No more FOSS evangelism for me

I’ve been an advocate for free software ever since I started using it in 1999 (or was it 1998?). Some who know me would probably say that I’m an anti-Microsoft, pro Free software zealot. Maybe that’s true.

The way I see it, there are three camps. Those who think that open source software is good and so choose to use it; those who think that all software should be free (libre) and that proprietary software is evil; and, those who hate Microsoft and will use anything but.

I want to be in the first camp.

However, it’s true that I also want to convert people to free software. I do. Sorry about that. I want to get people off Windows and Mac and whatever else they are running and onto a free system like Linux. I want others to join me, because I think it’s the better way. Who am I though, to suggest what’s best for someone else?

I don’t like the fact that our Government is a Microsoft shop and spends half a billion dollars on proprietary software licenses a year. Likewise the fact that they create all their data in closed proprietary data formats which I have to try and make available years down the road (as a part of my day job). I wish that people could use an operating system of their choice at work, instead of being forced to use Windows.

Most importantly, I wish that people had choice when it comes to buying a new machine and generally I wish that Microsoft didn’t have their monopoly (can anyone argue that it’s actually been good for the industry as a whole? I think it’s a stretch to say that we wouldn’t have cheap hardware without Microsoft).

Recently, Internode (my much beloved ISP) dumped free software and instead rolled out Microsoft Exchange for mail, calendaring, etc. CEO Simon Hackett outlined his reasons for the migration and it’s a compelling argument.

We’ve been trying to get a working, open source based, cross platform calendaring system happening at Internode for years and years.

And we’ve never managed it.

There’s always something that doesn’t work right, or a need to run a plethora of ‘conduit’ tools between multiple calendar systems. Somehow, no matter how hard you try, that seems to turn into a dogs breakfast, and involves some horrid compromises on at least one of your operating systems in terms of user access to the resulting information.

OK, so that does read a lot like a Microsoft PR statement, but if Internode can’t get it right what hope does the rest of the world have?

I remember a prominent free software developer (someone whom I respect greatly) saying to me something along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing here):

Just because something is open source, doesn’t make it better. Use the best tool for the job, even if it’s proprietary and closed source.

Is that true? If so, then why do I persist with various free software projects which are inferior to their proprietary counterparts?

I guess that it really comes down to your definition of “best” tool for the job. If your set of criteria for best tool does not exclude costly licensing fees, then a closed source solution be the best for the job. On the other hand, if access to the code is important to you, then it doesn’t matter how “great” a closed tool is, it’s never going to be the best tool for the job. So, this is why for some people, Apple iPod might be the best tool for the job, but for others it doesn’t even rank (like me, who has all their music in FLAC).

So you see for Internode, the best tool for the job was one that offered seamless syncing with their iPhones.

C’est la vie.

In writing this I am reminded of a friend who would laugh at me while I spent half an hour on the terminal trying to connect to a WPA encrypted wireless network. His Mac would just work straight away (like what we have now with NetworkManager). For me, a closed operating system wasn’t the best tool for the job, so I persisted with countless hours of command line work to associate with an access point.

I know that this boils down to a world view and I don’t consider myself a free software Zionist, but maybe I have been – or maybe I am. If so, maybe I shouldn’t be.

It’s too tiring to keep on fighting for the adoption of free software and maybe we just shouldn’t be in the first place. I’m reminded of that quote from Linus:

The thing is, at least to me personally, Microsoft just isn’t relevant to what I do. That might sound strange, since they are clearly the dominant player in the market that Linux is in, but the thing is: I’m not in the ”market.” I’m interested in Linux because of the technology, and Linux wasn’t started as any kind of rebellion against the ”evil Microsoft empire.” Quite the reverse, in fact: from a technology angle, Microsoft really has been one of the least interesting companies. So I’ve never seen it as a ”Linus versus Bill” thing. I just can’t see myself in the position of the nemesis, since I just don’t care enough. To be a nemesis, you have to actively try to destroy something, don’t you? Really, I’m not out to destroy Microsoft. That will just be a completely unintentional side effect.

I like that. He’s just getting on with the job of making great open source software because he believes it’s a better way. He doesn’t care what the rest of the world does (at least, that’s what I read from it). That’s what I want. I just don’t want to care any more.

So what’s the point of this post? Well I feel that more and more my own attitude is changing from one of championing free software regardless of circumstance, to a more apathetic position something along the lines of, “I use Linux, you use whatever you want. If you want Microsoft Windows and Office, then go use that.”

If you think that .NET is the future of the Linux desktop, then go right ahead and use it.

Wanna store all your data in proprietary formats? Feel free.

My brother loves Linux and free software now (it’s taken about 10 years of constant barraging to get him to use it) but his wife simply “must” use Outlook. So he still runs Outlook for all their mail. Weird, but OK.

From now on, I won’t push Linux and free software (I’ll probably re-do MakeTheMove to reflect this, someday). This has all been the result of a long time frustration bubbling under the surface, but more recently the culmination of hundreds of events, conversations and epiphanies I’ve had and experienced over the last 6 months or so. I’m done. I’ll simply use what I want to use and leave everyone else to their own devices. If they want to also use free software, as always I’ll be happy to help.

8 thoughts on “No more FOSS evangelism for me

  1. Competition is good.

    FOSS is competition to Microsoft, Apple is competition to FOSS and Microsoft is competition to Apple.

    If one camp has a good idea, it spreads to the other camp (patents notwithstanding). Someone sees what the competition is doing and says “Hey, that’s a good idea, but it would be much better for me if I tweaked it like this…”

    Most people want things to ‘just work’. Generally, Mac hardware and operating systems have just worked. DOS worked, if you were willing to tinker under the hood. Someone looked at PC-DOS and said, “Maybe we can make it better if we put a nice GUI on it, like Apple have done… Lets buy the bits of DOS that we don’t own and make it better for the average person. Apple and Microsoft came up with new ideas to make their operating systems – often feeding on the inventions of the other party.

    Other people want to tinker. Bunnings is making a fortune selling stuff to people who want to do it themselves (and builders are probably making a fortune fixing what people have done).

    Some people are happy to spend hours overclocking their computers to eke out the last remaining hertz. This could be for the kudos of their peers, or just for fun, or for some other reason. People who use their computers as an appliance just think the tweakers are mad.

    Some people are willing to spend 30 minutes slaving over a console to get something to work. This could be because they want to show others that something can be done, because it needs to be done, or for the fun and excitement of learning new skills.

    There are times when I fit into many camps. I want my mythtv box to just work (well, it’s mainly my wife that wants that). I want to be free to tinker with that computer – to see whats under the hood and learn new stuff that I can use elsewhere – on other computers, wherever.

    Anyway, we need evangelists for every camp. The Apple fanbois who say “Hey, this is how easy a computer should work”, Microsoft disciples who say “No, our way is the one true way – just look at all our followers (but I do like the way thing X works)” and the FOSS zealots who can say “That’s a good idea, but I would like product X to do Y” (and make it so) and “I want to be free to do whatever I want to MY machine”

    Don’t give up your evangelism – We won’t recognise you 🙂

  2. Haha, I saw Rose in there a number of times 😉

    I’ve got no problem with tweaking free software, I think it’s fun. My machines all run Linux and with the exception of that damn MacBook Pro (and it’s ugly ATI graphics) everything runs perfectly. Of course I’m always there the help you with your MythTV box.

    True, I don’t recognise me. It’s an interesting point – I’ve been defined by FOSS evangelism for the last ten years (for whatever good it’s done), indeed my entire IT career has been built on it.

    If I don’t have FOSS evangelism then I don’t know what I’m doing in the computer industry at all. It might mean I have to get out and go so something with languages or such. I wonder if DFAT is recruiting..

    Come to think of it, I probably owe at least a year’s supply of lollies at work. One day I should pay up, the mother load, and then never have to worry about it again!


  3. > From now on, I won’t push Linux and free software (I’ll probably re-do MakeTheMove to reflect this, someday).

    I’m genuinely sad to hear this. I’ve only just found your content on the web, and much of it is really good. Don’t give up just because there are many negative and backwards people out there. You know you are doing a good thing, and people like myself know it too.

    I’ve published a summary of your MakeTheMove website on my blog for my readers:

    I’m in Newcastle, and I take it you are in Canberra? I hope to meet you someday… or perhaps I already have and don’t realise it.

  4. Hey, just a quick note, regarding your comment, here:

    “OK, so that does read a lot like a Microsoft PR statement (I wonder what discount they received for printing that), but if Internode can’t get it right what hope does the rest of the world have?”

    The answer is: No discounts, at all. I wrote that blog post because I wanted to explain what had happened for us in this realm. It wasn’t, and it isn’t, a PR exercise. We literally did spend years with our guys (mostly FOSS advocates) failing to get the integrated result (including to mobile devices) that we have achieved with Exchange.

    Exchange is in no sense a perfect thing. There are plenty of rough edges, but the benefits exceed the downsides – and yes, especially in mobile device and cross platform calendaring integration.

    Please, don’t ever think that I write stuff because Microsoft (or anyone else) pays me to do so. That just doesn’t happen. I write stuff because I feel like writing stuff.

    There is no need to generate an implication that anyone, ever, has to ‘pay me off’ to write things. At a personal level I find that a wee bit offensive.

    We’re an organisation that works with a lot of open source – and has even released the odd thing of our own creation back into the open source community at times. I believe Open Source is a wonderful thing. But its not a wonderful thing when it becomes the source of religious zealotry.

    Use the best tool for each job. Its that simple.

    Simon Hackett

  5. Hi Simon,

    Thanks for the comment. I was in no way meaning to cast aspersions against your character through that suggestion, and I’m happy to remove that line if it would please you (I didn’t think of it as your personal blog post, but rather a company announcement). The point I was making was from the other side of the fence, that Microsoft will no doubt use that post to show how Open Source is a failure and people should buy their products (perhaps rightly so).

    Out of curiosity, have you come across Zarafa? It is an “Exchange replacement” which sits on top of existing Linux services such as Postfix, etc. It can synchronise with iPhones (via Z-Push free software project), which seemed to me to be the main missing feature from your previous implementation. Of course, commercial support is available to make it all work in your environment.

    Also, I don’t know how much it has cost you to roll out Exchange (not just in licenses but down time, implementation and training, etc) versus how much it would have cost to hire developers to write something from scratch (rather than hacking things together, putting out fires and eventually moving on). I realise that it might not have been cost efficient (or even possible), but it seems to me that if a free product is supposed to sync with iPhones, then it should just work. If it isn’t meant to, then bolting things on top and trying to make it work isn’t the right approach. It’s open source and you guys are smart, so why not write a proper implementation? If the “best tool” for the job doesn’t exist, why not create it for everyone’s benefit!

    Hell, if you’d have told the community that this was a problem for you guys and that a move to Exchange would be the end result, you could have gotten a thousand developers coding you a solution for free.

    You are right about using the right tool for the job. Absolutely. If you read the rest of my post you’ll see that’s exactly what I say, too. Everybody has criteria about what makes a particular tool the best for the job however, and for me a proprietary vendor lock-in based solution is no-longer on the list (in the past I have rolled out hundreds of Microsoft Exchange solutions).

    Anyway, you guys are awesome and I’m sure that you will continue to do great things (I’m still waiting for my NodeMobilePhone service..). In a way I have to thank you for your blog post, because that’s the final thing which made me change the way I think about free software. Before, I used to push it no-matter what. Now I don’t. If Exchange truly suits your needs, then great.

    Anyway, thanks again. And please accept my apology.


  6. Congrats – can’t be more spectacular than that.

    Turning from Boycott Novell articles to embracing Meego. Wow!

    My position: Boycott Novell is harmful to FOSS/Linux – Meego is even more harmful.

  7. Gerv, that sounds highly authoritarian and almost fascistic of you. Also, I tried to read your essay, but I couldn’t get very far without getting sick. Why is it evil to want to better the condition of all mankind? People want that out of the utmost love and compassion. That is what humanism is. That is not idolatry.

    Chris, nice article! I’m a big fan of the FOSS philosophy myself, although I still use mostly proprietary software for pragmatic reasons. I’d use my duel-boot of Kubuntu more if it weren’t so damn buggy, and if AMD’s fglrx wasn’t so terrible. It’s a shame, because I really do like using it. Do you know if there’s a good third-party driver for AMD cards? Hell, I can’t even use compositing with that driver!

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