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The future of free software – are we on rocky ground?

by Jos Poortvliet

In this months column, openSUSE community manager Jos Poortvliet ponders the future of free software…

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard several people wonder about the future of free software. Once you could say free software and Linux were cool. Interesting things happened there, barriers were broken. To some extent this is still true. But much attention has been going to things like Android and iOS. Are they more cool now? And what does that mean for free software?

Let’s think about what makes people get involved with free software. It is not a trivial thing: joining a project means learning not just the tools and technology, but the way of working and the people. The way of working, how to get things done, is quite unique. That much is clear from seeing many firms stumble while trying to collaborate with a community (or trying to build one). Meritocracy is a well-known buzzword. And ‘who does the work, decides’.

What do they mean, really? Well, first of all: if you want to influence anything, you have to pull up your sleeves and put in the work. But you also have to be persistent and independent. Persistent, because you will often find bumps in the road. Technical – some issues can be hard to solve. Or social – others might not be interested in what you want or simply not have time to review patches. And independent, because you’ll have to figure most things out on your own.

So it is not easy to get involved. Then, why do it? For most people it begins with discovering Linux and free software. They discover it and read up on it because it is interesting. Exciting technology, new things: that is what brings people close. Then, at some point, they might want to try something themselves, and subsequently get involved. Many projects work hard on lowering the barrier to entry, making that second step easy. But not all realise how important it is to talk about the interesting stuff they do! Developers blogging on a planet about their work are probably one of the major things guiding someone on his/her way to contribution.

And what if other things become more sexy? Exactly. If a free software project is not seen as innovative, as ‘doing cool things’, it loses momentum. Which, due to the high turnover in free software, quickly leads to a project’s end. This might indeed be the effect of being able to write software for mobile phones which everyone can get their hands on. It is far more cool if you can do that, get your ‘app’ out there, even make a buck.

The obvious answer to the question you don’t even have to ask is then obvious: yes, to make free software grow, it needs to be more interesting. We need to talk about technology. Not talk down new initiatives, but be excited about them! This is why I applaud GNOME for the work on GNOME Shell. This is why I think what KDE is doing with Plasma Active is awesome. Such projects bring energy, excitement and, most importantly, new contributors! New people in free software!

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    • Greg Strockbine

      Open Source software is going to be challenged by patent trolls, which there seem to be more and more of. Soon, you won’t even be able to post a simple web page without someone coming a knocking with lawsuit in hand saying you owe them money. This could be the end of the independent developer.

    • http://noneya slappy

      I say we hang all patent trolls…

    • Jack

      I’ve observed this over the past few years as Android has risen to dominance. There is no popular, easy way to ensure the applications you’re getting are open source, and there isn’t a huge selection of open applications out there. Just as we don’t have community-owned alternatives to services like NetFlix and Amazon Video On Demand, among other things.

      I think we could definitely be very successful on mobile platforms, but I think it’s key to either make great applications for MeeGo and break into the market in full stride with open software being default on the platform, or to take the initiative and produce a lot of free software (even mobile versions of existing applications on the desktop) for iOS and Android, even if iOS won’t accept GPL licensed stuff into the marketplace.

      So we have two options- support a platform with good applications using our existing frameworks, like Qt and GTK, or go all-in to make these toolkits portable, or to use the default languages of mobile platforms and port our significant applications and make new contributions.

      For example, I hardly think that a notepad application or flashlight application needs to be closed source. It would be nice to have an ‘open marketplace’ that verifies sources with PGP keys on Android, but the fact is that we need to take charge. The problem is that KDE and MeeGo (Intel, basically) seem to be the only projects that are really concentrating a lot on mobile development. I think MeeGo and GNOME 3 could be awesome on tablets, and MeeGo can be excellent on a phone (N9, anyone?). But there isn’t a central, recognizable, guided mobile project in the open source community. If we got some good HIGs and organization together to work with LiMo and others, that would be great.

      I think porting GTK and Qt to iOS and Android (and even Windows Phone) is an essential first step to letting us easily branch out and give the world the joy of open source applications yet again in their new world. For many young and/or casual users, the desktop is already dead.

    • Matt

      @Jack … I think your porting UI libs to phone platforms idea is EXCELLENT. Newer model handsets really are small PCs now … e.g. my new phone 1.2G dual core, nearly a gig of ram … Android should easily be able to run a whole bunch of “pc” apps. Would be great to see that kind of migration be a possibility!!!

    • Benjamin Measures

      “And what if other things become more sexy? Exactly. If a free software project is not seen as innovative, as ‘doing cool things’, it loses momentum.”

      Sexy fit. Survival of the fittest. If project A is sexier than project B, then project B will have to get sexy to evolve.

      “This might indeed be the effect of being able to write software for mobile phones which everyone can get their hands on. It is far more cool if you can do that, get your ‘app’ out there, even make a buck.”

      Different market. The mobile software market is full of throw-away applications that don’t need to evolve into the behemoths of modern business, like Apache.

      FOSS is for the evolution of software. If the project doesn’t need to evolve, it doesn’t need to be FOSS.

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