Interview with open source advocate Keith Curtis on his film, Software Wars

Software Wars: A film about FOSS, collaboration, and software freedom

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The impact of software has changed our lives. But the average technology consumer doesn't realize how important having access to source code and an open development process is to our overall freedom. Keith Curtis, a University of Michigan dropout turned decade-long programmer at Microsoft turned open source advocate, wants to change that. 

On his website, Curtis says, "We need to pool our collective intelligence and get to work on fixing our most serious threats—and in today's society that begins with having great software." In his book, After the Software Wars, Curtis exploits the flaws in the proprietary software development model. And today, he's taking the whole thing mainstream by making a film.

"If you can control the software, its like controlling the flow of oil," says Linux creator Linus Torvalds in a trailer promoting Software Wars. Other free software advocates are also featured in the promo.

We caught up with Curtis during the final days of his Indiegogo campaign to discuss the hopes for the new film.

Interview with Keith Curtis

What is Software Wars about?

KC (Keith Curtis): Software Wars is about the idea that with more cooperation among scientists, we can build a better and fun world. People have been working on AI (artificial intelligence) for 50 years, but mostly in small groups. If they had been working together, we'd know their names the way we know of Linus and his lieutenants. Google is working on language translation by themselves. Their code for driverless cars (much written in C#, I believe) is also not built with the help of a community. IBM's Watson was proprietary even while it leveraged a lot of existing code. The biotech world has tons of proprietary software and closed and fragmented repositories of data. We have more than enough people to solve many problems, but we need to encourage people to work together effectively. Teaching Python to kids will be one of the case studies.

Who is the intended audience?

KC: The movie will have some technical ideas, but relatively little jargon. It will be inspirational, which will hopefully hold most peoples' attention. Of course, I'm biased, so I think the topic is interesting, but we want to make the story enjoyable to someone who doesn't already know or care about the idea.

However, we also want to make it worth watching for people who already know 90% or more of the ideas. If you can't make a movie enjoyable to someone who is already interested and therefore knows about the topic, then you have failed.

Because the movie is an explanation but also a critique of the existing world, this happily forces us to cover things that many technical people don't know. If they all knew what was in the movie, more crazy things would have happened. The trailer is a first attempt at achieving this balance. The final feature will be more polished in every regard. There are a mix of people working on this with different experiences and interests and together we will hammer it out.

It will be positive towards the idea of using communities to solve big problems, but it won't be propaganda. We aren't afraid to criticize the current state of Linux, but there are various specific problems we won't cover. One of the biggest recent examples is the IBM / Apache OpenOffice fork. That is a 110% waste of time that unintentionally gives Microsoft billions more dollars and promotes the continued dominance of Office and Windows. We'd be happy to document this mess, and were able to interview Michael Meeks about it, but the IBM and Apache people involved should know better and so we'd mostly just be talking to ourselves. We aren't trying to hide any mistakes or present only half of the story, but it will be a few big points rather than multiple examples like that. That situation can be considered as part of the general point that people need to be working together effectively.

What kind of open source technology will be used in the production of the film?

KC: The sad answer is not much. I use Mint-Debian, working mostly in LibreOffice, sometimes using apps like GIMP and Audacity, but putting the pieces together will be done in Final Cut Pro. We will farm out the graphics work to people in Los Angeles to attack the various elements in parallel but we haven't gotten to that yet. The music for the feature will hopefully be mixed by Chloe Harris, and she works on a Mac—which she hates!

For non-technical people, the jump is not easy. When I first used Red Hat in the Fedora Core 3 timeframe, I had to compile an Intel wireless driver, tweak my xorg.conf, etc. to get my laptop to where I liked it. It was an interesting and useful introduction, but many people don't understand computers and therefore cannot fix their problems, so the transitions are a big deal. The audio / video situation on Linux still needs work.

What are the top three things happening in the world today that you feel perpetuate our need for open source?

KC: I think the three biggest software pieces missing are around computer vision, strong AI, and health sciences. Those areas are languishing in terms of not enough people working together effectively. Various software aspects of the space elevator can be done today, although ultimately it will take about $10B to get that really started. (That looks like a large amount of money, but it would increase the US deficit if paid for in only one year from $1.4T to $1.41T.)

Why do people not know about open source on a large scale and does the production of this movie help turn that tide?

KC: The average user doesn't know these details, but in terms of turning the tide, I think the bigger problem is that not enough technical people understand either. Why is Google Now proprietary? Why do so many people use Mathematica, Matlab, Maple, etc. instead of Python / Sage? Surely they know of Wikipedia and Linux and understand the point. There must be cognitive dissonance inside a company like Google, where they use Linux everywhere, but call their own code "secret sauce" as one person described his work to me.

Why does Dell make it so hard to buy a computer with Debian, Red Hat, Ubuntu, etc. pre-installed? Somehow Dell can offer you a thousand hardware choices for a laptop, but none for the software except whether you want Windows 8 Professional or Microsoft Office Professional. The more average consumers, government employees, etc. know about these ideas, the better, but ultimately it is a relatively small number of people who already know plenty about Linux who are mostly holding things up. We don't worry about the tides, we are just trying to finish a video.

What I think are the coolest are pervasive robotics and a space elevator. Once people realize we could have built them years ago, the arguments for getting it soon should go faster. Wikipedia was created in 2001, but it could have been started decades earlier. Someone pointed out that Debian cost more to build than a space elevator. Obviously you can't compare hardware and software, but the scale of engineering says something: we can do big things if we want to. There is a lot of software at places like Boeing and NASA. Any elevator, whenever it is started, will have Linux controlling the climbers and running mission control. The more technology we create and share, the easier it will be to solve the next problem. Brad Edwards says we can build one in 10 years, so we'll put the message out there, again.

How would you address the general public who are less concerned about 'freedom' and more concerned about 'getting things done?' Is there a middle ground that allows for the best of both worlds here?

KC: People should be concerned both about freedom and getting things done. DRM adds costs for consumers, electronics stores, and artists. A lack of freedom frequently has practical consequences in the real world. Not many people have owned a printing press, and yet many more were rightly concerned about having a society with a free and honest press. The more people who use Linux, the easier it will be for even more people to get things done.

With a product like Apple, you have to wait for them to fix a problem, and more users doesn't really translate into more contributors like it can for Wikipedia and Linux. The more users Apple gets, some of whom want to customize and improve their own devices, the more they make it harder to even open them. This isn't a war between companies, but between philosophies.

In the FOSS (free and open source software) world, there are so many ways to fix problems and improve things that on the whole it becomes polished. I bought a Mac for testing purposes while writing the book, and out of the box it didn't understand how to play WMA files, and had many other obvious missing features. With Linux, more things just work, which allows you to get things done. The Gnome 3 transition has regressed the Linux desktop by a few years but in general, most people could be running Linux today.

As Jono Bacon put it in his interview, Linux is like a new pair of leather shoes: they hurt like hell for a few days, but then you settle into it. This of course assumes you are not switching complicated programs or programming languages. Switching professional and enterprise software can take more than a few days. People should demand their applications run on Linux so it is there for them when they are ready.

What do you want viewers get out of the film?

KC: I'd like them to be entertained and inspired by the people we interview. If Linus were any smarter, he'd be leading up the X-Men. We can't have literal fight scenes, but we will try to have pretty graphics. As long as we polish interesting responses, people should enjoy the story (whatever it ends up exactly being) and possibly learn something. The ideas are empowering. Everyone can watch the movie, and then find their own way to make a better world. Even buying an Android device rather than an Apple helps move the world in the right direction, and there are countless ways. The list of things to be done is very large. It would be helpful to change the laws around software patents, DRM, etc. It would be great if more people were inspired to crowdfund.

About the author

Jason Hibbets
Jason Hibbets - Jason Hibbets is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and community publications. He is the author of The foundation for an open source city and has been with Red Hat since 2003. Follow him on Twitter: @jhibbets for a fun and shareable feed of his open source (and...