Recently Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, spoke at Microsoft (presumably by invitation).
The power of proprietary software over the user remains unjust and a threat. Microsoft remains a chiefly proprietary software distributor. Any serious analysis of server-side computing would conclude that GNU/Linux is widely used and Microsoft Windows is not as widely used. But many tech people are not good political analysts and they still buy into the points Ziff-Davis started and ended their pro-corporate coverage with (a list of proprietary programs Microsoft now offers to run on a GNU/Linux system and claims that Microsoft’s “momentum” toward becoming “a true friend of open source” “is growing”). So whatever software freedom gains were won by running a wholly-free OS are easily lost to a politically naive admin’s choice of running proprietary software atop that free system. Some admins make this choice precisely because they don’t value software freedom (the freedom to run, inspect, share, and modify published computer software) for its own sake. They’ve bought into setting aside software freedom, just as the open source taught them to do.
Some key distinctions are still failing to be made by corporate media coverage and for easily understandable reasons:
- Microsoft’s Mark Russinovich presumably heard what Stallman said at his talk (which was said to be a “mostly standard talk”). Stallman’s talk usually includes a clear description of how the free software movement he started predates the open source development methodology by over a decade and stands philosophically distinct as well (old essay, newer essay). Yet Russinovich wrote that Stallman’s talk is “OSS-related” (“OSS” being “open source software”) which is right in line with why the open source development methodology was started: corporate co-optation of a social movement that poses a real threat to proprietary software. That threat comes in part by challenging proprietary software’s unethical underpinnings.
- Ziff-Davis’s article continues on this theme at the top and bottom of the article (as to be expected of corporate news which makes up the majority of computer news coverage:
Each time Microsoft makes another open-source-related move these days, there are still always folks on Twitter or in comments on blog posts who caution that Microsoft hasn’t really changed and never will be a true friend of open source. This change in Microsoft didn’t happen overnight, but the momentum is growing.
- Proprietors (including Microsoft) like “open source” instead of “free software” because open source doesn’t question proprietary control over the user. Open source poses no threat to proprietary power by questioning running proprietary software on OSes that respect a user’s software freedom (the freedoms to run, inspect, share, and modify published computer software).
Microsoft is much the same as it was before, only the PR campaign has changed from more honest namecalling (“Linux [sic] is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches“)—honest in that such language reveals what Microsoft actually considers principled competition to be—to appearing warmly welcoming (“Microsoft [heart symbol] Linux [sic]”). They dare not call a complete GNU/Linux OS with a name that mentions GNU (which it most likely is in both quotes) because that might bring software freedom to mind (I’ll bet Stallman mentioned this as this too is part of every talk he’s given on this topic for many years).
What Ziff-Davis called Stallman’s “distaste for Microsoft” is clearly understood to be serious and deeply cutting. Simply read or listen to Stallman’s principled objections; all of his talks and essays are based in the facts of how computers work and an ethical examination of how we ought to treat each other with computers. But in corporate media it’s necessary to downplay principled ethical examination in order to diminish the severity of the objection. After all, Ziff-Davis, like virtually all other computer news coverage out there, is corporate and sympathetic to “open source”.
Microsoft wants users to run a GNU/Linux system as a VM on top of Microsoft’s system as that helps Microsoft collect payments (licensing or rent, depending on the details of hosting) and, perhaps more importantly, spy on literally every bit of data that the user’s OS deals with. Spying is big business and spying directly tied to proprietary control over the user. Microsoft offers a service to help users host their VM on Microsoft-owned hardware (so-called “cloud computing”) too. Stallman, by comparison, explains what “cloud computing” actually means (as he may well have done at his Microsoft talk) and why you should only run VMs on free software systems you own and control.
The free software movement has its work cut out for it in terms of getting people to reject proprietary software on principle and in light of how users are (by design) treated unfairly with all proprietary software. Reality is making this job simultaneously harder and easier: there are more unignorable stories of harm from proprietary software than ever. This makes people’s lives harder and sometimes proprietary software is lethal. But there’s also so much education work to do with the public and reports of how proprietary software hurts people makes it a little easier to understand that this is not a phantom fear.
So nothing of substance has changed: ethics are too deeply rooted for tech to have an effect, and computing has only really changed in that more people are being offered computing services than ever before. Software proprietors are still unmotivated by the same principles that software freedom activists are. Microsoft’s changes are quite superficial and PR-related. The most important issue remains the same: The social harm of proprietary software continues apace.