FSF essay argues freedom over quality

Yet-another broadside at open source and proprietary software could backfire.

Getting into the middle of a discussion on the virtues of open source versus free software is about as smart as trying to reconcile the two major US political parties at this point in history--in other words, a fool's errand.

But I've been called worse, so here goes.

Benjamin Mako Hill is a well-known and -respected free software developer and activist, whose opinions I pay attention to, even if I don't always agree with them. In this month's Free Software Foundation Bulletin, Hill wrote an essay entitled "When Free Software Sucks," which he has republished for public consumption under the title "When Free Software Isn't Better."

Hill, a Director of the FSF, used the essay to frame the notion that collaboration within free (and open source) software projects really isn't as widespread as many peoples believe and collaboration isn't something that can be attributed as a real advantage of free software over proprietary software.

It's an interesting idea, and personally I think as a stand-alone concept, it has merits. Hill points out studies that have shown the median number of contributors to projected hosted on SourceForge or Savannah is just one. If that is indeed the case--and I see no reason to dispute it--then "collaboration" as a benefit really isn't the huge advantage in reality that it seems to be on paper. Free software, then, needs to be judged on its own technical and functional merits, on the same playing fields as proprietary and open source software.

Unfortunately, this arguable point is wrapped up in an essay that uses this same point to gratuitously beat open source software over the head. Repeatedly.

Hill argues open source software leans heavily on its collaborative nature--even citing the Open Source Initiative's own mission statement of "software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process"--but in practice the benefits of collaboration have been misstated.

"By emphasizing the power of collaborative development and 'distributed peer review,' open source approaches seem to have very little to say about why one should use, or contribute to, the vast majority of free software projects. Because the purported benefits of collaboration cannot be realized when there is no collaboration, the vast majority of free development projects are at no technical advantage with respect to a proprietary competitor," Hill writes.

Left with this gap in quality, Hill argues, open source developers are often left trying to explain away the problems with their software in the face of collaboration. If everything is so collaborative, then why is open source software broken?

So what about free software, which Hill admits also has its share of technical problems at times, just like any other software? Well, apparently, while a technical issue is a problem for open source and proprietary software to explain away, for a free software project "it is a problem to be worked through."

The reason? Freedom, of course. "Any piece of free software that respects users' freedom has a strong inherent advantage over a proprietary competitor that does not. Even if it has other issues, free software always has freedom," Hill argues.

In other words, as my grandfather would say in much plainer terms, apparently the FSF's defecation does not emit an unpleasant odor.

Apparently, because truly free software is free for users to change, then "[f]or free software advocates, glitches and missing features are never a source of shame."

The implication, of course, that for open source and proprietary developers, it is a source of shame. In case you think this implication is a reach, Hill gets more explicit:

"Projects begin with many bugs and improve over time. While open source advocates might argue that a project will grow into usefulness over time and with luck, free software projects represent important contributions on day one to a free software advocate," he writes.

So, for Hill, apparently open source developers just blunder about trying to spitball things together to see if they'll stick. Stunningly, it seems that Hill thinks that as long as you are promoting software freedom, then software quality takes a back-seat in free software, too.

"Every piece of software that gives users control over their technology is a step forward. Improved quality as a project matures is the icing on the cake," Hill indicates.

Icing on the cake? For about 99.99 percent of software users, I think it's a fair bet that software quality is the cake. Period.

Congratulations, FSF. In your ever-zealous quest to promote free software to the exclusion of anything else, this single statement shoots the usability of free software itself in the foot, then hands the still-loaded gun over to proprietary companies to conduct target practice on the free and open source communities. I can see the blogs now:

"The free software devs say open source quality sucks, and they care about freedom more than quality on their own projects," they might read.

This kind of thing has simply got to stop. In a perfect world, Hill and the FSF's arguments about software freedom would be dead on target: software freedom is that important. But this is not a perfect world for the one, simple, unshakable trend that the FSF (and the OSI on their bad days) seem to forget:

The vast majority of users don't care about the license.

This heresy is brought to you by the practices of just about every computer on the planet, who just want to turn the damn computer on and have it work. The FSF would argue that this is exactly the kind of ignorance they are trying to reduce, but many users barely understand how any software works, let alone what the underlying principles of software freedom should be.

And, much to the detriment of the FSF, the users who do know how software is supposed to work are also the ones who may actually pay attention to the workings of the software development world. How is the FSF's message of freedom over quality supposed to resonate with them? Speaking as someone who is part of this demographic, not very well. I would sincerely love it if all my software could be Free, but I have work to do, mouths to feed, and a live to live, and I do not plan to wrap myself in a cloak of freedom and contend with sub-par software because it is freely licensed.

But the FSF's membership seems to think it is better to attack others, than examine any notion that the FSF's approach to the problem of distributing software freedom is bombastic, off-putting, and counter-productive.

Strive for better, FSF: better software, a better world, and a better message.

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