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.

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.

Friday Sep 19, 2008

Students and Software Freedom

It's Software Freedom Day, and among the many other volunteers around the world, Sun-sponsored students have been working hard on their campuses to prepare for the opportunity to cry Freedom! One of the questions that came up was why students should care about software freedom; here's the answer Lowell Sachs and I came up with.

The growing popularity of free and open source software offers advantages and opportunities to students (as well as developers, users, and budding entrepreneurs) all along the adoption curve. Many will already recognize that the future for society is one of digital liberty, where every user of digital technology is a possible creator, and where all creators in the digital medium are, by definition, users. The open source model fits in perfectly with this emerging reality. In fact, the remarkable success of open source is the result of a feature that is at once a key characteristic of the program and a fundamental pursuit of people everywhere... freedom.

Software Freedom

Many people, if asked to name the main appeal of open source software would reflexively point to the fact that it is free of charge, and thus a good way to save money. However, it is a different kind of ‘free’ that lies at the heart of the open source movement -- the freedom to acquire, adapt, tinker, develop and deploy code (applications) without the restrictions traditionally associated with proprietary offerings. All the best virtues of open source software are really derivatives of this kind of ‘free’ (as in liberty) rather than simply ‘free’ as in price … although the savings are certainly a nice draw as well.

On the academic front, open source software can serve as a real boon to the student looking to sharpen his or her skills or excel in a class. Those looking to build a career in IT will find open source software the perfect virtual laboratory to build skills or explore new ideas without the constraints and prohibitions that come with proprietary programs. Break it down, build it up, throw in something new. Hit a brick wall?... No problem. Try a different approach. It's yours to play with.

This freedom can come in as handy for those working on a supervised project as it will for those trying to seize a share of a new market. Looking for a little enlightenment outside of lectures? Open source software is there as well. It empowers independent learning by letting you tinker with the code on your own schedule and your own system -- no professor necessary.


Looking for an application that does what you actually need it to do? Gone are the days of having to hope that a large corporate player will develop and offer for sale a program that you want, only to discover that it is at a price you can't afford. And when you find it doesn't quite live up to the hype? No longer will people have to wait for expensive and imprecise updates or patches to fix their applications. When source code is shared and distributed freely under an open source license, anyone is allowed to use, modify and reproduce that code on a non-discriminatory basis.

With open source software you get to decide what to create and when to release it. Then your friends and peers can fine tune and improve upon it with the fruits of all this labor being offered back out to the general community... at no cost. Where will the next YouTube come from, or FaceBook or Wikipedia? It may just come from you. And now you don't need tons of capital and corporate infrastructure to launch that next great innovation. All you need is inspiration.

Transparency With Privacy

The emergence of open source promises a world marked by several digital freedoms -- the freedom to participate, collaborate, create, use and deploy. Open source communities can enable students to connect with each other and collaborate across the boundaries of geography and culture in a way that benefits all of society. Part of this emerging reality is a shift from the old model of security with secrecy, where lack of access to a program's source code often (ironically) spawned vulnerabilities and restricted choice, toward a new paradigm of transparency coupled with privacy, where communities can flourish while assuring quality and protection to their members.

It is a world of expanded opportunity, increased flexibility, and continual innovation. Keep your money - Release your ideas - Build a business - Launch a community - Start a movement! The barriers to entry (and exit) are down, new horizons are emerging, and the climate for innovation is more welcoming than it has ever been. Jump in!

Thursday Sep 18, 2008

Software Freedom Day Podcast

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of discussing Free software and Software Freedom Day with co-ordinator Pia Waugh, John Sullivan of the FSF and Jono Bacon of Canonical. The podcast has some rather nasty background noises caused by the telephone system, but some interesting conversation. Software Freedom Day is this Saturday, do join in - there are local events all over the world, including many sponsored by Sun!

[ MP3 | Ogg ]

Thursday Mar 13, 2008

Adoption-Led as a Force of Nature

Crater Lake Sunrise

In discussing how the software market is increasingly an adoption-led one, a frequent point of departure is to look at ways in which existing software companies are pursuing open source models.

Centralised to Distributed

But the idea that the adoption-led model is a go-to-market strategy created by software vendors is wrong. Although as Zack observes it has become a successful driver for some companies, it is fundamentally a consequence of a set of social changes which in turn are the consequence of the pervasive nature of the Internet. No amount of debate for and against an adoption-led business model will ever change the fact that the market is moving that way.

The first mechanised communications - dating back to before the Industrial Revolution - helped to create a hub-and-spoke social topology. The ability to communicate to a large number of people was necessarily centralised and recognition of authorship became more important. Interestingly, this is when copyright law first emerged. And as more communications became industrialised, so did society become more centralised. Author at the hub, readers at the spokes, suppliers at the hub, customers at the spokes, government at the hub, citizens at the spokes. The Web is changing that. The topology is changing to a mesh that even crosses cultures and borders. Peer-to-peer is the new order.

While the internet has existed for a relatively long time in technology terms, the Web as an application has driven it to ubiquity in a very short time. And this is what gave the equally long-standing Free software movement the vehicle it needed to influence the mainstream. The two together have placed a growing wealth of software within reach of every sufficiently skilled developer, giving them the freedom to use it however they wish. As Stormy points out, they can now bypass the whole existing system.

Demands a Response

It's this sudden wealth of choice which created the adoption-led movement that I described before. It didn't - and doesn't - need vendors to happen. Rather, it demands a response from vendors. Some try to ignore or to discredit it. Some pay lip-service to it, using its fruits but shunning true participation. And some embrace it, employing people to work within open source communities. Each of these approaches has business models associated. None of these approaches have themselves caused the adoption-led market to spring into existence.

Now, although this movement did not need vendors to make it happen, vendors have the opportunity to help it into the mainstream for business usage. As I suggested in my response to Savio, there's a lot of value that a vendor can add:

The model assumes that enterprise users will want the value-added content of a "subscription" or "enterprise version". Value-add can include patch management, performance tuning, additional utilities and more. Corporate governance regulations may make enterprises using software for a mission-critical purpose require a service contract, or seek a warranty for their software infrastructure. Those who are embedding software in their own product may require indemnification. Finally, many businesses are reluctant (for whatever reason) to use open source licenses and so want commercial licenses for their production systems.

To deliver on that value, it's my belief that the biggest opportunities lie beyond the mere aggregation of the work of others (although that does seem to be a viable option for some). I believe that through influencing the direction of a project, through employing committers to an open source code base, by creating new code, by being a responsible community steward and by bringing leadership to the challenges open source faces, a software vendor can take full advantage of the opportunities the adoption-led market presents. And I believe that success will be proportional to the contribution made. No free lunches, at least for those wanting job security.

Led, not Driven

This is the response of the software industry to the mesh topology. It's one where copyright, through open source licenses, is used to foster creativity, rather than to restrict access (and the inverse for patents - a reversal worth discussing elsewhere). We are moving from the "procurement-driven market" to the "adoption-led market". One is driven by vendors. The other is led by deployers and developers. That's the key, and I think other industries should examine with interest the lead that the software market is providing, since I expect the phenomenon to spread beyond software.

[Previous: Adoption-led is not Shareware | Next: Why Adoption-led Is Not Trialware]


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


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