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Monday, October 09, 2006


Not So Free, Not So Open. Should I Care?

I was trying to configure the modem in a laptop running Xubuntu the other day while I was thinking that it would be easier if the distro had support for winmodems out of the box (I prefer to call them linmodems). But many distros don't have support for winmodems because part of most drivers is proprietary. However I only want my modem working.

Most people (mainstream, I mean) expect quality and ease of use to be features of any software, free or proprietary. Can Free Open Source Software (FOSS) offer those features? I think it can, but it's not always the case.

The problem

Many people always had had doubts about the quality of FOSS projects from the beginning. Just to cite a relatively recent article from The Economist, talking about Open Source:
"... the biggest worry is that the great benefit of the open-source approach is also its great undoing. Its advantage is that anyone can contribute; the drawback is that sometimes just about anyone does. This leaves projects open to abuse, either by well-meaning dilettantes or intentional disrupters. Constant self-policing is required to ensure its quality."
The real problem is that big companies invest lots of money in usability studies and beta tests to develop new products. FOSS projects, in turn, try to compensate the lack of money with the work of many people developing and testing. But sometimes money has better results.

So, it is convenient to have companies involved (and funding) Open Source projects, but they may want to use approaches slightly different from FOSS. The main approaches used for while are presented here.

One approach: Not so free

Companies will not invest their money if there's no guarantee to have a quality product and a established name (I mean a brand) and I think it may be hard to reach this conditions when anyone can modify and redistribute the code with the same name.

So, projects receiving money for companies may be not so free (in the sense of freedom). They still are Open Source, but have copyright and trademarks. They may ask to submit to them any patch you do to the source and you must change the name if you don't do so and want to redistribute it.

I think this approach makes sense. They protect themselves from inexperienced developers applying poor quality patches or good developers changing the original philosophy of the project.

The not so open approach

This approach is used by projects that do not care if all the code is open and really free. They may be linked to closed but free (in the sense of money) libraries. They may be built using open source libraries with restrictive licenses too. It also apply to Linux distributions including non free or patented software

What about "real FOSS"?

Well, real FOSS can be very good too. However it can aim to a different target. Not-so-free and Not-so-open may be aimed to mainstream, non-geeks or inexperienced users. This kind of software tend to focus on usability. On the other hand, "real FOSS" can fit the needs of advanced users since tend to focus in flexibility.

Definitively it is convenient to have all this kind of software so we can choice the best for our needs. Free Software is about Freedom after all so we are free to choose, aren't we? :-)

I'm not an expert so I may be wrong.

Meanwhile, I can't get the modem working... Nevertheless, I'm not going to switch to other distro, I think Xubuntu is the best out there.

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Blogger JaN said:
This is a very nice read. I don't know that much about open source software but now, I think I do! I can throw big words around like FOSS and feel like I know it all. Thanks.
Anonymous Anonymous said:
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Blogger The Donnybrook said:
same problem with video drivers, especially now that they are needed because of advanced 3d acceleration features. how about just having the drivers released for linux since we pay for the hardware anyway.
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