Friday, January 11, 2008

Richard Stallman (RMS) talk at UC College Alwaye, Kerala

Richard Mathew Stallman aka RMS gave yet another of his brilliant lectures at UC College, Alwaye, Kerala. I was fortunate enough to be able attend the meeting. The last time he visited Kerala, I missed his talk and I did not want to miss it this time. As is usual with his talks, he talked about what is "Free", why should software be "Free", what is wrong if otherwise, about GNU and Linux and FSF and Linus Torvarlds. I am sure that somebody will post a transcript of the talk and a video of the talk online soon. I would however like to discuss more about my take on some of the points he addressed.

Before I proceed further I must confess that I subscribe fully to the philosophy behind FSF, GNU and GPL(all versions). I must do this first, lest I accidentally irritate and turn away a cursory reader who could also be a FSF fan(atic). I will list some of the points where I have slightly different opinions as compared with RMS and I am sure he would agree to my freedom to voice these opinions.

1. The freedom behind the software is more important than the software itself

Freedom is definitely important; but when it comes to matters of practicality and when there is no other alternative you have to be able to accept non-Free solutions to get your work done. Take, for example, the simple case of CAD software. I have been having this discussion with a few of my engineer friends, to make them to try out Free Software alternatives to the proprietary solutions that they already use. The sad truth of the matter is that, some of them had tried and all of them have failed. The specialized need of some of the tasks that they do, does not really help in the probability of one of the users of the task actually writing a Free Software version of the same software. In such cases, what can one do other than to use the proprietary system, and at the same time contribute efforts in building a Free Software that can do the same set of tasks.

2. Free Software should not include proprietary components at all

The issue raised particularly dealt with proprietary firmware and binary drivers that certain distributions of GNU/Linux use. It is true that all proprietary code and binaries have to be ultimately thrown out but if it comes to be the only way in which you can get a working system you should go ahead and use it, and at the same time push for opening up the proprietary systems, or creating free systems that can replace the proprietary systems. The only thing that a novice home user would have between him and his using GNU/Linux would probably be the non-availability of Open Source drivers for his hardware.

The freedom behind an open source driver would be the last thing he would have on his mind. If using a proprietary driver would help him switch to GNU/Linux why not? We can always make him switch to the Free version the moment it is available. One point that needs to be noted is that, the community should not give up on its efforts to create a Free version of the driver even if the proprietary version is made available for GNU/Linux. So the strategy here is simple - let the GNU/Linux market explode and then leverage on its size to call for opening up of proprietary drivers and for providing of GNU/Linux variants where they did not exist in the first place.

RMS uses an interesting reference to market forces in this scenario. Once people start using proprietary drivers in GNU/Linux systems it is possible that the demand for open drivers would wane and would not be as effective as it otherwise would have been. My counter argument would be that this lowering of demand would be negated by the much higher increase of the GNU/Linux market as a whole and consequently for the higher demand for the open drivers from the larger market.

3. RMS' opinion on non-GPL licenses and the "Open Source" Camp

RMS has been strongly voicing his opinion against non-GPL licenses and the "Open Source" initiative. In his opinion both play against the Freedom that the concept of Free Software highlights either directly or indirectly by helping those who are totally against the concept of Free Software. It is interesting to note here that the actual causal agent behind this is the same market force which he had used in the previous argument. Market forces and the demand for maximizing profit by business owners and share holders results very often in scenarios that do not strictly align with the concept of freedom as outlined at FSF's definition of free software.

More often than not, these forces work against the concept of freedom, and where money speaks market listens. Now that is not a good proposition. You have a philosophy which goes against (or looks to most people as something which goes against) the principles of profit maximization and you have the whole set of owners of capital (with very few exceptions) against such a philosophy. So how do you fight in such a situation. Simple. Use the old concept of divide and rule. When the enemy camp is strong, try to divide the camp and see if you can get some allies. This is exactly what the non-GPL and the Open Source camp is doing.

Bringing in more owners of capital to accept the less tougher option of Open Source first and more tougher of GPL later is much easier than getting them to accept GPL in the first place. So with increased numbers market will see the real value behind Free Software and slowly tilt in favor of Free Software as opposed to proprietary software. However the totally antagonistic approach that RMS is taking is not going to get a lot of supporters from the business owner set. Unless you penetrate that community there is no real hope of making significant impact in the user community.


Having said all this I hope that the highly honorably efforts of RMS and the FSF succeeds to their fullest possible expectations.

1 comment:

    RMS Comming to SJCET for swathanthra,for more details log on to