Monday, July 19, 2010

Would you look through a window or go out and play in open?

Freedom of knowledge has always been worshiped across philosophies and religions all over the world. It has been applicable to the most fields of science and technology. This freedom has helped the growth of science, technology, and benefited the human world in every aspect. When Jonas Salk invented polio vaccine, he said "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" He did not try to hide its formula. When you buy a car, nobody stops you from opening its bonnet, fix a few problems, do a few modifications. That, is the freedom of knowledge, applied throughout the branches of science. But when it comes to software, abruptly, everyone starts hiding the source code, the formula behind it. You would be even denied from making similar kind of products, by means of patents. Some of the readers might have already guessed where I am taking this topic to.
[Those who know enough about foss, may skip the following paragraph.]

When you buy a software, it is most likely that you would be denied of few of the following freedoms:
1. You are not provided with the source code (consider it as the formula behind the software, that is necessary for making, modifying and improving that software, readable by most software programmers), neither you are allowed to ask for it, not even trying to re-engineer it.
2. You are not supposed to lend the software to anyone else.
3. Since you do not have the source code, you do not have the freedom to make any changes or improvements to that software, even if you are Bill Gates.
4. Leave alone making improvements and showing them to you friends, or start a garage for servicing these softwares.
Entire software industry has been very obsessive with protecting the secrecy of source codes and denial of these freedoms. It may sound trivial, but this denial of freedoms has sever implications for entire generation. After all software is also a piece of knowledge, like any mathematical or medical formula. Hence there has been a movement against such unethical practices, which we commonly know as Free and Open Source Software movement that strives for the realization of these freedoms, since 1984. For better understanding of rest of the articles, this was a very short introductory background of what open source and free software is all about. For more details refer to websites like gnu.org, opensource.org, fsf.org etc.

In spite of all these good things, during past 26 years of the movement, proprietary softwares have ruled the markets. Except for a few commercial successes, we do not see a general penetration of open source software among common users. Few softwares like Firefox and VLC, may have succeeded, but that hardly contributes to the awareness about the philosophical movement behind it. Why people are so ignorant about their dependence on few companies for the growth of the science behind computers? What is so wrong with accepting a product that ensures all the ethical and essential freedom, for almost no cost? Why this philosophy is yet to find a place in common mans living room?

A major problem here is that, common users do not understand what source code means and why is it so important. This restricts their understanding of the term 'open source' or 'free/freedom/libre' software, and leads to a notion of softwares that are free of cost. They also mistakenly relate it to early periods of computer science evolution when software used to be bundled with hardware without extra explicit charges.

In next few days, I am planning to do an unbiased analysis of the problems associated with open source and whether it has any scope for large, sustainable and inclusive success from the perspectives of business model, development model, marketing and most importantly the users' (consumer) behavior. Please excuse me if I am not able to express the humbleness of this attempt in words. Ideas, suggestions and feedbacks are always welcome!

[P.S. For simplicity and also as a personal preference I am using the terms 'free' and 'open source' interchangeably.]
[P.S. Thanks to RMS for giving us the analogy of car.]