Open source has gone soft. We used to pass the time with hangings of the ideologically impure, but of late we’ve had this weird obsession with sharing code and innovation.
Fortunately, this streak of pragmatism was bound to end. In the past few weeks, we’ve picketed Mozilla for supporting DRM and pilloried Red Hat for competing against OpenStack rivals. The community that once spent years counting the number of free software angels that were bumped off the Open Core pin is back to eating its own.
And oh, how we missed it!
Red Hat Rewinds To 2003
Red Hat, arguably the poster child for open source idealism, has come under fire in the past week for—wait for it!—refusing to support its competitors. ReadWrite’s Jodi Mardesich does an excellent job uncovering the accusations and Red Hat’s labored defense, but ultimately, the real issue is this:
Red Hat doesn’t want to support competitors, and its OpenStack competitors don’t like that much.
In what other universe would this even be news?
Mozilla Becomes A Mudblood
The problem for Red Hat is that it has such a strong track record of open source idealism that it’s an easy target if it looks like it’s coloring outside the lines. But Mozilla, if anything, offers an even bigger target.
Mozilla, for its part, committed the cardinal sin of serving its users. The organization that recently went through a bout of self-immolation over its ousted CEO’s politics has been called on the carpet for agreeing to embed DRM technology in the otherwise pure Firefox browser code so that its users can—gasp!—watch videos on the Web.
No, really. People want to watch videos and Mozilla prefers they watch those videos in its browser. Stop the presses!
Ever ready to make much of others’ ideological failings, the Free Software Foundation blasted Mozilla, expressing its “deep disappoint[ment]” in Mozilla because its “decision compromises important principles in order to alleviate misguided fears about loss of browser market share.”
After all, why should Mozilla bother with such silly things as, you know, actually being useful to customers?
Not to be outdone in the moralizing department, the Electronic Frontier Foundation tsktsk’s the decision, lamenting that “the last holdout for the open web has fallen.” It goes on to argue that Mozilla’s capitulation “changes the industry by accepting DRM” because such “repeated compromises to the needs of DRM advocates by tech company after tech company [are] transforming [the personal computer industry] into a sector that is dominated by established interests and produces locked-down devices, monitored and managed by everyone but their users.”
Well, maybe. Or maybe, as Mozilla chair Mitchell Baker explains, without such capitulation “Firefox users would need to use another browser every time they want to watch a controlled video, and that calls into question the usefulness of Firefox as a product.”
A Return To Our Ideological Roots
However much we may want to force others to live by our absolutist ideals, the reality is that others may have different priorities. As free software gave way to open source, its more pragmatic cousin, a fixed fetish on “the one true way” to license software, also withered.
And yet, such ideological handwringing is useful, if not always convenient or pleasant. As much as I prefer the pragmatism of open source/Apache Software Foundation crowd, there’s great benefit in the grating reminders of what’s at stake from the more ideologically minded free software/GPL group. Software freedom actually does matter.
As such, and despite my sarcastic tone above, I simultaneously dread and welcome a return to the constant self-flagellation of the free and open-source software communities. It makes open source less collaborative and more fractious, but it may also make it more powerful and relevant for decades to come.