I recently spoke at the 2nd Free Software Free Society conference at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, India. The conference had two tracks, one focused on discussions on the topics like the legality, ethics and relevance of free software while the other on discussions on various free software. I floated around and attended a number of sessions at the event and here are some the key points I noted along the way.
Neville Roy Singham, the founder of ThoughtWorks in his keynote said that India shouldn’t follow the model of the US, where companies like Ford introduced the assembly line and where individuals don’t matter. He compared this approach to the ‘lean’ approach used by Toyota where even individuals play a critical role in delivering quality products. He was also critical of Indian software companies towing the CMM line, which kind of looked at developers as small and easily replaceable contributors on the software assembly line. He felt this was a failed model that India should not imitate. He went on the speak of Agile software development and how it takes a different approach to software development where the development revolves around highly productive individuals.
Although I was well aware of Richard Stallman‘s work, I had no idea that he enjoyed a demi-god like status in the free software world, where he could say and do anything and yet be revered. His actions throughout the conference kept things lively. On day 1 he appeared on the stage late but did not speak because he said that he couldn’t bear the heat and would speak the next day at the air conditioned hall. The chief minister of the state who was also on the dias seemed just as stunned to hear this as the rest of the audience. On day 2, he shouted at the speaker during a session on OpenAccess for what he thought was the speaker’s attempt to pull down the free software community. Although Mr. Stallman had every right to disagree with the speaker, the manner in which he tried to shout out the speaker who was on an audio conference from the UK, was disappointing.
In Richard Stallman’s talk on day two, he talked of what constituted free software. He said that free software should provide the following 4 freedoms –
Freedom 0 – Run as u wish
Freedom 1 – Study & change source code
Freedom 2 – Copy & distribute
Freedom 3 – Distribute copies of modified version
He said that the features of proprietary software are the bait for the trap. He went on to say that it was better to do nothing than build proprietary software. Talking of piracy, he said that he didn’t accept the term itself. He felt that given a choice between refusing to share a software with a friend and adhering to the software contract, one should take the lesser evil, break the software agreement and share the software. Coming to Linux, he said that Gnu had done 10 times more work than Linus Torvalds and was also started 10 years earlier than when Linus contributed the kernel. So he advised the audience to call what is commonly referred to as just Linux as GNU/Linux to give due credit to the GNU project. He then went on the talk of open source and how it wasn’t the same as free software. According to him, anything that wasn’t free software as per the four rules, didn’t value the freedom of the users. He was also critical of Windows, Real Player and many other software that he said spied on the user and were anti-freedom. He also talked of how GPL 3 license is good at protecting the freedom of users.
A session on software patents presented some interesting ideas like how patenting was blocking the flow of knowledge. Patents and intellectual property was never part of human tradition and especially Indian culture where knowledge was open and shared. It talked of how patents were stopping innovation and how they made it pretty much impossible for small companies and startups to compete with the big boys. One of the speakers mentioned that patents didn’t bother the big companies because they used cross patenting to get round the problem. No Software Patents was the call of the session.
Day 3 morning had a keynote by Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. In his session he shared Wikipedia stats and it’s growing reach beyond just the English language. He talked of how Wikipedia is constantly working to create a free, open and correct knowledge repository for the world. He also talked of wikia and showed a FastCompany cover that projected it as a Google killer. He didn’t take the cover too seriously and said that Wikia was just starting off and is built in the open. So it will be few years before it is ready. It’s amazing that in just about 6 years, wikipedia is one of the most popular websites around and is one of the biggest knowledge banks in the world. Although the session did not as such provide any great new insights, it was good to hear from Wales who seemed like just a nice guy who wants to change the world.
The most striking part of the conference was the widespread dislike for proprietary software amongst most speakers and delegates. This dislike was closer to hatred in some cases. Attacks on Microsoft and policies of proprietary software companies flew left right and center. Proprietary is evil, proprietary is stupid were lines that were oft repeated throughout the conference. This fanaticism and disrespect for the other side was rather sad to see, especially as 100s of students and newcomers to software development are being indoctrinated through the free software movement to not just hate proprietary s/w but also those who create and use them. Students and software beginners unfortunately do not possess much of an understanding of how software is built and sold and so are in no position to evaluate what’s said and take their own decision. So they instead just repeat what their idols say and further spread the hate message. I personally think that the free software movement would be better served if it keeps an open mind and learns from and competes with proprietary software. However many free software advocates refuse to even look at proprietary software let alone learn from it.
Overall, the FSFS conference was a good learning experience, where I met many interesting people and got fresh perspectives on the software business.