2 October 2008

Open source religion

Filed under: free software, Open Source — David Wood @ 9:52 pm

Roger Nolan, my long-time former colleague from both Psion and Symbian, raised some challenging points in his recent piece “Symbian’s open source challenge” on the VisionMobile blog. As Roger sees it, the challenge for Symbian is to get the best out of open source without becoming so fixated by the idea of open source that we fail to address the burning requirement for improved user experience. The worry is that technological or process considerations will get in the way of creating simply delightful products.

In Roger’s own words – comparing the possible future evolution of Symbian software with the history of Nokia’s Linux-based “maemo” platform for mobile Internet tablets:

Sadly Maemo is … driven from a technology soapbox. This time, it’s not a features arms race, it’s open-source-or-die. The Maemo team did not sit down and say “Let’s build a great UI for an internet tablet” they sat down and said “What can we do with open source” – open source is the religion, not ease of use and making great devices that are delightful to use.

As Symbian becomes the Symbian foundation and transitions to an open source model, I hope that the open source community will take some of the burden of implementing every last codec and piece of middle-ware and the Symbian foundation can focus on UIs and ease of use. Unfortunately, I fear that they will be overcome following Maemo’s open-source religion.

In other words, is Symbian going on an free software crusade, or are we adopting open source for solidly pragmatic reasons?

My answer is that it’s a bit of both, but with a strong emphasis on the pragmatic side of the scale.

The archetypal free software crusader, of course, is Richard Stallman. The 2002 book “Free as in Freedom” by Sam Williams is a sympathetic, interesting and easy-to-read account of Stallman and his very considerable impact on the world of software – but it’s no hagiography.

The early chapters in the book take a friendly approach to Stallman’s personal idiosyncracies. Reading these chapters, it’s easy to develop a strong liking for this pioneering crusader. To my surprise, I found a lot of resonance between Stallman’s life experiences and, in smaller scale, my own; for example, we share backgrounds as prodigious mathematicians who were not afraid to be outsiders. (And it seems we’re both interested in life extension.)

The last few chapters provide a kind of balance, by highlighting some of the problems caused within the Free and Open Source movements by Stallman’s inflexibility, apparent micro-management, and under-developed project management skills.

The narrative in the book jumps around a lot, moving backwards and forwards in time all over the place. Some readers may find that distracting, but I liked it, since it helps to show the remarkable wholeness and integrity to Stallman’s conceptions.

The entire text of this book is available online at http://www.faifzilla.org/. Chapter 8 contains a stark example of the clash between the “quasi-religious” approach and the pragmatic one:

Stallman says competitive performance and price, two areas where free software operating systems such as GNU/Linux and FreeBSD already hold a distinct advantage over their proprietary counterparts, are red herrings compared to the large issues of user and developer freedom.“It’s not because we don’t have the talent to make better software,” says Stallman. “It’s because we don’t have the right. Somebody has prohibited us from serving the public. So what’s going to happen when users encounter these gaps in free software? Well, if they have been persuaded by the open source movement that these freedoms are good because they lead to more-powerful reliable software, they’re likely to say, ‘You didn’t deliver what you promised. This software’s not more powerful. It’s missing this feature. You lied to me.’ But if they have come to agree with the free software movement, that the freedom is important in itself, then they will say, ‘How dare those people stop me from having this feature and my freedom too.’ …”

…the underlying logic of Stallman’s argument – that open source advocates emphasize the utilitarian advantages of free software over the political advantages – remains uncontested. Rather than stress the political significance of free software programs, open source advocates have chosen to stress the engineering integrity of the hacker development model. Citing the power of peer review, the open source argument paints programs such as GNU/Linux or FreeBSD as better built, better inspected and, by extension, more trustworthy to the average user…

When an audience member asks if, in shunning proprietary software, free software proponents lose the ability to keep up with the latest technological advancements, Stallman answers the question in terms of his own personal beliefs. “I think that freedom is more important than mere technical advance,” he says. “I would always choose a less advanced free program rather than a more advanced nonfree program, because I won’t give up my freedom for something like that. My rule is, if I can’t share it with you, I won’t take it.”

Such answers, however, reinforce the quasi-religious nature of the Stallman message. Like a Jew keeping kosher or a Mormon refusing to drink alcohol, Stallman paints his decision to use free software in the place of proprietary in the color of tradition and personal belief. As software evangelists go, Stallman avoids forcing those beliefs down listeners’ throats. Then again, a listener rarely leaves a Stallman speech not knowing where the true path to software righteousness lies.

Now the nearest thing to a Symbian religion is the published list of our corporate values: Excellence, Innovation, Passion, Integrity, Collaboration, People. We take these values very seriously – as we do our vision – that Symbian OS will be the most widely used software platform on the planet.

Questions such as the extent of our adoption of open source, or usage of proprietary software, are, in the end, weighed up against that list of values. Open source will lead, we believe, to greater collaboration, and to more innovation. That’s a good reason to support it. But it’s not an end in itself.

Indeed, adopting selected open source principles is only one of the big change initiatives that are taking place in Symbian. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re also adopting selected principles of enterprise agile. What’s more, we’re looking forward to significantly closer inter-working between the development teams in Symbian and in S60, which will allow faster delivery of important new technology to the market. And last – but definitely not least – there’s a whole series of measures to enable improved user experience on Symbian-powered phones. The UI that’s on the just-announced Nokia 5800 XpressMusic device is a significant step in this direction.

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