It might come to pass that FOSS will feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and deliver the world into a fair and happy society. Or maybe not. One way or the other, free open source software remains, and will remain, software. And so, the real measure of FOSS success is whether or not it is good software.
Free software does not need to take over the world. FOSS doesn’t need to fight non-free software. And the dispute must not happen on moral grounds.
As much as this sounds common sense, it is not the way people react.
For example, no one needs a year of the “Linux Desktop”. If GNU did steal all of Windows market share and became the dominant OS in the world, that would not be a good thing. Choice, diversity, flexibility and opportunity to experiment are diminished on a landscape with only one dominant OS, even if that one is the most open, tweakable, and flexible. If GNU was the new Windows, that would be just as bad (OK, almost as bad) as the Windows95 dominated world. The ideal is not a world without non-free software, but a world with all kinds of software, and good software.
Obviously, there are problems in this landscape that are generated by the dominance of the Windows OS, like the unavailability of drivers, incomplete or undisclosed intercommunication protocols and others, but those do not spur from the evilness of non-free software. Actually, those problems are part of the complexities of the software world. Operational Systems are huge behemots of code, and adapting hardware to them is a difficult task. But a task that is being tackled bit by bit, and the progress is very concrete now.
I don’t mean that Microsoft or Nvidia are “good” and that no one should complain about the lack of drivers. What I mean is that those problems are better tackled through software than through politics. For example, the Portland project did much more to solve the problems of a multitude of GUIs than all of the Gnome-vs-KDE flamewars. And software solutions for software problems will come in time.
It seems to me that most of the flamewars come from this idea that FOSS should be a revolution — in the stalinist sense of the word. For example, one deep grudge surfaces every time anyone claims (or is claimed to have) standard status.
Being a standard would mean that most users and distros were adopting said software. If something like that ever comes to happen, it certainly will impact the whole landscape, it will have to be considered in big projects like Gnome or KDE. But if someone claims that, well, nothing happens. Why should anyone care?
Those concerns are crucial in the commercial software world. But if anyone can fork your code and do with it whatever they please, being a standard gives you nothing more than bragging rights.
Let me offer an example. For many years now, the title of “standard” FOSS desktop is unavailable to anything except KDE or Gnome. It is not going anywhere. But this did not prevent the creation of XFCE, or the ongoing development of dozens of other projects like Enlightenment or GNUstep. Even many experimental window managers have surfaced recently.
No one should forget the political impact of his own code. For that matter, no one should forget the political impact of whatever he says or does. But there’s a huge difference between that and a militant attitude towards everything software. This is not about serving a higher cause. When Stallman jokes about the Religion of Emacs it is a JOKE!
Another recent confusion between political and software concerns has arisen out of the new version of the GPL. Who is right: Linus or Stallman? Both. The GPLv3 is clearly trying to reach beyond the realm of software into politics. As it is a license, a form of contract, it is only natural that it does. And, what’s more, the specific political issues it is addressing are very urgent, relevant ones. And also ones that are so recent that other mechanisms have not surfaced to handle them.
That said, the version thing does mix things up a bit. Trying to use CVS into a judicial process (which the development of a license inevitably is) might create some issues. A contract is usually not referred to by numbers. And the fact that the second and third versions of the GPL are very different beasts even if their purposes and “souls” are the same makes a lot of trouble where there should be none.
I feel a different name would make things much easier. Greater General Public License (as opposed to the LGPL) or Universal Public License, or anything else. Obviously, there has been a lot of fuss about too much different FOSS licenses, so creating yet another one would be seen as “BAD”. It would be against the dogma. Then again, this seems to me a commitment to a “cause” that is making things more difficult.
Still, i am very optimistic. In a recent OSnews contest of alternative operating systems neither Linux-based nor BSD-derived systems were considered to be alternative. The GNU os is already very stable and getting better nevertheless. Even on the Windows camp FOSS is blossoming, and that has definitely had a positive impact on the quality of even commercial software. Things are getting better.
But every time I see yet another article about how GNU can gather more market share, i feel a sting of despair…