Open source needs to be more than just Linux

Open source has to be more than Linux

Posted 12 May 2015 by 

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Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to my fourth installment of Six Degrees. Thanks for the tremendous support, suggestions, and feedback since I kicked this off. It all helps me to write something that is hopefully worth reading.

If not, just move right along; there is plenty of other stuff on the Internet to read. Last resort? Try Buzzfeed.

OK, let's get started.

While the notion of free software has lasted since the days Richard Stallman was sleeping under his desk at MIT, the full thrust of collaboratively and openly licensed software really took off with the advent of Linux.

Linux took a principle and filled in an important technology gap that inspired the filling of a thousand other gaps too. This led to the rise of the venerable Linux distribution, as myriad as consumer-grade platforms such as Ubuntu and Fedora, to server-grade such as CentOS and Debian, and down to the downright weird such as RebeccaBlackOS.

For those of us born in the brine of Linux, openness and a commitment to living and breathing openness have always been common social components. It is not uncommon in the Linux world to use a Linux distribution and entirely open source applications with a few exceptions, such as Skype and Steam.

Despite some rather remarkable projects, desktop Linux has always struggled to get a hold of the market, hovering at around 1.5% of overall market share. While the server, cloud, and infrastructure siblings to the Linux desktop have gone on to dominate, the desktop has been lagging behind, despite passionate and high-quality efforts from projects such GNOME, KDE, Elementary, and many others.

An eternal student in community

When I first discovered open source, to say it grabbed me by the scuff of the neck is an understatement. I became instantly obsessed. It wasn't the software—that was cool and all—it was this notion of people working together to create something bigger than any individual that gripped me. I loved how it provided a way in which anyone had the opportunity to make a difference. It was empowering.

I have devoted my career to trying to understand communities and leadership, how it works, and how we can help communities and organizations to be successful. My goal has been to understand the markers on the map of a successful community or organization, and to be able to recreate those markers in other communities and organizations too.

Throughout this time though, my overarching goal has changed somewhat.

When I started out, my singular focus was on Linux. I wanted to make Linux successful and try to play at least a small role in the global effort to make it a genuine alternative to platforms such as Windows and Mac. The openness I mentioned earlier was the connective tissue here: like many others, I felt the right approach was to use a fully open platform and help to make it better.

My view was essentially that open source was required at every level of the stack, from the kernel right up to the applications.

While I will always be a passionate Linux fan and user, and I believe that this full spectrum of openness is still incredibly important, I do think the opportunity here is much broader than Linux alone: it is about community collaboration in whatever avenue, nook, and cranny it may exist.

It starts with a hack

Open collaboration has tremendous potential. It has the ability to educate, inspire, solve major challenges, and bring cultural empowerment.

It helps ideas and innovation bubble to the surface, spearheaded by the smart, not just the smart-talker. Done right, open collaboration can have world changing effects.

In trying to understand what the magic ingredients are in successful collaborative communities, it seems the key is in connecting creativity to technology and then to collaboration. It is about empowering the maker to make.

Something I have learned over the years is that practical innovation generally doesn't start with a grandiose vision—it starts with a hack. The vision is important, it stimulates conversation, it justifies an investment of energy, and lays the track down in the right direction, but the hack gets the train on the rails and rolling.

Anyone can have a vision, but the hack is real. It provides tangible material that can be twisted, contorted, experimented with, and explored. It provides a focus for engineering, science, and practical assessment. It can be pulled apart, refined, and buffed from a hack into a real thing.

Whether it was Linus Torvalds' first kernel, the first incarnation of Wikipedia, the first Raspberry Pi board, or anything else, the world's greatest innovations all started with that one person just making something.

What transforms a hack into something with potential is that it is (1) shared freely, (2) formulated with free tools that anyone can access, and (3) invites participation from other people who can make the hack better.

As such, if we want to unlock innovation around the world, empower people to create incredible things, and further technology development and problem solving, we need to ensure that everyone has access to the tools and knowledge to (a) create their first hack, and (b) be able to engage with other people's hacks too.

Cross platform

To achieve this, we need to assure those three pieces I mentioned earlier—sharing, tools, and collaboration—are available wherever the makers are.

While I wish the entire world were using Linux, a significant portion of makers are on other platforms. They are on Macs adorned in nerdy stickers, on Thinkpads running Windows, even a few ChromeBooks thrown around here and there.

It can be tempting to be lulled into the view that openness on top of Mac or Windows isn't really openness.

I see this often when I go to open source conferences where many Linux fans feel frustrated that open source folks are using non-open source operating systems such as Macs. I think for some it feels like a small sense of betrayal, and if not betrayal, just a sense that these people are "letting the side down."

This isn't as big of a deal as it might seem.

Most people just don't care about operating systems. For these people, an operating system is about as interesting as electricity, water pipes, or gas lines: it is key to successful operation, but not their center of interest. An OS is just necessary plumbing.

They instead care about their data, their applications, and their work. In many cases people just want a computer that is reliable and an OS that keeps on trucking with as little distraction as possible.

This is why so many people use Macs. You can walk into a store and get a hardware and software combo that, by and large, just works. Yes, there is less choice and it is more locked down in some ways, but many of these people don't care about those specific choices, they just want their stuff to work, and their stuff is data, apps, and their creative ambitions.

As such, for us to really foster openness and innovation, cross platform applications with a focus on open data standards and formats are critical. This will allow everyone to play in the open source collaborative sand pit, irrespective of whether you are on Linux, Mac, Windows, or anywhere else.

A great example of this is LibreOffice. It is entirely cross-platform and has at its core a set of open standards. LibreOffice not only prevents vendor lock-in, but it provides an assurance that your data will be available and modifiable from different users across different platforms. At this point, if your data is in OpenDocument format, who cares whether the user is on Linux, Mac, or Windows? What matters is that they can collaborate, that the tool is available, and that the data can be shared in an open way.

The crux of my argument is that the key ingredients we need to protect to assure innovation and collaboration are open and accessible creation tools and open and accessible data. What is important is that we ensure open access.

Now, this is not to say Linux is not a critical piece here. While I am advocating a cross-platform world at the app and data layer to ensure makers can play irrespective of their platform, I do believe that Linux support for these cross-platform apps is essential. I don't see cross platform here as just Mac or Windows.

Having a Linux version of apps available is important to ensure that those with the tightest of budgets, be it individuals, schools, community centers, or others, will always have free tools available to collaborate from the ground up. Linux is also important because it is ultimately hackable across the platform, and it has paved the way for innovation in unexpected places such as automotive, drones, embedded devices, and elsewhere.

Now, I am certain that some people who haven't read up to this point are going to get shouty in the comments. They will accuse me of being a sellout, that I don't care about Linux anymore, and that I am anti-free software.

This is bollocks.

Linux is critically important. Openness should be engineered from top to bottom in our computers, devices, and elsewhere. I am still a passionate Linux user who will always recommend Linux first and foremost to people.

Where I have changed my view is that the Mac and Windows world is dripping with people just like us too. They are smart people who also want to create interesting things and make the world a better place. They just don't jive with Linux, and that is totally fine.

Let's encourage a world in which Linux is a choice, not a social obligation. This will help us to reach more people, open up more innovation, make our cross platform tools and data better, and grow the wider outreach and potential of open source and open collaboration.

What do you think, folks? Think this makes sense? Think I am full of nonsense? Let me know in the comments!

Six
Degrees

This article is part of Jono Bacon's Six Degrees column, where he shares his thoughts and perspectives on culture, communities, and trends in open source.

13 Comments

r_a_trip

I agree in principle, but beware... Openness in the top layers of a closed platform is a privilege bestowed by the gatekeeper, not an inherent right. The proprietor of a closed platform has several options on the platform level (legal and illegal) to make an open tool less desirable than their own closed offerings. Which has happened in the past...

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Don Watkins

I love your article and I completely agree with what first intrigued me about open source. "It wasn't the software—that was cool and all—it was this notion of people working together to create something bigger than any individual that gripped me." That still animates my work in open source and it excites me that this principle can be applied elsewhere.

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Radu

Indeed, and with projects like ReactOS and...umm...ok, Darwin is dead, but let's say HaikuOS, choice becomes not only an intra-linux thing, but a true bouquet and competition of open versions of operating systems, which results in easier and more shareable solutions across platforms, and contributes to projects like wine and darlinq, which ultimately benefits both devs and users.

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jk

I don't really see the point in your article. There are literally thousands of open source projects in the net. Even commercial products have their community versions with their code released on open source licenses eg a popular Java, Python IDE :)

In my opinion the true value of open source is when it comes to big commercial products. You can find OSS everywhere - in each propitiatory software and this is fantastic. This shows OSS is alive!
OSS initiative really supports propitiatory projects even if they don't commit their share back to the community. And year by year big companies are more and more interested in investing back in OSS.

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sethkenlon

Open source exists on platforms that are not Linux.

That does not mean that those platforms are open source.

Which means that if I'm programming for Linux, and I want to include support for other platforms, how do I do that? I'm not going to pay for a closed source license so I can load the closed OS on my computer (or in one vendor's case, buy a new computer that will legally run the OS that they distribute). This is not an academic question; I use Qt and C++ and Python, so the stack is cross-platform, but in terms of testing, I'm at a loss.

Yes, cross-platform portability is the ideal, but the targeted platforms are actively making it difficult to implement.

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Vanto

This is a puzzling article. Look on sourceforge or google code. There are thousands of open source projects for non-Linux platforms, always has been.

Or are you saying that opensource.com needs to start covering more than just Linux topics? because if that's the case, then I'll go look for another site, because I come here to get my open source on Linux fix. I can go anywhere else on the web to find out about open source on other platforms.

Or are you just announcing publically that you are switching to Mac or Windows?

Really not clear on the message here.

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Neticis

In difference with water or electricity, operating system can spy you and do something else as it claims to do.
So, operating system (or any other universal hardware/software) is not comparable with just water pipe and should be considered much more important by everyone.

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Alex Sanchez

As a relative newcomer to Linux and open source, this really resonated with me:

"While I will always be a passionate Linux fan and user, and I believe that this full spectrum of openness is still incredibly important, I do think the opportunity here is much broader than Linux alone: it is about community collaboration in whatever avenue, nook, and cranny it may exist."

IMO, using a non-Linux OS shouldn't be a barrier to entry for those interested in open source. Especially so because so many people don't.

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tim

>I have devoted my career to trying to understand communities and leadership,

????
Really?

Because what I remember of Bacon's career is he made his name with a podcast where he crapped on everything and everyone in FLOSS and behaved like a college kid.
Of course he says it was 'humour' but thats just an excuse to cover who he was.

Then he does a 180 turn and he becomes your old man, telling you how to behave, what you can and cant say and trying to calm down the kids to stop them from being what HE was before that. No one likes a preachy reformed drunk telling them not to do what he did.

And during his time being the community babysitter, Canonical proved over and over and over and over again that is can not work with others or trusted (remember the whole sending your internatl HD searches to Amazon for money?).
Its stunning that a company whose whole BS spiel was about community could constantly screw it up and not be able to play with others.

Id say it was a failure but Im sure like previusly there will be an excuse from Bacon.

as for the open source on any platform... thanks for reminding us that this has always been the case.
a decade ago, VLC, Firefox, Thunderbird and OO (then LO) made the switch from Win to Linux easy because it was cross platform.
2015 called, youre late to the party.

open source is no A thing, its many things because there are dozens and dozens or open source licenses and most of them are totally useless to developers.

but then this is what this site is about: open washing the term open source into meaninglessness.

Bacon is the ideal guy for this site.

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r3bl

I haven't read any of your previous articles in this series, but I agree with you.

It really doesn't matter what OS you're using. The most important thing is that you know how to use it and to make something interesting that the users of all operating systems will be able to benefit from.

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T.J. Duchene

Unfortunately, by tapping the shoulders of the Linux community for comments, you walked right into the snake pit. The majority of Linux fans have a very strange idea that Linux is the ideal open source project. So much so that they deliberately ignore the fact that the “systemd” software on Linux is actively destroying Linux’s ability to contribute code outside of Linux. While Linux is the poster child for opensource, I would not hold up Linux as a good example of what can be achieved for the whole free software community. Large chunks of code that Linux uses are not opensource at all, and its practitioners usually have no interest in fostering opensource efforts on other platforms.

Pretty much the only opensource you are going to see that span platforms are certain applications such as LibreOffice and commercially supported tools like or Qt, and only so long as they have a user base on platforms other than Linux.

Mention has been made of Python, but in terms of cross platform, it is like Mono/.Net, that is - something of a joke. The versions of Python code that does work across platforms uses older versions of Python, i.e. Python 2.7, is that it is no longer actively developed. The Mono and .Net packages across Linux and Windows are not equivalent, nor are they likely to be in the near future.
There are rare exceptions to what I say, and I’m sure you can find a few, but as long as Windows, and MacOS/iOS are viewed as “enemies” I’m afraid that few people will really understand cross-platform is the key to user freedom.

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Charles

You talk about the barriers for users of closed, proprietary platforms, but you gloss over the fact that the closed source operating systems have real barriers to entry for cross platform development, and year on year these barriers are getting higher. Should we make things cross platform? Sure if we have willing participants willing to do the work, but if open communities find it too costly to participate and develop for closed platforms, please don't lay the blame at the feet of the open communtites and projects.

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Jef Spaleta

"Let's encourage a world in which Linux is a choice, not a social obligation."
How? Its a great objective.. what's your strategy to get there? What tactics do you use to implement that strategy?

I don't know how you get to that objective... without enough people actually using linux or qnx or anything else..and attempting to collaborate with the people in the walled gardens.

How do you actually do that unless you show up using linux and as a linux user demand your creative collaborators actually use open data and cross platform APIs?

Linux as a theoretical choice.. isn't going to sway the "I just want it to work" people at all to move from close data formats to open ones. You have to make it matter to them in their working relationships and that means... running an oddball OS or tools that require open data..and make the collaborative environment heterogeneous in terms of tooling. And doing that comes with real costs to your other collaborators who are otherwise benefiting from efficiencies of a homogenous environment. There are strong networking effects towards homogeneity in workflows. And they run orthogonal to open standards and open data. A homogenous proprietary workflow can be just as efficient as an open standards/data workflow for some project timescales.

Open data is only important insofar as its necessary to get your work done. If you have a mandate to archive your work and expect it to be re-touched by other people that you don't have a working relationship with..you will think about it.

If you are just busting out dynamic content like a newsletter or a podcast or digital artwork.. anything that is artistic output that is basically "done" once its released.... why do you care if the digital artifacts leading to that work is in an open format or not? Remember we aren't talking about freedom idealists..like you or me...we are talking about the people who just want to get their work done..regardless of OS...regardless of application. You can talk about the theoretic advantages of open data but they aren't going to be swayed by another round of that talky-talky.

So, we walk-the-walk. We roll in with a computing environment they don't use, with tools they don't use, and we go..collaborate with us. And work through the data exchange requirements. And be prepared to handle the "well why don't you just buy a mac and use the adobe/whatever or whatever proprietary data formats/extensions that I'm already using."

Unless you have another plan of action. And if you do, please share.

-jef

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Jono Bacon is a leading community manager, speaker, author, and podcaster. He is the founder of Jono Bacon Consulting which provides community strategy/execution, developer workflow, and other services. He also previously served as director of community at GitHub, Canonical, XPRIZE, OpenAdvantage, and consulted and advised a range of organizations.

Bacon is a prominent author and speaker on community management and best practice, and wrote the best-selling The Art of Community (O’