If you look very closely, you’ll notice I’ve updated the name of the GNU/Linux category. This came about after I recently went with my friend Eric Sundwall to see Richard Stallman speak about Free Software at Williams College. Actually that was a couple of weeks ago, but the very cool SBS Diva got the meaning of free all wrong in her funny diatribe about the “Religious Wars”, and the whole thing stuck me as cosmically comic.
Stallman is actually a bit of a religious figure, as well as being an critical contributor to the tools so many of us (RMS would have us call it GNU/Linux) call simply Linux. And to carry the whole metaphor a bit further, one might bring up the question of whether Stallman is the last of the Cathedral Builders. Levy called him the last Hacker, but as Raymond more specifically describes his historical role in the The Cathedral and the Bazaar:
Indeed, for more than a decade after its founding RMS’s Free Software Foundation would largely define the public ideology of the hacker culture, and Stallman himself would be the only credible claimant to leadership of the tribe.
So, when we speak of Free Software we are talking about about ideology, and the word free refers to Freedom, not cost. Stallman defines the four requirements for software to meet the definition of Free Software:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs
(freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements
to the public, so that the whole community benefits
(freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
While they may sound a bit idealistic, those freedoms actually grant me much more as a business owner than some more popular and widely deployed software which I cannot look at the code in order to know what it does. As a consultant, I am specifically in the business of helping my neighbor, so freedom 2 is significant to me. Make no mistake, Free Software like the Apache web server does exist and it does play a big part in today’s Internetworked world.
When we speak of Open Source software, and that development model which relies on Free Software, which Raymond describes in the The Cathedral and the Bazaar we are not necessarily speaking of design by committee. As an aside that comment made me think of the old joke: What do you call a horse designed by a committee? A Camel. Get it? … a Camel? You don’t write Perl do you?
Meanwhile, back at the holy wars over which operating system is best, at the end of her post Susan makes the point I always try to make. Which operating system it is isn’t really important. As long as the operating system does the job it has to do. But in this she raises an interesting contradiction I think.
She says that business owners don’t care which operating system the consultants recommend. This much is probably true. She goes on to say that a business owner expects the consultant to choose the correct platform based on the needs of the customer and to be an expert in that platform, and I think that is an expectation that will not soon be realized in fact.
Susan points out herself that most consultants (or integrators or whatever you want to call the people who make small networks work) don’t generally know much about “the other” operating system. As if there was only one operating system other than Windows. I think it really behooves the smart small business person to understand a little more about the choices they have on their own. Then they can choose consultants who are competent in the skills they need.
In the end, my customers need me for what I know. A lot of them choose to use Windows because the applications they need run under Windows. GNU/Linux and Windows servers can work together as long as you don’t try to fit any square holes into round pegs. I don’t have any customers who run Linux on the desktop yet, but I can think of plenty of offices where the software would do what the users need it to do.
But I’m not going to try to convert anyone, conversions are for evangelists.
n.b. (Both of the images above and the big huge poor quality jpg file from which I made these with the GIMP are released under the Free Art License. Please note that in my photo, at the lecture in Williamstown that St. IGNUcius is blessing the audience with his left hand raised in benediction, which is different and somehow seems more correct than the photo by Wouter van Oortmerssen on Stallman’s site where he is blessing a computer with his right hand while holding the unit in his left.)