The Free Software Movement

Had been to Gnu/Linux Habba today, it elicited quite a good response from the student community, compared to what Im used to from my student days. Gnu/Linux is getting a fair bit of attention, since it is also being viewed as something that can get one a job. The Free Software Movement has grown phenomenally to say the least in the past few years, not least because of events like the Habba.

It is not a coincidence that the FSM exploded with the explosion of the internet. The great levelling power of the internet contributed immensely to the growth of the FSM, and this is well known. If one analyses the FSM, the key features one would find are:

  • Community: pariticipants think (or are urged to think) of themselves as part of a larger community. It is only the mutual give and take that makes Free Software what it is now.
  • Cooperation: Helping each other to solve problems, in whatever capacity possible is a by-product of the feeling of community. Big egos exist, but they are usually reined in ‘for the greater good’.
  • Equity: Notice that Communist also derives from the word community. The reason why the FSM did not end up becoming a dictatorship is the equity among its participants. Any person with a reasonable contribution is welcomed. Communism, for all its hype, never featured equity at the level of the FSM. There is a reason for that, however: most participants, atleast in the development process are of similar skill and background. They differ in terms of ideas and experiences, which makes for the vibrancy in the movement.
  • Communication: members are highly communicative, in one medium or the other. The value of this need not be stated, especially in reinforcing the above three.
  • Zealousness: Firm belief and identification with the goals of the FSM of people from varied backgrounds, skill and intellectual levels keeps the fire alive, at all costs.

The FSM defines a ‘commons’, a shared resource that anyone can use without interfering with anyone else’s rights, especially the right to private property. Noone or, equivalently, everyone owns it. IMO, it is the largest movement of our times which has altruism as a core tenet.

This was one of the reasons for the initial scepticism that it faced from the corporate world, who are taught that everything must be owned by someone (not everyone!). Fortunately for the FSM, the developed economies were rapidly transitioning into service economies at the same time as it was growing and viable business models came into being which put service ahead of the product. The corporates, adaptable beasts that they are, probably saw the value that FSM can bring in a service economy and joined forces. It is quite amazing that two social institutions, one based on altruism and another based on selfishness have managed such a fruitful interaction.

It is not as if only the corporation adapted to the FSM. The other way round happened as well. People who previously talked in terms of freedom also started talking in terms of business models and bottomlines. This is a constant feature of resilient social institutions: they learn other’s languages and develop a hybrid one at the end. With the corporation firmly behind FSM, there is no doubt that it will continue to grow and flourish. Thus, the FSM has learnt to value selfishness to some degree, and corporations have learnt a (very little) bit of altruism.

Similar interactions have happened between the Environmental movement and the corporation, leading to environmental economics for the greens and green manufacturing for Wall Street. One of the reasons that I feel the corporation will be the dominant institution for a very long time to come is this high adaptability that it possesses. Religion pretty much disintegrated in the West after the Enlightenment, but the corporation has withstood many assaults from the time of the Industrial Revolution.

Then why is adoption to Gnu/Linux still slow ? the FSM, quite like the environmentalists, had been interacting within themselves for too long. Not anymore. Gnu/Linux Habba was a focussed session on usability, especially in Kannada. Similar outreach activities will continue to push Gnu/Linux to the mainstream. However, its impact will not be as high as the environmental movement until they make a fundamental shift in approach: most interactive sessions focus on the outcome part of using Gnu/Linux. For a person, especially in places where software piracy(!) is not taken seriously, the outcome of using Gnu/Linux is not very different from using MS Windows or Word. Some things cannot be captured by the outcome of using a software product, like the experience of using it. Like the marketing tenet says, sell the experience, not the product. One has to ‘sell’ the status, moral superiority of using Free software. This is not as outlandish as it sounds. This is what the environmentalists are trying to do by asking for labelling of products, and what Apple does when it is selling the iPod, which is otherwise just a box which makes noise.

This is a slow process, but systematic brainwashing will defintely lead to favorable results. Maybe some perusing of marketing literature is in order ;)

PS: you cannot really sell an experience if the product does not work well. However, I think GNU/Linux is almost out of the blocks in this matter (at long last!)


2 thoughts on “The Free Software Movement”

  1. Its good that Habba is focussing on usability more.

    Because of moral superiority,..etc i tried to use Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon the only issue is with user convenience and may be some bugs. I had few problems such as could not Hibernate properly, could not change mouse speed, could not change screen resolution. All the cases system could not apply the changes i have selected.
    Installation is confusing, unable to install xmms,mozilla,wine.
    Its ironical that corporates use all kinds of UNIX servers and use a windows terminal to login remotely. This clearly shows Free software lacks in case of user convenience, shows its strength in others.

    I completely agree that one has to “sell the experience”.

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