said...

I have heard and followed Richard Stallmann all my grad student days. So i guess i understand what the "free" stands for!(that is why i put it in quotes!)

My first point is "freedom" likely to fetch less money. Take an example of a "free" OS (eg. Debian). To have GNU GPL (whic is one of the copyleft licenses) you need to make the source code available to everyone and let others modify it. If you do that, why would anyone "buy" that ? (for example, i have been using Linux for the past 10 yrs. Though i have used almost everything from Red hat to Ubuntu, i never bought any of that). So "free" software is unlikely to fetch money -- that is the point.
If Mac OS X were a "free" software, it wouldn't fetch as much money as it fetches now. Now to have such a superior OS, in the first place, apple would have invested a lot of money. To get back that money, they need some proprietary status. And money also helps for further development. But money *alone* is not sufficient either. You need money as well as user/developer participation -- both. one need to strike a balance between the two. And a company that strikes the right balance will succeed.
(I sometime feel it is like energy and entropy in physics!)

Do you agree, "freedom" alone wouldn't necessarily make a great software ? You need some "force" that drives the developers(which happens to be money here!). If that was not the case, Debian must have been the best and easy to use OS in the world. But it is not. You need money and freedom! They need not necessarily be exclusive to each other; but to some extent they are.

Thisis said...

One more thing: When i read your sentence "Karl Marx would have been elated...", I paused for a second. I believe "free software movement" is more like a Gandhiji way than a "communist" way (there
is a difference, isn't there ?!)!

That reminded me a set of old e-mail exchanges we had at the Free-Software-Foundation (FSF) Calicut mailing list regarding Gandhiji's philosophy and FSF. A communist guy was unhappy when Richard Stallmann used an analogy with Gandhiji's "swadeshi" movement and FSF. And that guy brought party politics in, in a typical communist fashion. That time i had written the following mail,

http://www.freelists.org/archives/fsug-calicut/08-2003/msg00011.html


and Richard Stallmann quoted me writing the following mail :-)

http://www.freelists.org/archives/fsug-calicut/08-2003/msg00015.html

Srinivasan Ramani said...

Ranjith,

The use of Karl Marx was not for the sake of politics, but for the simple sake of relation to Marxian thought.

I will let a free software evangelist to make the best case for the above statement:

http://emoglen.law.columbia.edu/publications/dcm.html

The dotCommunist Manifesto.. an analogy to the Communist Manifesto, which spends acres to laud the changes effected by the bourgeoisie as much as the Manifesto of 1848, and avers as much as the same to transcend and achieve a revolution.

And as Stallman rightly points out, "Swadesh" was used in the sense of overcoming colonialism; a project that was close to Marx the most and Gandhi too (albeit in a vastly different way : this was part of our 2 year course work at JNU).

Mahesh Panicker. said...

I think I would agree more with Thisis on the issue.
money is needed for software development, and mere "Freedom" can't ensure quality. that is why I refered to NVDA, an Open-source screen reader Software. in comparison with either JAWS or Windo Eyes, its nothing, nowhere. but the latter ones are very expensive, and therefore not available to all. so one has to have a balance between the 2. and going back to my original point, introducing OSS in the educational sector by the state without making enough investments and without ensuring accessibility to all is unjust and unfair. at the moment, there is no quality screen reader or OCR technology available on a linux platform, and the GOVT of Kerala is imposing its political perseptions on the disabled in the state in a rather undemocratic and exclusivist manor.
and I don't think I would agree with the Marxian idea about colonialism being close to that of the spirit of Swadeshi, as Marxian ideas about 'Asiatic Mode of Production' has been something that would legitimize colonialism. from the Marxist platform the strongest attack came against colonialism from Lenin, who regarded it as the highest stage of capitalism, and its interesting to note that Gandhi had gone a step further, in putting it as the highest stage of Modernity itself. so one has to say JNU also do give different perseptions to different people, afterall Srini and Me had the same courses over those 2 years.

Srinivasan Ramani said...

Quick points:

Marx never legitimised colonialism...thats pure bile and nonsense. He was an enthusiastic commentator on the 1857 independence struggle.. At the same time, he was very critical of the caste system, the negative effects of tradition in India and as a dialectical materialist pointed out exactly that colonialism in India was releasing productive forces but at the cost of blood and exploitation. He was thrilled at the rise in consciousness against imperialism in the masses during the 1857 war and aftewards.

Gandhi on the other hand had a very warped view of Indian tradition. He was a upholder of the varnasharma dharma and had some real controversial views about feminism / women's role etc. He was actually an anti-modernist and his understanding of the freedom struggle was rooted in his anti-westernist principles.. surely controversial enough. If Gandhi had his way, forget free software, there wouldnt' have even been computers in the country!

Mahesh Panicker. said...

Srini, Gandhi vs Marx is not the real issue at hand, its just a sub-set of arguments. by bringing it in, we, it seems, are losing focus. my original concern is about the state of Kerala prefering Linux in place of windows, and thereby depriving the disabled of the state, particularly the visually challenged from accessing benefits of the technology. I agree the philosophy behind Linux can be very interesting, but there are lot of other issues to be considered when there is a transformation. at the moment, the circumstance is not there for an inclusive transformation. and the concern gets doubled, when one notice the fact that the GOVT has no plans whatsoever, of investing in accessible technology development. so the atraction towards is too early, and is unwelcomed from many sections. surely this can't be set aside, as its the function of every GOVT to ensure the dignity of all.