As the New York Times recently reported, Brazil is asking for free software. What’s not clear is that Brazil, like Peru, is not asking for open source. The headline and the quote inside the NYT article get it right. Seeing “open source” language is an attempt to horn in on the popularity of software freedom but without actually consistently delivering software freedom or pitching a message based on software freedom. This has happened before. A few years ago, Peruvian Congressman Villanueva was being lobbied by Microsoft about a free software in government bill the congressman was pushing in Congress. The congressman took a the Microsoft rep down a peg when the MS rep wanted to reframe the argument to focusing on “open source”; Villanueva corrected him and insisted on debating the issue around software freedom.
Microsoft wants to challenge “open source” because they know they can’t compete with software freedom. Microsoft is a proprietor and what they sell caters to people focusing on price and features — two values that matter a great deal to the open source movement. The open source movement was built to deny software freedom in exchange for values Open Source Initiative founders believed that their target audience—business—would respond to. So, goodbye software freedom, hello leveraging an unpaid workforce to help write software in exchange for a slightly more amenable license.
Soon, OpenOffice.org v2.0 will come out (beta versions are available now), but there’s a catch: some of its functionality is based on a Java runtime engine which is non-free software (Sun Microsystem’s JRE). This means that some of OO.org’s functionality is written in a programming language (Java) for which there is no free software replacement yet. Therefore, in order to run some parts of OO.org v2.0, users will need to install Sun’s non-free JRE or do without the functionality. Fortunately for most users, the bulk of OO.org’s most popular functions (word processing, drawing, presentation, spreadsheet, and equation editor) are not adversely affected.
But the message is clear: this is what happens when you stop caring about software freedom. Richard Stallman, founder of the free software community, warned us about this. He said that such a program would be “free but shackled” to a non-free program, and thus not useful in the free world where users run nothing but free software.
Frank SchÃ¶nheit is a Sun employee cited in a Newsforge article on OO.o 2.0. He is quoted as saying that “functionality is what matters”, and he’s not lying. For software proprietors and for the audience the open source movement speaks to, adopting proprietary software in order to get some job done is a perfectly amenable thing to do. For free software advocates, writing a free software replacement is far more attractive.
Keep on rockin’ in the free world!