Open Source Revolution
Freely modified and redistributed software is more than technology. A Toronto conference heard this week that open source is a social movement, a civil-rights fight for the 21st century.
The Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, May 13, 2004
In Spain's southwest, citizens of the Extremadura region are flourishing technologically in a Microsoft-free zone. Their progress is an upbeat development for the downtrodden. They live in Spain's poorest region, one of the poorest in Europe.
With limited infrastructure, a dwindling population and high unemployment, Extremadura might well have become a tech have-not state, a victim of the digital divide.
And yet, its regional government in the last four years has been able to install almost 80,000 computers in schools ? one machine for every two students. In keeping with a push for universal computer access and participation, the government provides digital literacy training for pensioners, housewives and the jobless. Every village has public Internet access.
"They decided they must make a policy to leapfrog into the information society," University of Maastricht economist Rishab Aiyer Ghosh told a Toronto conference this week. "The numbers they came up with are remarkable."
The key to Extremadura's success was strikingly simple ? free and open source software, available at no charge, for anyone's use and modification. Extremadura's IT strides would have been unthinkable had they depended on proprietary software such as Microsoft Windows and Word, because of the attendant fees for licensing and upgrading. Instead, the region's computers run a customized version of Linux, the freely distributed operating system created and given away more than a decade ago by Linus Torvalds. Other open source software programs are also installed on the machines.
"For us, software libre (open source software) was the only choice. We were able to stretch our budget very far," Francisco A. Huertas Mendez, technical co-ordinator of GNU/LinEx, the region's version of Linux, has said.
There were non-monetary benefits too. Because open source software permits users to modify its source code, Extremadura programmers were able to tailor the operating system to reflect the region's culture.
Perhaps not surprisingly then, the computers have been put to very localized uses, with Extremadurans compiling historical archives and creating Internet-based radio programs.
Linux's naysayers have contended that the onetime geek favourite is difficult to learn. Yet, its widespread adoption in Extremadura ? by tech novices who did not need to unlearn Windows or Mac skills ? would seem to be a stark counter-case.
For some open source advocates, Extremadura's success initially seemed too good to be true. "I was slightly incredulous that things actually worked. Adopting technology is hard," said Ian Allen, an Algonquin College professor and an early pillar of the National Capital Freenet, Ottawa's first community computer network. His skepticism waned. "This is the way open source should work... I am delighted."
Extremadura, which in April won a European Regional Innovation Award, is not keeping its good thing to itself. It has agreed to share its model with its neighbouring region of Andalucia, as well as Brazil and El Salvador.
"They have adopted entirely the ideology of freedom that is part of this software movement," said Ghosh, program leader at the International Institute of Infonomics and lead author of a European Commision-sponsored study on free and open source software.
On Mother's Day, he is far from home, addressing a University of Toronto conference on open source, where many of the 300 or so attendees including Allen favour spreading Extremadura's thinking to the rest of the world.
A month earlier in Toronto, the Real World Linux trade show was held, but that was an ordinary, apolitical gathering of tech vendors and customers ? .com compared to .org when stacked against the U of T?sponsored assemblage of lawyers, academics, activists, and, not least of all, software developers and a few tech executives.
The keenest among them contend that the market shares of Microsoft and its proprietary peers can, and should, be rolled back. Perhaps "closed" software can even be extinguished, the hardcore open source advocates contend.
Free software ? software that can be freely copied, modified, and re-distributed by its users (and often software which is free of charge) ? is inextricably bound with personal freedom, the loftiest speakers say.
"Civil freedom in the 21st century requires human beings to retain control over the the technological environment that surrounds them," said Eben Moglen, a Columbia Law School professor and general counsel for the U.S.-based Free Software Foundation.
"Without that control, they live in a world of perfect surveillance conducted perfectly, all the time, on behalf of whoever it is that does control the technology.
"Whoever controls software, controls life," Moglen said. "Well, it had better be us. That's the real political meaning of the free software movement."
Years ago, before the Internet fostered the creation and distribution of open source software, the goals must have seemed like an incredible longshot. But in Toronto, amid discussions of growing governmental and corporate enthusiasms for open source ? count China, IBM and Novell Networks among the converts ? it seemed for many that the odds have been improving.
Once the cause of only altruistic coders, open source is becoming a big-tent draw, appealing as well now to businesspeople who have found that profits aren't a contradiction when it comes to free software. For techno-socialists and certain self-interested capitalists alike, Extremadura is a bold, enlightened glimpse of a future when open source technologies stand up to, or even triumph over, proprietary alternatives.
"We're already winning," said Moglen. "Unlike much of the long history of the struggle for freedom, this time, we win."
'Free' As In Freedom
As the 1960s civil rights movement was driven by eloquent orators, the free software movement has Moglen as one of its most forceful, fluent spokespeople.
At the Toronto conference, organized by the U of T's interdisciplinary Knowledge Media Design Institute, Moglen was a virtuoso rhetoretician at the microphone, speaking so smoothly without notes that his brash assertions ? Microsoft will lose to free software and die, bandwidth will one day be a free, common resource ? seemed like natural conclusions.
"There will come a time when there is nobody left who will sign up for the proposition that yes, indeed, I wanted people not to be able to understand, learn, fix, improve or share the technology that manned their lives because it was making me rich to keep them unfree," Moglen said.
"Soon, and I do mean soon, the number of people willing to admit 'Yes, I sold the privilege of human communications to people by the sip rather than acknolwedging their right to be in touch with one another, and it made me money, and I will grew rich,' will go down."
As compelling as he was, Moglen said he was but the messenger for someone else's argument. "I'm not the visionary. I'm just the lawyer."
He gave due credit to Richard Stallman, who more than two decades ago founded the Free Software Foundation. He also created the GNU Project, which was responsible for the open source, Unix computer language utilities which years later enabled Linus Torvalds to create the Linux kernel in 1991.
But if Stallman was the father of free software, Moglen and fellow speaker Brian Behlendorf made clear that others rapidly embraced the same ethic. Its hallmarks ? collaboration to the point of radical inclusiveness and widespread distribution of work for review and modification ? were evident in the creation and refinement of the Internet, said Behlendorf, who in the early 1990s co-founded the Apache Web Server Project behind the Apache open source server used now by almost two-thirds of all websites.
(It's worth noting that "open source" here is used in hindsight, as that term is, in fact, a market phrasing coined in 1998 because "free software" confusingly implies both zero-cost and freely distributable, modifiable code).
Open source, Behlendorf said, "was the default way you built Internet infrastructure. You built code and released it without trying to commercialize and monetize it."
The Apache server, Behlendorf said, had idealistic roots. As HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) emerged as an open Internet standard, Apache's software developers wanted to ensure that HTTP was "not rendered moot" by the efforts of proprietary web browsers such as Netscape to grab market share. (Netscape since returned to the open source world as Mozilla.)
The blossoming of the Internet in the mid- and late 1990s saw Microsoft come to dominate the web browser space with its Explorer software, just as its Office productivity suite came to dwarf competitors.
But at the same time, proprietary software makers began taking open source adversaries more seriously, particularly after companies that made Linux-based software demonstrated they could be highly competitive.
As Bob Young, the Canadian who co-founded the seminal Linux-based software company Red Hat Software, explained in Toronto: "What we were selling was not a product. We were selling control over a product."
Prompted by feedback of Unix computer language user groups, Young in 1994 created Red Hat, a tiny company that sold its own souped-up version of Linux, and made every line of code available to all in the process. Although software executives told him that his company was doomed, customers countered that Red Hat offered a unique and valuable product: "It's not that it's better, faster and cheaper," Young said. Customers told him that because they were able to modify Red Hat, the software could be made to do what they needed it to do.
Yes, Linux fans could buy discounted, "bootlegged" versions of Red Hat because it was free. But Young says that his company bore those losses with grace. "We see that as a huge benefit to us. We had to get people using our brand," he said. As well, by sharing its code, Red Hat became a trusted member of a likeminded community of developers, effectively enlarging its engineering team immensely at very little cost.
"We believe we can build better products collaborating with our customers than we can hoarding technology from our customers," Young said.
He offered this analogy: "Imagine buying a car where the hood was locked shut and you allowed the dealer that you bought it from to retain the only key to the hood of the car.
"Every other industry in a free market democracy works the way open source does. It's only the software industry that has this really weird, binary-only proprietary model," Young said.
"If you don't have source code, and you don't have a license that allows you to make changes to it, you have handed control of your technological infrastructure either for your organization or for your society to the developer of that software."
That would, in most cases, be Microsoft ? the great bogeyman of open source. If speakers wanted to get a laugh at the Toronto conference, they needed only to put together a sentence that used the words "Microsoft" and "evil."
Of course, the feeling has been somewhat mutual. By 2001, Microsoft's CEO at the time, Steve Ballmer, was lashing out at Linux. Once, he referred to it as a "cancer." At an employee meeting, he reportedly bellowed: "People ask me, who's our biggest competitor? You know who I think our biggest competitor is? Linux. Linux, Linux, Linux, Linux. Burn it on your forehead, people: Linux," the Wall Street Journal reported.
That doesn't mean that Microsoft hasn't learned from Linux. Microsoft claims to provide some customers with the benefits of open source with its "shared source initiative," in which the tech giant grants a read-only license to view some source code.
However, at the Toronto conference, Microsoft's representative was grilled about his company's refusal to include international vendor-neutral standard file formats in its products.
In speeches and statements, Microsoft officials have also criticized one of the legal underpinnings of open source ? the General Public License (or GPL), the most popular of many licenses which authorize the distribution of open source software. Microsoft officials rebuked the GPL as a threat to intellectual-property rights. Indeed, the clash between free and proprietary software can be seen as a corollary of the broad opposition between intellectual property rights and digital-era revamping of the public domain.
Not surprisingly, Young, after stepping down as Red Hat's CEO, founded the non-profit Center for the Public Domain in 1999. The billionaire put $20 million towards an effort to "raise the quality of debate" around intellectual property. He contends that copyright and intellectual property rights have grown too strong in recent years. "What the GPL does, it kind of replicates the public domain," he added in his keynote address in Toronto. Young's latest business venture is a company called Lulu an author-controlled alternative to a conventional publishing industry "acting as a very tight bottleneck."
Moglen on this topic sounded a similar note, focussing on the rise of peer-to-peer networks such as Napster and Kazaa which foster the sharing audio and video files. "When software becomes free, culture becomes free too," he said. "An environment in which the bottlenecks over distribution that have previously determined that most of the welfare gains from culture will be handed to non-creative people, those bottlenecks are being taken down," Moglen said. "Free software makes that possible."
Big Players Buy In
The U of T conference and Real World Linux did have one thing in common. Attendees at both took heart in the increasing open source efforts by the tech world's giants.
IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola might not want to own up to it, but in Moglen's words, they have become "are the unwitting running dogs of the movement of liberation." He pointed out that IBM is moving its employees to free software computers.
Novell has aggressively moved into the free software business, having notably acquired desktop Linux specialist Ximian last August and Europrean Linux distributor SuSe last November. In Toronto, Matt Asay, director of Novell's Linux business office, said that Novell espouses a "both source" business model.
Asay added that at the other end of the tech-business spectrum, open source startups are hot. "Open source is the new dot-com to the VCs," Asay added. "They all know they want one in their portfolios."
But for all the talk of open source's momentum, Dwight Wainman, CEO of the Toronto-based accounting software company CaseWare International provided a reality check.
"Accountants are not asking for open source or free software," he told the conference. "They are basically 99.9-per-cent Microsoft shops."
And yet, accountants may come to regret their reliance on proprietary software. he added. Accountants need to modernize, develop new data standards to make their software work together, and to work towards continuous eauditing and continuous financial reporting, Wainman explained. However, big proprietary companies ? Microsoft is investing $1 billion U.S. yearly in accounting software ? don't want to support those standards, Wainman said. "It's in the proprietary interest not to do so.
"Accountants are starting to realize that these large companies that control software and content will perhaps control them," Wainman said. "It was always an open model since the monks developed debits and credits. But there are patents coming in and they will try to patent debits and credits."
Moglen chose to accentuate the positive, highlighting that Extremadura is far from alone in its preference for open source. "The largest acquirers of software collectively in the world are governments (and) governments are getting the point," he said. "The largest software market in the world is moving towards us at a previously unimaginable rate. When government switches to freedom, the economy moves too."
Some government support for open source has been problematic. China assists in the creation of a made-in-China "Red Flag Linux," although it balks at following the open-source rule of sharing its own modifications to the code.
But just last month, more than 2,200 Brazilian public servants took open software training. Earlier this year, Brazil signed an agreement with IBM to encourage government use of Linux. Great Britain, Russia, Germany and China have signed similar agreements.
In Canada, an Ottawa-based group called Gosling focuses on getting governments to adopt open source software. Gosling members were at the conference, networking with like-minded Torontonians.
With such efforts buoying him, no wonder Moglen could stand up and preach like the Martin Luther King of free software.
"We know what freedom is," he said. "We're not confused about it. Nobody has to explain to us what freedom is in a technological society.
"We don't care who goes out of business. Our job isn't to keep people in business, our job isn't to put people out of business. We have our eyes on a prize. This is a civil rights we're running here. We set out to do it, we like where it is now, we like where we mean to take it. We see that we can win, you see it too. Freedom now."
From the students, professors, activists and techies in the lecture hall, there was thunderous applause.
? The Ottawa Citizen 2004http://www.canada.com/ottawa/ottawacitizen/technology/story.html?id=eba8b36d-925b-442c-b6c9-39200019e126