When is free not free ?

To be honest, I'm not sure I know the answer to that question, but it arises from this article about the use of Java in OpenOffice.org.

Now, obviously, I'm coming at this from the point of view of being an Engineer at Sun, so by definition (in the FSF's eyes), I am already tainted by the devil. However, it appears to these tainted eyes that Richard Stallman and others are stirring up trouble for the sake of the minority of folks who might regard Sun's Java implementation as being not free. I assume by this that they mean not free to be modified, enhanced, redistributed rather than costing money (which it does not).

I've tried putting myself in the shoes of a potential customer of OpenOffice.org, and to be honest, I can't see a problem with it using Sun's version of Java. After all, that is the real Java and no other [Open Source] implementations can be called that. As a customer, I could easily download both OpenOffice.org and Sun's Java implementation for use on Windows, Linux or Solaris (to name but 3 OS'es), and being an end-user, I can see no issue with this at all.

Whilst I support some of the ideals of Open Source Software, I do wonder if some people get too caught up in the ideology and don't actually stop to consider what might be the best thing for the end-users. In this particular case, I think it would be deplorable if the OpenOffice.org 2.0 release were delayed simply because of the work required to make it operate with GJC or some other "free" Java implementation. On the other hand, a fork in the development tree, as noted as a possibility in the article above, is as undesirable, and is one of the less endearing aspects of Open Source projects.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not against the activity to make OpenOffice.org work with other implementations of Java. It's that extension of functionality which makes Open Source the success that it is. The issue I have is that of the playground bullies (FSF zealots) using intimidation to force development along a particular path which only benefits a minority.


I don't consider myself a free software zealot, just a fan of free and open source software. I just wanted to point out that you should take a little more time to understand free software and understand open software. They are entirely different in the philosophical approach to software though the end result is generally the same. It is areas like OpenOffice.org where things start to clash. OpenOffice.org is fine from an open source perspective because it is open source. From a free software perspective though, the freedoms of the OpenOffice.org software are implicitly restricted by its dependency on non-free software. And yes, you are right, free refers to ability to modify, redistribute, etc. and not to money. You can have free software that costs money. That is how the Free Software Foundation makes some of its money. While I think he does go a bit far in his reasoning, Richard Stallman has some excellent foundations for his beliefs and how to discuss the beliefs. Many of his essays are available to read on the GNU and FSF sites.

Posted by Brant Gurganus on May 18, 2005 at 06:51 AM BST #

I totally agree with you and wish there were MORE Java in OOo. I can't imagine the number of programmer hours that have been wasted in such a developer-inefficient language as C++. That being said, FSF does have a point. Visualize the worst-case scenario, MS buys Sun and shuts down Java. Since Java is not open source, nobody else is allowed to make ongoing fixes to the language/APIs. If OOo depends too much on Java, this effectively shuts down OOo until the Java portions can be replaced or a free software compiler/VM can be developed.

Posted by Anon on May 18, 2005 at 07:37 AM BST #

What about Java on the BSDs, BeOS, on PPC, Alpha, MIPS, etc.?

Posted by Joseph on May 18, 2005 at 10:56 AM BST #

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