FOSS Innovations

I’ve been reading different news articles about Free and Open Source software. I’ve also read articles that both praise and denounce FOSS. I’ve participated in flame wars and civil discussions about the merits of FOSS.

One argument I’ve seen appear countless times is that FOSS can only mimic the features of existing commercial software. The idea is that with commercial software, there is a profit motive, so innovation occurs. FOSS, without a profit motive, can only aspire to do what other existing packages do. Essentially, people are arguing that FOSS can only copy commercial software features.

There are a few problems with this argument that I can see, and I don’t mean to talk about one-off theoreticals like, “Well a person COULD release a new feature under the GPL”.

One, the way this argument is formed implies that FOSS and commercial software are mutually exclusive. When this argument comes up, no one ever clarifies what they mean by “commercial” software. It is just assumed by all parties involved in the argument/discussion that commercial software is proprietary software that you sell. This assumption and the wording of the argument (FOSS vs commercial) leads to the conclusion that FOSS is the software you don’t sell. This assumption furthers the idea that FOSS can only be free as in beer.

To make this idea clear (or not, since I always make bad examples), imagine if I asked you, “Do you want to buy this bottle of safe purified drinking water or drink from that spring over there?” The way I worded that question would imply that the spring water is not safe. It may or may not be safe, but by asking that question in that way, I’ve pretty much made up your mind, haven’t I? At the very least, you now have a doubt about the safety of that spring water. Now imagine that instead of talking about the water directly I discuss a side effect. “You can only grow tomatoes in safe water.” What happened? I’m still implying that the water from the spring is unsafe compared to the purified water. After all, I explicitly mention that the purified water is safe, so the spring water must not be safe, especially as you can’t grow tomatoes with it. Only this time you aren’t being asked about the safety of the water. You are being asked about growing tomatoes, and if you just argue about the ability to grow tomatoes, you implicitly agree that the spring water is unsafe while the purified water is safe. It may be that the spring water is also very pure and also very safe, but you’ve accepted that it is completely different from water that is safe by assuming a clear distinction. Crafty, eh? And maybe contrived…

Two, and related to the first point, the argument mentions the profit motive as if it was exclusive to “commercial” software as opposed to FOSS. Since it is possible to have commercial FOSS, FOSS can also be developed with a profit motive. If by “commercial” they instead meant “proprietary”, I still don’t understand how keeping the source secret inherently makes it more innovative than FOSS.

Still, I’ve thought about it. The Free Software Foundation wasn’t formed to create innovative software. It was formed to make it possible to use Free software with a Free operating system. Innovation wasn’t the purpose at all. Somehow this weird debate about the innovation from FOSS vs commercial software came up from others. Almost always, the question gets posed by someone who is against FOSS, and of course this situation pushes the idea that FOSS advocates insist that FOSS is more innovative that proprietary software.

It’s a confusing mess. One the one hand, you want to argue about the merits of FOSS or proprietary software. On the other hand, arguing simply makes people think you accept their assumption about commercial software vs FOSS. And if you argue to point out the assumption, you lose people who find your “meta arguments” pointless.

Anyway, I believe that innovation isn’t exclusive to proprietary software. I also believe that FOSS can be commercial. Heck, my business will depend on it to be the case!

But just saying so isn’t good enough. After all, Microsoft and other companies have been doing a good job perpetuating the idea that FOSS is communist (implying all sorts of evils by doing so) and that “commercial” (implying FOSS can’t be commercial) software provides true innovation. I think it would be interesting to see if a list of FOSS innovations could be made. Of course, innovation isn’t necessarily originality, and Microsoft’s marketing show that it is apparently innovative to make their OS more secure than previous iterations.

Still, a list of FOSS innovations would be nice to have. What did FOSS developers do before proprietary developers “copied” from them? I proposed making this list as a project for the DePaul Linux Community. I’ll take it on myself if there is a lack of interest there.

Of course, when a study or three say so, it only lends more credibility the idea that FOSS promotes innovation. And one innovation I use everyday without thinking about it: Firefox Live Bookmarks. Add one to the list…

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