First Column in The Times Online

Following on from the interview I gave a couple of weeks ago, The Times Online has been kind enough to offer me a fortnightly column – straplined “Our Man from Mozilla” (after “Our Man in Havana” by Graham Greene). I’m on a two-article trial, and then they’ll let me know if they want me to continue :-)

The first article is published today; entitled “Cry Freedom“, it talks about the difference between Free Software and Open Source, and why it’s important to the average user as well as programmers.

17 thoughts on “First Column in The Times Online

  1. Very interesting read. Is this also in the printed paper or just an online only article?

  2. Dave: Sadly, it’s not in the printed paper. (“Today, Time Online. Tomorrow, The World!”)

    Peter: Will do.

  3. Everybody should just start using the term Software Libre. The unambigousity of Open Source with the freedom of Free Software, aah.

  4. you say in your article that when a closed-source software is abandoned, the users are left with no upgrade path, other than converting to another software. but what happens when free software is abandoned (and sourceforge is filled with those)? who will continue develpment then, when a project dies? aren’t the users left with no choice just as well? there is a chance someone, some day, will continue development, but nobody promises it will happen, and it often doesn’t.

  5. tsahi: When free software is abandoned, you have a choice: continue to develop it yourself, or pay someone else to do the development for you.

    When non-free software is abandoned, you don’t have that choice.

  6. Nice topic, but it doesn’t make the case very well for non-programmers.
    What are the upsides?

    1. The column says the Mulberry users were abandoned when the company went bankrupt. It does not explain how, if the Mulberry software was libre, or even open-source, the non-programmer users would be non-abandoned.

    For this point, it would help to explicitly point out that if the code was libre, the users would be free to find another developer or form a community to learn to maintain the code (assuming it was well documented enough for people outside the original developers to maintain). Emphasize they must have the right to modify the code and redistribute new versions, not just be able to read copyrighted source code.

    2. The column implies that there is a cause-effect relationship between choosing freedom (libre firefox software) and the 650 extensions available. However, the availability of many extensions may be more a product of a well understood extension infrastructure (api [xulplanet], overlays, extension manager, extensions web sites, extension updates). For comparison, there are thousands of, say, active-x/ocx components available for VB and IE programmers, but VB and IE are not open-source, let alone free software. So free/libre is not a prerequisite for having many extensions. (The free/libre nature may encourage more free as in zero-cost extensions: extensions necessarily modify the base application, and therefore by license can’t be hidden, so a competitor can read the extension source, reimplement, and distribute at lower price, removing incentive to price much above zero. But I don’t think that is the point you wanted to make.)

    For this point, I think you would need to survey extensions to see whether a significant number of popular extensions required access to the source code. Many extensions simply add a command to menu, or add a toolbar or toolbar button, or add a status line item, and otherwise use the existing API. Maybe one measure would to scan the 650 extensions to see what percentage of them *redefine* javascript functions that were previously defined by the application. (Redefining requires a different syntax, so this might not be difficult.) If those functions weren’t part of the published api, then access to the source was necessary to understand what they do and change it. (However… extending code by changing non-public functions is not a good way to build a stable system, since internal functions are free to change or disappear in the next release, breaking the extension, so this also does not seem like a good thing to emphasize.)

  7. Malcolm: most end users are not developers, so they won’t develop it themselves, and are not companies, so they won’t be paying people to develop it. most people (Regular People, as Asa calls them) will only see a software with no developer left.

  8. While there are certainly risks of free / open source applications being abandoned, Mozilla itself is a powerful example of why Free software reduces that risk. If you’d asked someone in 1997 what would happen if Netscape decided to get out of the browser market and fire all their browser developers, very few people would have imagined that the market share of its code would be growing a couple of years later!

    The difference between free and proprietary software is that with free software the chances of recovery depend on the number of motivated users and the amount of resources they can bring to bear on the problem. With proprietary software, *no matter how many users are screwed* and *no matter how many resources are brought to bear*, you’re still out of luck.


  9. First, that’s a fine article, thanks for writing it. The article reminds me of why I think the Mozilla Foundation could do more to stress that it is distributing free software, not merely open source software which gives the user a choice of browsers to use online (a particularly weak claim because it isn’t true). I hope that your well-worded article is part of a trend to address this.

    As for the clarity of the term “open source”, I’m not so sure. The FSF essay that expresses comparable sentiment to your article ( cites examples where the term “open source” was used in a way that clearly conveyed how people misunderstand that term (see Neal Stephenson and the State of Kansas’ definitions). One of the most common misunderstandings is that the term means something like “you can see the source code”. The first sentence of the introduction to the definition of the term “open source” disagrees with this sentiment (“Open source doesn’t just mean access to the source code.”), but the misunderstandings persist. So, if people are getting “open source” wrong too, one of the ostensible reasons for its acceptance goes right out the window.

    My experience is that the ambiguity problem is overblown; this ends up being a minor problem for the term “free software”–once people get that we’re talking about freedom, not price, they don’t get it wrong again. So, like you say, it’s an educational campaign to teach people why free software matters and to ask for it by name.

  10. Cry Freedom is an interesting article, promoting free software (and software freedom). Unfortunately after reading the first paragraph I had the mistaken impression that it would be a comparison between Free Software and Open Source Software. But the key example, Mulberry, was neither free software nor open source, so it was not a comparison between those two.

  11. Gc: Yes, it would have been nice to elaborate, but I had a 700 word limit. :-) As for Firefox, it’s only been around 18 months or less; those other technologies have been around for years. (And it seems to me that the IE addon market only took off after the Firefox one.) And how do you think all that documentation became available so easily and plentifully? Because people could read the source. You aren’t reliant on a proprietary software company deigning to add an API you want, or document the existing ones properly. Lastly, I think that the free nature of Firefox and the developer mindset that engenders means that the entire design of the product (stuff like XUL) is oriented around extensibility.

    I certainly think the case is made for Firefox’s freedom having a significant positive effect on the number and quality of extensions.

    Tsahi: But the users can band together to employ someone, if they wish. That option is not open to users of proprietary software. If there are not enough users to form such a band, then yes, both sides have the same problem. But free software can never put you in a worse position.

    J.B.: I’m not quite convinced by the arguments which play down the ambiguity problem around “free software”. I do think it’s a significant issue, although I also do think it can be overcome.

    David Keegel: It was a comparison of the meaning of the two terms, and it noted that one emphasised freedom while the other did not. The Mulberry example showed that if you don’t emphasise freedom, people are often happy to take “zero-cost” instead, with unfortunate results.

  12. juytter: Neither, I’m afraid – several people have asked that. Perhaps that’s something I need to talk to them about for future columns.

  13. Second Times Online Article

    My second Times Online article is now available. Entitled “Open formats make history – and maintain it”, it talks about how the decision of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to use OpenDocument is the start of a move towards people reclaiming control o…