Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

Open source, the perpetual substitute

12 October 2018 — Felix Ple┼čoianu

There's a big problem with free and open source software, and nobody seems willing to talk about it: the entire movement is fundamentally one of followers and not innovators. How else could it be? The GNU project, that gave birth to the whole thing, was explicitly launched to make replacements for proprietary software. The Linux kernel was a reaction to Minix, an educational operating system. All the big apps, like LibreOffice or GIMP, were meant right from the start as clones and/or replacements of expensive, industry-dominant software. Even desktop environments like KDE and XFCE were initially blatant copies of their commercial predecessor CDE.

Show me one piece of open source anyone's actually heard of that's original and trailblazing rather than a me-too. Heck, even most games in the field are derivative. That titles like FreeCiv and Super Tux Kart surpass their originals in every way is simply a result of so many years in development.

That's the one big advantage of open source, apart from the freedom it offers: not being driven by commercial interests, it can keep getting improvements for a long time. Don't let version numbers fool you: DOSbox, for instance, stalled at 0.74, but that means it had seventy four major releases! Chrome cheated shamelessly, and is only now getting close. But is that enough of a selling point? Time and again, people prove willing to put up with any amount of shoddiness in software. Even bugs that destroy all their data simply aren't enough to make them look for alternatives.

Sure, open source has won. In the web server space, nobody in their right mind would use a proprietary operating system, unless office politics force them to. The GNU Compiler Collection is still at the core of Mac OS X (along with other open source components). The Python programming language now powers pretty much everything that's not system or enterprise software. And so on, and so forth.

Speaking of the Python programming language, now that's an example of open source innovation. So is WordPress, the software behind nearly a third of all websites. But how many people not in the business have heard of either? They're infrastructure, designed to fade into the background and let people work. You'll say that's true in other areas... but for instance I know exactly who manufactures the public lighting for my city. And the tramways. And the metro. So should you.

Only in computing we find it normal to treat everything as a black box. And that's why we never learned to truly take advantage of software freedom. Even those who understand its importance have mostly been concerned with playing catch-up. And "we have everything the big players do" is a pathetic, shameful selling point.

"Look at us! We're not totally lame! Please love us! No, don't leave..."

Now Microsoft has bought GitHub just as we were moving towards a "post-open source" era. And open source replacements can't seem to get much traction at all.

Nor will they, not ever, unless we learn to blaze our own, new trails for a change.

Tags: software, philosophy

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