Friday Nov 13, 2009

A Software Freedom Scorecard

I spoke this morning at the South Tyrol Free Software Conference in Bolzano, Italy. My subject was the idea of a "software freedom scorecard", a list of indicators for the strength of software freedom in an open source project or product, about which I wrote recently. The slides are available for download.

I also refer to reptiles, and that's a reference to another blog post.

Wednesday Oct 28, 2009

☞ A Sense of Proportion

Tuesday Oct 20, 2009

☝ A Remarkable Reversal

It was a surprise to see Richard Stallman's signature on a letter to the European Commission calling on them to block the acquisition of MySQL by Oracle with its proposed acquisition of Sun. The surprise wasn't primarily because of that position.

[Continued on my personal blog]

Monday Oct 12, 2009

☞ Harmonising Principle and Pragmatism

  • While Matt's point has a certain populist charm, I don't agree with him that software freedom has no place on the business agenda. The key values businesses look for in open source - being able to use it for anything without external controls, having access to skills in an open market, being able to innovate without restriction, being able to share the results with customers, suppliers, government and citizens - all flow from software freedom. Having meaningful markers governments and larger businesses can use in their procurement to favour open source - the software that lowers costs, avoids lock-in and enables unexpected future uses of data and software - is not a matter of angels on pinheads or out-of-touch insiderism. It's exactly what the governments I've been visiting this year are asking for.
  • Good article by John Mark Walker. I tire of this debate too, but the "open core" noise was getting too loud to ignore any more and OSI wasn't doing anything about it. The populist claims by other voices that ethics plays no part in business decisions are wide of the mark. As I wrote in an earlier blog, I believe that software freedom delivers business benefit. Many businesses have used an ethics-based definition - the OSD - as a genetic marker for software that delivers business value. I believe that too many suppliers have learned to game that definition (among them some of the voices denouncing me). Simple policies predicated just on the license no longer deliver and the cost of due diligence for open source solutions to ensure business value is rising. My call for new definitions is a call to repeat the success of the OSD in creating a business value flag from software freedom ethics. A call for transparency, not religion.
  • This is a fascinating site to browse, showing how the land was before New Amsterdam and then New York came to fill every inch. Next time I'm in New York I want to visit this site to find out about the places I'll be visiting. Adding further layers from history (such as the British Headquarters Map) would be great too.

Thursday Oct 08, 2009

Building a Scorecard for Open Source

Perching Gull

In my previous posts, I've drawn an analogy between open source software and organic food, hinting that in both cases the rush to create a working brand lost some of the essence of the vision. I've suggested that having businesses identify "open source" purely on the basis of one "input" - using an OSI-approved license - is no longer adequate, because the success of the open source approach has led so many different companies to want to exploit the name. The need is clear; so many companies want to describe themselves as "open source businesses" that debates about "open-core" and "open source business models" were dominant at Open World Forum.

To address this, I'm proposing the Open Source Initiative go beyond the Open Source Definition and the Free Software Definition to devise some sort of a Software Freedom Definition which articulates a holistic vision of software freedom against which businesses can be benchmarked. I propose also creating a self-certified score-card which companies can complete to indicate the approach they are taking to promote software freedom as part of their business model - maybe "the Open Source Audit". I'd then expect abuses to be policed by the community at large with final arbitration from OSI.

What would be included in the two? My initial thoughts are that it should include 7-10 elements, each of which have a "yes/no" answer and each of which should be backed by a more detailed definition to make clear whether the answer is yes or no. Sample questions might include:

  • Is the license OSI-approved?
  • Is the copyright under diverse control?
  • Is the community governance open?
  • Are external interfaces and formats standards compliant?
  • Does your community operate under a patent peace arrangement?
  • Are trademarks community controlled?
  • ...
and so on. Suppliers could then state "This product achieves 4 stars on the 10-point Open Source Audit" as they self-certify. In addition, procurement policies could then state they required a minimum number of stars for products and services they procure. And the only companies that could claim to be "an open source business" would have all products scoring 10/10 - probably very, very few. A focus on software freedom - the code, rather than the company - is the answer to the issue.

[Also posted on my OSI blog. You can also watch the talk.]

Thursday Oct 01, 2009

Truth In Labelling

When I wrote about Organic Software recently, I was largely eulogising the community dimension of open source software. But there's another way in which the idea of "organic software" is helpful to understanding the dynamic in free and open source software. Here are the comments I have been making at Open World Forum here in Paris.


Reading Michael Pollan's excellent book The Omnivore's Dilemma gives an insight into the real vision of the community behind the term "organic" as applied to food. Pollan describes spending what were clearly a few life-changing weeks at a New England farm that "farms grass". They feed the grass to cows for dairy and for meat. They fertilise the grass with chickens, which give eggs and meat and themselves clear the waste left by the cows. They have a complete cycle of production, working the land and returning it to richness and fertility rather than treating it as a "natural resource", exploiting it for monoculture and relying on petro-chemicals to keep it going. This sustained cycle of richness was the original vision behind "organic" - a rebellion against industrial food, yes, but a positive rebellion leading to skilled people with quality lifestyles farming sustainably and leaving the land better than they found it while producing wholesome and natural food. They treat the farm like an organism - which was in fact the origin of the term.


"Organic", of course, is just a brand. Brands ought to be good things - attention-markers that classify their bearer in the group of things we trust. The appropriation of the term drives my scientifically-trained friends nuts, because they (like me) were taught to understand the word as a classification for carbon chemistry. But it's a strong brand that people seek out, and that strength has itself led to a problem.

Seeing that "organic food" rang bells for consumers, the food industry wanted to use the term to label their products. There's a problem, though. The food industry has optimised their supply chains by driving monocultures in different regions, driving down prices by commoditisation. They further exploit government subsidy for things like maize and petroleum by-products to drive up yield as the monocultures use them to increase crop volumes - at the expense of the land. All the exact opposite of the vision that led to "organic", in other words.

But people were willing to compromise in order to achieve a little good - "surely it's better to have something than nothing?". The food industry managed to get "organic" defined not holistically but in terms of "inputs" - the things needed to drive the monocultures. Rather than changing their production and economic systems, they simply switched to techniques so that the monocultures could come to harvest without artificial chemicals. The rest of the context? All the same. So today, most people think of "organic" as just meaning the absence of artificial additives and fertilisers in the ingredients in the foods we buy.

But "organic" means far more than just "inputs". It actually describes a whole approach to food, embracing the lifestyle of the producer, the lifestyle of the customer and the relationship between the two. It implies "slow food, "local food", animal welfare, local diversity, sustainable agriculture, environmental awareness and more. Reducing it down just to the "inputs" misses the core values of "organic" and leads people to false conclusions (like the recent UK agency report denouncing organic food as no more nutritious than processed food). Inputs and nutrition are the currency of industrial food, where supposed health claims are the benchmark for marketing something unpalatable by ignoring the stuff that would make you run away (something that happens in the property market too). Hearing "organic" measured by them is a sure sign that the speaker has co-opted the brand rather than embraced the lifestyle and values.

Organic Software

Fruit stand in São Paulo

Which leads me to "organic software" again. An open source project is what happens when people gather round a free software commons to synchronise a fragment of their interests alongside others doing the same. To succeed, it depends on a mesh of factors, not just on the way the copyright is licensed (although that's important of course). Ultimately to proponents of open source communities and of free software, it's not just about ... well, it's not just about any one attribute. What's happened to software freedom when it was branded as open source seems to me analogous to what has happened to holistic agriculture when it was branded as organic. A valuable brand was indeed created - companies wouldn't want to use it otherwise.

The various discussions about the state of open source here at Open World Forum in Paris seem to me to often miss the heart of the issue for the software marketplace. The reason open source has made such a huge impact is that it delivers software freedoms to software users. Software freedom is the key, and a company with a focus on open source will do business by delivering value through software freedom. There's no one way to do it - every business will have a different model. But any company wanting to affiliate with the open source and free software movement needs to be graded on their impact on software freedom.

Software Freedom Means Business Success

A focus on software freedom isn't just for the revolutionaries. All the values that make CIOs pick open source software are derived from software freedom:

  • The freedom to use the software for any purpose, without first having to seek special permission (for example by paying licensing fees). This is what drives the trend to adoption-led deployment;
  • the availability of skills and suppliers because they have had no barriers to studying the source code and experimenting with it;
  • the assurance that vendors can't withhold the software from you because anyone has the freedom to modify and re-use the source code;
  • the freedom to pass the software on to anyone that needs it, even including your own enhancements - including your staff, suppliers, customers and (in the case of governments) citizens.
When software users are deciding which suppliers to deal with, they need to know whether their software freedoms are being respected and cultivated, because their budgets and success depend on it.

Truth In Advertising

That's about more than just licensing. It also includes factors such as diversity of copyright ownership, representative leadership, use of open standards, patent safety, control of trademarks, openness of governance and more. While measuring such "inputs" can never wholly identify the holistic concept which is software freedom, I am still convinced the next step for open source is to devise "open source definitions" for these other key attributes, so that we can get away from an undefined and loose understanding of an open source business and instead have a more nuanced approach.

What I would like to see is a move by OSI to create a suite of "open source definitions" against which a business could grade itself, and then indicate how many "stars" they score against the full suite. There would be very, very few businesses able to score a full set of stars, but the transparency of being able to see how companies rate in cultivating (rather just exploiting) software freedom would benefit us all in creating a strong, open market. We could set benchmarks in our procurement guidelines, requiring "no less than a five-star rating on the open source benchmark", just as we require ISO9001 and similar ratings. OSI as an organisation is ready for this evolution of its role. Who wants to help make it happen? It's time.

[Also posted to my OSI Board Blog]

Sunday Sep 27, 2009

Organic Software

By The People, For The People

This weekend we went to Winchester Farmers' Market. It was a beautiful day and the season is especially rich so there's a wonderful range of produce on offer. Our larder and fridge are now full of produce grown nearby: onions, squash, courgettes, beans, fir apple potatoes, garlic, watercress and plenty more. Tonight we'll have River Test trout, sip a locally grown wine, nibble local cheese and finish with berries we harvested ourselves last week.

Wandering around the market, I used two of my OSCON bags - an older canvas one to carry my cameras, and one of this year's black nylon Chico bags for produce. A stallholder spotted them both and asked me which convention I'd been to. I told him I'd been to the Open Source Convention each year for the last decade, and he was interested to find out what that was. "Organic software", I said. I explained to him that he could be using open source software free of charge and be liberated from the corporations that were taxing him on computer software.

Rather like me at the Farmer's Market actually. I'm there because I'm tired of being in Nestlé's net, sucking from the teat of the maize and sugar industry, wondering if I'm eating Frankenfood, ignorant of the environmental cost of getting the food in front of me. Rather than going to a big-chain supermarket and leaving the provenance of the food to them, I go to the farmers' market because I get to ask the producers about their food, get encouraged to cook creatively and even grow my own (several plant stalls there) and give help to other people doing the same.

Some people do ask whether the farmers' market is scalable - surely having a big corporation planning all the production is better? But no, each week the market is full of produce produced by local people who love growing it, and producers turn up to sell in proportion to the number of people who show up to buy. No-one seemed to be struggling to make a living. The stallholder had never heard of or Firefox, but easily got the idea that software made by a community could be great and that having everyone doing the part they can for themselves means there's no need to have a big corporation wanting you to pay. There are no hidden ingredients either, and despite the lack of pesticides there seem to be fewer bugs...

Open source is "organic software" and its time has come. He's going home to his organic produce and to look for "open source software" and "open office" on the web. Me - I'm reflecting on Software Freedom Day as I prepare my trout.

Wednesday Sep 23, 2009

Mind Your Own Business (Model)

Achat de Chevaux

I'm not sure why, but the "there is no open source business model" discussion has woken up again, with Matthew Aslett and Stephen Walli in particular chipping in views. Last time this debate arose was when 451 published a report of the same name. That report made quite a few people in the FOSS communities unhappy because it propagated the "open core" view that a business with an open source element somewhere in its activities (what Stephe calls a tool) could be described as an "open source business".


Why is there no "open source business model"? Because open source is not a business. It's the same oxymoronic thinking as the question "how can you make money if you give the software away for free", which simply can't be answered without correcting the questioner's worldview.

To assert there is "an open source business model" is to lose sight of the nature of open source. It may have been a fair thing to do when open source was a novelty to business minds, but even considering there could be such a thing leads people to misunderstand open source and treat the exceptions - like MySQL - as the rule. Not that it's wrong to monetise ubiquity at the point of deployment by delivering the value that allows scaling (enabling adoption-led behaviour). It's just most open source community members don't do that.

Synchronisation of Interest Elements

An open source project is a community of participants that gathers around a free software commons, with each participant aligning an element of their interests with the interests of all the others there, in order to collaborate. The OSI-approved license gives them the freedom to do so. Each participant comes to the community with their own individual interest, which in the case of a business will stem from their own business model. The community itself is about the Free code in the commons. Just about the code - all other matters are subjugated (at least in working communities!).

An open source community is thus a mix of many motivations. If there's only one motivation present - only one "business model" - it's unlikely there is any true community either. People only care about the business model when there's only one business; in a real community the only way to get along is to mind your own business (model) and not try to mess with anyone else's.

Friday Sep 18, 2009

☞ Open Source Has Evolved

  • There is no "open source business model" - people only think so because the novel business models they saw arising depended on open source. Open source is simply the aligning of the fractional shared interests of many parties, each with their own motivation and business model. If there's only one business model present, there's probably no community...
  • "There is a problem with closed source and it’s simply this. You have no idea what it’s doing or how it is doing it. That’s fine if you trust it, accept its limitations and don’t want to interface with it, but otherwise it’s not so fine." Yes, all those things certain closed vendors say about open source are actually projection. It's closed that has a problem with trustworthiness, function and interoperability. The transparency of open source means less faith is required.

Tuesday Aug 04, 2009

☞ Approaches to Open Source

Wednesday Jul 22, 2009

America Needs Open Source

Pilgrim Memorial, Southampton

Today sees the launch of a new coalition of businesses (large and small), organizations and individuals to speak up for Free and open source software in Washington DC. Open Source for America brings together a diverse alliance drawn from every corner of the software freedom movement. The Board of Advisors (on which I'm honoured to serve) brings together community, commercial, political and military voices, and the membership has been the easiest to recruit of any activity I have known. That's because at the heart of the organization you'll find the principles of the Free Software Definition, which themselves form the core beliefs of almost everyone supporting free and open source software.

The Freedoms at the heart of the alliance create an unparalleled opportunity for governments:

  • Open source puts government in control of if and when they spend money on software, since the it guarantees the right to use without limitations
  • It means that government IT investment is mostly spent locally with local experts since everyone is free to study and modify the code.
  • It ensures that all - government, suppliers and citizens - can freely access the software needed for government engagement without toll or tax from a vendor since everyone is free to distribute the original and changed versions.

Whatever other lessons we can learn from this new initiative, I note that it was easy and rational for people from all the apparent factions of the free and open source software movement to come together. It's time to set aside the urge to fight over semantic differences and recognise how far we have come and see how much we can achieve when we pull together. Join Open Source for America now!

Wednesday Jul 15, 2009

☞ Open Journal

Tuesday Jun 09, 2009

OpenJDK Board gets Google & Red Hat Members

Over the weekend, Mark announced he's updated the OpenJDK Interim Governance Board page to add details of the two new members Sun has asked to join the Board to navigate towards a permanent OpenJDK governance system. They are both well-known contributors to OpenJDK, and in fact when I asked Mark Wielaard to suggest the best pick for new Board members they were the names he suggested. They are:

  • Andrew Haley, of Red Hat, GCJ co-maintainer and Classpath corner-stone, and
  • Martin Buchholz, of Google, a developer of the JDK core libraries at Sun for many years.

I'm delighted they are joining the Board and, while there's no crisis to solve since the existing interim governance is mostly working fine, I hope their arrival will help us formalise arrangements at last.

Wednesday Apr 15, 2009

Five Ideas To Get FOSS Into Governments

Why is it so hard to get governments (especially local government) to use open source software? Here are some ideas discussed during my keynote today in Oslo at GoOpen 2009 for practical steps various people, from citizens to policy wonks to representatives, can do to help get open source in actual use and delivering on its promise (and I know it's not easy):

  1. Fix the procurement policy. While a policy that says open source is great is a good thing, if you don't change the procurement policy it will have no effect. The best open source solutions result from a two-phase procurement process where the first phase buys prototyping and iterating using software on a white-list of approved elements that can be supported in phase two, and the second phase buys production deployment and scaling. If you have a procurement process that basically defines software as "something you buy a license for" you'll never get the adoption-led benefits of open source.
  2. Publish tenders by default. In most places, it's illegal to specify a vendor explicitly in a generic request for tender. To deal with this, many countries have open procurement policies, but very, very few publish tender documents, so we have a problem. Initiating a scheme like the one Brenno de Winter has in the Netherlands brings the cleansing power of sunlight into the process. Brenno uses Freedom of Information requests to secure tenders and then posts them to a wiki for community review. You could do that too where you live.
  3. Demand the freedom to leave. Often, the cost of migration is used as a barrier to use of open source. But the cost of migration is often caused by being locked in by an existing vendor. If migration costs are cited, so must be exit costs (one of the key changes in the UK open source policy). If you're not willing to demand exit costs are stated, exclude migration costs too. The longer you leave this unchecked, the deeper the lock-in will become and the greater the migration costs for new solutions.
  4. Don't focus on cost savings alone. Any vendor with a decent sales function can cut one-time costs to get you locked in. If you have freedom to use/study/modify/distribute the software you use, you can drive down the costs - freedom can lead to cost savings but cost savings rarely lead to freedom. Making this the rule is a policy decision that your legislature needs to make.
  5. Consider posterity. Solutions that require proprietary formats, DRM as an enabler to tracking, closed and NDA-only interfaces (and many more tactics) - all these things result in systems that lose the reasons why decisions get made and rob future generations of their history. Demand transparency with privacy. That's freedom; secrecy with controlled disclosure is not. Discriminate against offerings that use DRM, unpublished interfaces and anything else that your vendor won't let you publish without permission.
And your bonus idea for added value:
  • Use open standards. What is an open standard? Well, that can take a great deal of argument to determine, but a great rule of thumb is if it could be implemented under all available open source licenses and is actually implemented under one, it's probably open. And if you use the open source implementation, chances are the extra freedoms will help too.
Got more ideas? Case studies? Comment below.


Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


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