The battle of free software against closed software has been won, how do we protect these gains ?

alan dawson's picture

The battle of free software against closed software has been won. There is now no economic difference. Free software has reduced the marginal cost of software to zero. It is a pure commodity. The ability for free software to be easily customised for different environments gives it an technical and commercial advantage against closed software.

Free software, plus commodity hardware, plus the electromagnetic spectrum that nobody owns, can build a robust, deep, meshed structured communications network, that can be built out in poor parts of the world, far more rapidly than the 20th century infrastructures of broadcast technology and telephone.

For example, AirJaldi , a social enterprise established in Dharamsala, use commodity technology ( in the form of consumer wifi equipment like the Linksys WRT54 ), Free software, and unlicensed radiospectrum to build communications infrastructure.

Another example is the OLPC project, which looks to bring access to computing and the wider internet to billions of children, via innovative use of free software, mesh networking, and commodity hardware.

The challenges to those of us who would like to see a system where wealth is created by community rather than hierarchy and where access to knowledge and culture is freely available to all, is dependant on protecting the developers and users of free software from software patents, digital rights management, and the Trusted Computing Platform Alliance.

Eben Moglen on Software Patents The TCPA and you.

Watch the attached videos for some more information on the challenges ahead..

How can we protect free software/hardware projects from the threats posed ?

What other ways can we lever open infrastructures to develop innovative actions ?


AndyDearden's picture

I'm not convinced that the battle has been won.

Although free software gets over some of the capital cost issues, it often underperforms with respect to usability issues. The main successes for free software seem to be in the more technical areas (operating systems, web servers, databases, programming environments) where technical people are designing tools to be used by other techies (LAMP, Eclipse etc.), but for end user applications, it is much harder to find examples of easy to use technology being provided from teh free software route. 

On the other hand, closed software services (GoogleDocs, Basecamp, Googlemaps, Facebook) are succeeding specifically because they are focussing on the needs of the users.

The big challenge to my mind is how can we enable the free software production process to do a better job on usability.



Andy Dearden
Reader in e-SocialAction
Communication & Computing Research Centre
Sheffield Hallam University
S1 1WB

AndyDearden's picture

For example. A usability issue with this page is that the video / audio streams always seem to insiist on playing. I expect that is something that can be changed, but it shows how hard it is for skilled people to design pages with good usabilty first time around. The process we have makes it easy to describe the problem, and I assume it's easy for you to fix. However, most usability problems are more deep rooted than this, and can be hard both to describe and to fix. How do we improve the free software design process so that deeper problems can be discussed, prioritised and dealt with.




Andy Dearden
Reader in e-SocialAction
Communication & Computing Research Centre
Sheffield Hallam University
S1 1WB

alan dawson's picture

To start on the second part of your post first....

I would disagree with your definition of GoogleDocs etc.. as closed
software services per se. I would see them as being positive examples
of how free software has been used to deliver services that will change
a global economy. I see no difference qualitively between using
GoogleDocs and uploading some files to free web space. Neither is
particulary closed or open in the sense of Free software

Thinking about Google in particular..

I think Google "get" Free Software in a way most others software vendors ( eg Microsoft ) don't, or are just starting to.

What we know of google's backend infrastructure is .. it's commodity
X86 PC hardware and they use Free software (it's a customised Linux OS
) on those 500,000 servers.

They're great supporters of free software projects ( Google code hosts masses of projects ).

They've built some highly useable applications on top of Free Software.

Lets think about a couple of Googles recent actions. Facebook announced
closer ties with Microsoft ( who provide advertising to facebook ( and
remember advertising is googles core business )). Rather than purchase
or make agreements with another large social networking site ( say
Murdochs MySpace ), they developed and released an open API (
applications programming interface ) that can be implemented and
extended by any site. and allows you to use Googles server network to
deliver your application.

This is a qualitively different way of responding to the business threat than we have seen previously.

Another recent example is the "gphone". Google sees a need to enter
the mobile applications market. A 20th Century way to do this would be
to license gMobileOS 1.0 to some handset manafacturers and loss lead
some phones onto the market. Instead though Google offer a completely
open platform, software developer kit and hardware spec, under a Free
software license.

Suddenly anybody can make gphones and create applications for them.

Both of these suggest an understanding that in 21st century value will be created by the community.




alan dawson's picture

To get  first part of your post now ..

Sure there are useability / support issues...I often find the windows shell pretty unuseable compared to a bash shell, and the utilities to search and replace text through many files quickly nonexistent, but thats another story... ;-)

What do you think runs in your set box box, and your wireless router.  Yes, its some form of Free software, with a web based management screen and simplified user interface. 

I know that the Gnome Desktop Environment provide guidelines for HCI

There is work being done by both Adobe Flex and Microsoft SIlverlight at the moment in Application frameworks that will be seamless from the web to the desktop.

Interestingly there is a Free Software implentation of silverlight called moonlight






alan dawson's picture

"... A usability issue with this page is that the video / audio streams always seem to insiist on playing."


Sorry I cannot reproduce that, dunno if thats good or bad..  what browser and OS are you using ? 

Ann Light's picture

 For information:

"OpenUsability ( is an initiative that brings Open Source Software (OSS) development and usability together. The idea is simple. There are many usability experts who want to contribute to software projects. And there are many developers who want to make their software more usable, and as a consequence, more successful. Representatives of both camps see this as a symbiosis beneficial for both sides."

 also which shows collaboration between linux developers and the usability community.


Not disagreeing that usability is an issue, but pointing out that there is a will from both communities that is being acted on... Hurrah.

-- Ann

kutoma's picture

Like Andy I am unconvinced about this battle. However, I would like to consider the aspect of piracy of proprietary software, for example in the developing world and parts of the developed world. To an extent one might argue that there maybe no economic difference between the two if piracy is factored in for the simple reason that even pirated proprietary software becomes 'free' for those who use it - of course at a risk. However, the point is that for most non technical users in the developing world at least, where piracy is anywhere between 70% and 90% (see the BSA piracy study, 2006, proprietary software seems to be more practical than free software for many reasons, which include a lack of adequate awareness of some of the advantages of free software, lack of strategic policies to improve the uptake of free software including a of skills and confidence in the use of free software.


alan dawson's picture

Yes .. The cost of the software on a PC is zero to the enduser, whether due to piracy or because it is bundled with the hardware.

 I would say this is a function of the competition in the market provided by free software, and a practice of turning a blind eye by proprietry manfacturers, to maintain marketshare. 

What that means in practice, we don't worry about how much software costs, we just use the systems that are easiest for us, and they tend to be the ones we have used before.

Historically  software and computing was a scarce resource in the late 20th century, which lead to the creation of large monopolies and a concentration of wealth.  In the 21st century thats not true.   I think Windows Vista will be the last huge operating system that Microsoft will ship.

There are 5 billion people in the world who have never used a personal computer, projects like OLPC seek to change that, and the paradigms of computing we have become used to.  

Also I think we focus on the personal computer here too much.  

If we extend our view from the desktop to the network and look at the largest web providers use for their services ..  yep.. its Free Software. 

How about smartphones ? Linux ships on 20-25% of all mobile "smartphones"  - thats 12-20million devices  per year. 

Leonie Ramondt's picture

Just reporting an interesting effect Alan. I've subscribed to the hotseat and when i click on the link in the message it takes me to the relevant node that opens alone in the page. eg when i click Home to link back i get a very interesting format that doesn't actually show the hotseat as originally published.

alan dawson's picture


you got to this I guess.  I'd envisaged a day when there may been more than one hotseat, and you might have  a front page with a link to the current hotseat, the latest posts, and some choice quotes from previous events.

 Thats what I was aiming at.

Leonie Ramondt's picture

yep, thats the one. great! seems like a good plan. tho i'm not sure why i coudn't get back to the current hotseat page from there.  had to find my notification email. (have bookmarked it now of course). i don't suppose its possible to set notifications to one a day? i'm getting a bit spammed atm.

Leonie Ramondt's picture

oh, not now Alan, it's the weekend. ;o)

Paula Graham's picture

I agree with Kutoma that piracy has previously made Windows attractive in the developing world. I've always had the strong impression that ripping off MS (standing for US megacorp in general) was a huge part of the attraction. One of the interesting things I'm noting is that since MS's vicious lawsuit against a hapless teacher using pirated MS in a school ICT lab Russians are significantly less enamoured of piracy and FLOSS is gaining ground significantly in the past year. Media and software companies hitting underepaid individuals all over the world with fines running into hundreds of thousands for what amounts to petty pilfering at a personal level is not doing their popularity any good.

On the useability issue, this really is getting old. Has anyone actually *seen* Ubuntu 7.10 on the desktop? I've commented at length on the relative ease of installation elsewhere

I've installed Feisty 7.04 (looks much like Gutsy 7.10 but less polished) for some non-techie women on the management committee of my housing co-op - one didn't even realise she wasn't using MS anymore, just thought MS had got easier. The other thought it was far more intuitive than MS. A third, who'd never used either, was surprised at how easy it was. With Open Office, casual users frequently don't realise it isn't MS.

The point at which Linux gets a bit harder is in more advanced network apps and some aspects of multimedia - not usually in areas crucial to SOHO charity users without tech support. You also need to research peripherals before you buy to make sure they have Linux support.

The thing that SOHOs usually need most is dbs - and OOo makes this really easy:

Creating new db in OOo:

Accessing MySQL db in OOo:

Drupal or Joomla will work fine for basic web needs and can be installed with a c-panel in 20 mins.

The area in which MS's products are 'easier' is in the level of standardisation. 17-year-olds of pretty basic ability can be trained on cheap schemes to tend it by rote and then paid £13k pa moving from company to company without requiring retraining. Desktop and basic servers (ie you can use the GNOME desktop on a server too if you want GUIs for admin functions) are now pretty simple in Ubuntu but for more advanced server management you do need a brain and brains cost money.

If you want to drive down wages and increase 'flexibility' (ie make everything the same) with a barely-trained IT workforce, 'tramline' solutions tailored to corporate use, escalating hardware costs and a choice between massive software costs or breaking the law, MS is the way to go. If you want an easy-to-use-out-of-box standardised system with real flexibility (ie you can make it do whatever you want on whatever hardware you have) for free-and-legal then Ubuntu is the way to go.

Paula Graham's picture

Alan, Googledocs might be 'free' in terms of open licensing and services without charge at point-of-sale, but you have no control over your data or its uses. Google is monetising the data and thus the word 'free' becomes inflected. They may understand open source business models very well but there's is a lack of transparency to say the least. It's not a community-controlled organisation by any stretch of the imagination. I realise that community control is not an issue in the formulation of 'open source' but it's a key issue for the Free Software movement (and in my own personal ethical universe).

Andy, Ubuntu is also forging ahead by focusing on the needs of the user and is busting a gut to involve communities globally. Crabgrass has a users' forum where users of the beta discuss with the developers what works and doesn't work for them, the developers tweak, the users discuss it again and so forth. This is not an exclusive property of proprietary development. If we want to improve useability we need to engage, to use the products, and to feed back to their developers rather than complaining that the products aren't what we need when we don't even use them.

I think it also worth noting that Google is forging ahead by being in possession of massive capital resources and an adaptable 'cloud' of processing capacity. These resources come from monetising data gathered from its users. If we want better free software, we need to invest - whether it be time or money.

Google as a corporation isn't likely to go under any time soon, but there's no guarantee that the googledocs project will remain in its present form and I think users would be ill-advised to become overly dependent on it. It's a useful bit of collaboration software but you certainly couldn't host personal or sensitive data - you'd be in breach of UK law as well as basic ethics. Googledocs and similiar remote computing projects offer a useful service but are not a solution to the computing needs of small orgs.

In terms of wider issues, concentrating 'smart' computer resources in a few global corporations whilst we use 'dumb' terminals would be - well, dumb! The point of open standards is to disseminate control over production rather than concentrating it. If, say, everyone moved from using MS Office on their desktops to using googledocs our dependency on a single corporate provider would be worse, not better - however 'cool' and 'funky' that corporation's self-presentation might be. It would obviously be less drastic if people host their own applications on google's 'cloud' - but still, I think the p2p structure of the internet is every bit as important as open standards.

And how much does a small-to-medium charity give a toss about these issues? Not a scrap, of course. This doesn't mean they're not crucial for the technical community to take care of. I don't know too much about mental health but I sure as hell expect MIND et al to take this on for me!

AndyDearden's picture

Andy Dearden

I take your point about "If we want better free software, we need to invest - whether it be time or money." and I apologise if I sound like I am carping from the side.

With respect to the computing needs of small organisations, the problem is that most organisations want to focus on their core mission, and find it difficult to invest time / money / energy into activities that appear to have uncertain payback (uncertain in terms of both the value to be gained, and the length of time to deliver a return). As a result, many small organisations - such as ourselves when we started working together on PRADSA, will latch onto the most immediately available tools and get working. When we started working on PRADSA, we had a choice between waiting for the various bits of Drupal to get going, or just setting up a googlegroup and sharing some googledocs. What did we do?

This is not a criticism. What strikes me though is that there is a trade-off going on here between short term gains versus long term aims, and the fit between software choices and the strategic goals of organisations. I notice when I go to voluntary sector organisations these days, it is rare to see anything other than fair-trade coffee / tea. Is free software a similar issue? Should NGOs promoting participatory / democratic values find closed software unacceptable? 

Seems to lead back to Alan's original question - how do we protect the gains that free software has achieved?



Leonie Ramondt's picture

Bill Thompson asks "perhaps the time is right
for a co-operative social network site, one owned by its members and
run in their interests.

Leonie Ramondt's picture

(debug note for alan - when i previewed my message it came up above paula's post in blue, with no cancel or return to the hotseat option. also don't understand why the url above isn't linked (tried a href'ing and that didn't work either)

alan dawson's picture

Hi Paula,

Yes, google is monetising its data.. thats what google does. Google has developed new and innovative ways of delivering targeted advertising. Search, Email, etc are just ways of getting people to click through on ads.

How is this different from using a supermarket loyalty card like nectar ? Where in exchange for a discount across a number of stores in group. the group gathers information, which is used to target advertising. Or advertising ¨Now with 1001 customers¨?

Similary, how is the fear of google (or other software as a service) disappearing or changing qualitively different from a hard disk failing ? As a software user I make contigency for this. Google Docs ( for example ) allows export of data in several formats, most of which are open ( ODF, RTF, Text). A service that did not provide this would be different and less suitable.

I do agree with many of your points. Yes the p2p structure of the internet is fundamental, yes handing over our computing resources to global corporations is dumb. But I think the arguments need to be refined further.

I use a computer program to create some content which is stored as data somewhere. If I used M icrosoft word to create the content, I might have my license to use the software revoked, and even though I have access to the data may not be able to retrieve the content. ( Actually a place I worked at once had their license to use the INGRES database revoked. We had to provide confirmation to Computer Associates ( the vendor ) that we had destroyed all copies of the software! )

Free software protects me in the above scenario by protecting my rights to use the software, whilst also granting me other rights also.

As software moves to a service, where we dont download the program any longer how do we ensure that we keep the freedoms that we have grown used to with downloaded software?

I guess making sure our service providers use open APIs to access our data, and making sure that they allow export in open formats which are not encumbered by software patents.

There is also the GNU Affero GPL license , which requires the operator of a network server to provide the source code of the modified version running there to the users of that server.

I note that publishes their software under the affero license.

Steve_Walker's picture

The distinction between software and data is an important one and perhaps one which deserves similar attention (and thanks for the link to Bill Thompson's article, Leonie), and raises a range of issues, such as data protection (though in worrying about googledocs rather than the Inland Revenue we may have missed the point!), privacy etc.

A couple of years ago I ran a module, essentially on the 'semantic web' attracting a lot of attention at the time (the semantic web, that is, sadly not the module). What struck me was the extent to which agreeing semantic standards comes close to hardwiring representations of what is important in the world, the nature of their relationships to other things, and the extent to which _if_ this took off, network effects would make them very difficult to change. This is another deeply political area. Talking recently with John Lindsay (who some here know), he mentioned the struggle in the 1970s to have the term 'homosexuality' moved out of 'medicine' in the Dewey decimal system.