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The importance of freedom. One of the longest-resonating echoes from this month's LinuxWorld Conference and Expo was almost certainly a surprise to the event's organizers. The last-minute panel that was held Wednesday afternoon, and which featured Eric Raymond, Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Guido Van Rossum and Larry Wall was intended to discuss "continuing the revolution" - how to carry forward and maintain Linux's momentum through the rest of the year. What came out, instead, is that not everybody is happy with the state of affairs thus far. For those who have not yet seen it, a perusal of Liz's transcript of the panel is worthwhile.

The disagreement, which has since been reported widely as a "rift" in the free software world, has to do with just what the community's goals are. Perhaps the most succinct characterization of the debate would be the following:

Eric: I want to live in a world where software doesn't suck.

Richard: Any software that isn't free sucks.

Linus: I'm interested in free beer.

One group sees free software as a means to an end; the other sees freedom as the end in itself. And a third group - perhaps the majority - would like to drink its beer in peace and wishes the whole debate would go away.

One would think that, since everybody is in favor of free software, there should not be much of a basis for argument here. The problem, of course, comes in when proprietary software is thrown into the mix. Free software purists do not welcome proprietary vendors; indeed, they seek to not even recognize their presence. "Open source" folks are more tolerant, seeing even proprietary systems as an endorsement of the Linux platform that will help to carry things forward in the long run.

This disagreement, at times, gets loud. It creates divisions between people who really do share many goals. And it reflects poorly on the Linux community; it makes it all too easy for those who would characterize us as "17-year-old surfers" or whatever it is this week.

LWN would like to make a few suggestions. We'll not get too far in calming down the debate, but it should at least help us to get lots of material for the letters to the editor column...

  • To the free software people: Freedom means the ability to run proprietary software if, in an individual's judgement, that software is the proper tool for the job. Especially in cases where high quality free alternatives are not available, proponents of free software should remember that others have a job to do and be patient. Attempting to restrict choices in the name of freedom is inconsistent.

    The presence of proprietary software does not prevent the emergence of a free alternative. Those of us who have been at this for a while remember the epic struggles involved in building early versions of X11 with early versions of gcc. It was a pain. Why did we bother? After all, our (proprietary) Unix systems had window systems and compilers. We did it because free software is better. And, in the end, X11 and gcc won out over SunView and pcc.

  • To the open source people: Freedom remains an important goal. It has everything to do with why Linux is a superior platform. The organizers of events like LinuxWorld should, in the future, make freedom part of the agenda. An event which fails to teach the principles of free software is an event which does not properly serve the Linux community. In the end, corporations, too, benefit from truly free software. Those pushing "open source" should make an effort to ensure that "free" is not ignored.
The corporate world has discovered Linux; the penguin will be getting its necktie whether it wants to or not. But if the Linux community can come to an agreement on what is important, it can still be a potent force in shaping the future of the system. We're not that far apart.

And we're winning.

Free software to the rescue in Italy. Italy's National Research Council (CNR) held a meeting in late February to evaluate free software's potential to reinvigorate Italy's engineering industries and reduce software imports. Here's a writeup of the event (in Italian and translated to English). It may well be that free software will take over in places like Europe before it does in the United States; this document gives a glimpse into how that could happen. (Thanks to Gabriele Paciucci who wrote the original document, Ricardo Russo for doing the translation, and Paolo Didonč who sent it all to us).

There is also an article (in Italian) in Il Sole 24 Ore about this gathering. Babelfish chokes on it, unfortunately, so no translation for the moment.

The 1999 Atlanta Linux Showcase has been announced. It will be three tracks of events over three days this year. See you there!

This Week's LWN was brought to you by:

  • Jonathan Corbet, Executive Editor
  • Elizabeth O. Coolbaugh, Managing Editor

March 11, 1999


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