Wearing a suit when the rest of the 500-strong lecture theatre were dressed in shorts, jandals, and old conference T Shirts, Bruce Perens introduced himself by announcing his clothes as a lesson: Linux needs to be more outward facing.
Perens is described as an open source luminary, the founder of a number of non-profits, groups and Open Source initiatives and projects including the well-renowned and globally used Busybox. A former Debian Project Leader, he represented Open Source at the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society in 2005. Perens is often quoted in the press, advocating for open source and the reform of national and international technology policy.
Perens begins his talk by saying open source is a success, and also a failure. The aim of open source was to free computing for the world as users increasingly become slaves to their tools. He gives the iPhone as an example. Part of its function is to not do what you want when that action might reduce the profit of Apple, or a media company, or upset a cellular carrier or the government.
“We trust very few companies to decide what’s right for us to consume and what isn’t.”
But what is the harm? People enjoy iPhones, and on the whole they cater to what the average consumer is after. The danger lies in the lack of control. Perens argues you’re a slave to whoever controls that tool, and thus controls what you do with it, what you see on it, and what you use it for. Apple, Microsoft, Google, and a sprinkling of other multinational companies are simply intermediaries between content and our consumption.
And we trust very few companies to decide what’s right for us to consume and what isn’t.
The Open Source movement, Perens suggests, is the only credible producer of software (and recently hardware), and therefore not bound to a single interest, economically or politically. Open Source is important in a world controlled by big business, and it’s up to us to ensure it’s not squashed like a bug by the interests of these large companies.
Perens suggests that the goals of open source need to evolve and become simply more than development of quality software. Open source needs to become relevant with the mainstream and needs to earn their sympathy. We face many challenges – a much covered and controversial story over the last few months has been the SOPA bill – hotly contested by the software and internet community. But progress against this bill has been slow and difficult.
Why is it so difficult for us to be heard?
Open source has not built a relationship with users, with common people, like Apple has manifested over the last decade. Open source has not earned consumer sympathy and when it comes to the crunch, we can’t bet on the rest of the world to rally beside us when it’s required to shut down harmful bills such as SOPA.
“Nothing’s more annoying than the complaining user who has never contributed anything.”
Perens calls for developers to start caring about users. He admits that it’s easy for developers to simply ignore users, and concedes that – as a developer himself – nothing’s more annoying than the complaining user who has never contributed anything. He understands that many developers of open source software wonder why they should care about users, and instead develop for themselves and other developers.
But when open source work only benefits ourselves and our community, it’s self limiting.
Some companies and organizations understand this, and Perens listed a “best of breed” which included Mozilla, Wikipedia, and yes, Ubuntu.
Beware of the ‘buntu
While Ubuntu demonstrates great self discipline, and has a very user-centric approach to open source software, however, it is in the position of becoming an intermediary – Perens warns that Ubuntu is owned by Canonical, a commercial company.
“We need to accept that our commercial partners will put the interest of their business before all else.”
Perens suggests that Canonical will put business before the community. The interest of their commercial partners (for example, OEMs) will constrain what they can do. All companies, open source or not, will put business first.
As commercial companies like Red Hat and Canonical took the foreground in open source over the last two decades, the community and volunteer contributors lost the moral high ground, and Perens says that today this makes Open Source just another competitor.
Perens warns that “working for free to make Mark Shuttleworth ricer just isn’t very smart” and advises Ubuntu developers to make sure their presence is known independently of Ubuntu.
“Working for free to make Mark Shuttleworth richer just isn’t very smart.”
He finishes by saying that simply making a better platform than the competition is an insufficient goal if the company behind it eventually turns into another Microsoft. It’s Windows, just from another company.
So Perens asks, is it going to be our destiny to live in a world of constraint?
Authors note: Unfortunately my camera card reader is playing up, so photos will be added to this article whenever I can get my hands on a new one.