Learning from an Alternate Role Model

It was very inspiring to listen to Richard M Stallman (RMS) at Goa Engineering College recently. RMS is the creator of Free Software Foundation and even more importantly, the GPL software license which popularised the concept of Copyleft in contrast to Copyright. This license has been immensely effective in institutionalising the concept of sharing software. It ensures that if you decide to volunteer your efforts to create free software, it will remain free. The free in this context as RMS never fails to emphasise is free as in FREEDOM and not as in FREE BEER.

As I contemplated on the vision and life of RMS, I kept wondering whether our society enables us to follow in his footsteps. RMS was working as a programmer at MIT when he was troubled by the idea that the software he writes will be owned by MIT and will not be free. He left his job and decided to help create software as per his vision of what he believed to be morally and ethically correct. The head of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT; however, allowed him to continue to use the university's facilities for his endeavour even though he was no longer an employee of MIT.

The point which is striking is that the head of the lab had the FREEDOM to allow RMS to develop free software.

When RMS resigned he obviously was worried whether he would starve. He became convinced that he could work as a waiter and be sure that he will not starve. I kept wondering how many places could I consider working as a waiter and be still above my idea of subsistence living. Could I even hope to get a job at one of those places?

While we may not be able to emulate RMS, we can still do a lot for free software. Free software is extremely important for India given the low usage of the software technology in our country. Not to mention, we can change the rules from "how much money has been lost by software industry by sharing" to "how much money the society has saved by sharing software".

For people not convinced by that idea, I would like them to think about water. We see a lot of ads of mineral water. The mineral water industry pays a lot of taxes and provides a lot of employment. The more our municipalities are unable to provide safe clean water, the more the mineral water industry flourishes. Hence, is it economically undesirable to have free, safe drinking water flowing from our taps? Are the municipalities actually helping the society by not providing safe drinking water? There is nothing wrong about selling mineral water, though most of us would agree that it is unethical to bottle tap water and label it as mineral water.

Getting back to the idea of what we can do. We need to realise that a great deal of voluntary software comes from the universities. I have been associated with a number of student projects during my career. The students spend a lot of time learning as they should because that is their primary objective. Often the ideas and concepts implemented by them seem to have a fair amount of potential but the potential remains unfulfilled. If we could change the goals of the projects, the students from one year could extend the work of previous batches or they could even take up an open source project and contribute a small part to it. The students will still learn, possibly more because they will learn about the complexities of working on a project where a number of people may be contributing in parallel. At the same time, our universities and educational institutions will also start contributing to the wealth of free software.

There is also a substantial contribution to free software from services organisations in US and Europe. The business model of the services companies implies that there will be a certain number of people between assignments or on the "bench". The period on the bench can be very boring and frustrating. It is a challenge for organisations to keep the bright young people motivated especially if the bench period is extended. These organisations could adopt or create open source products for organisations and people who will never be able to buy software or services from the best companies. This software could be extended and supported by local vendors; hence, making excellent software available at a price affordable by many organisations in India and other "financially challenged" nations.

Let me conclude by talking about "Software idea may be just crazy enough to work". This was the headline from by Dan Gillmor in Mercury News about a venture started by Mitch Kapor. Kapor founded Lotus Development Corporation, well known for products like Lotus 123 and Lotus Notes. After Lotus was bought by IBM, he has been contributing a lot to the causes of protection of individual privacy rights in the digital world.

Kapor and a small group have been working on a product, codenamed Chandler, for about a year. They are calling it an "Interpersonal Information Manager" and feel strongly that people need a choice of a better client for email, messaging and various 'groupware' needs. Kapor was realistic in recognising that there was no way a commercial product could compete against a product like Outlook, with its near monopoly status. He decided that the solution lay in creating an open source product and has committed US$ 5 million to a non-profit organisation, Open Source Application Foundation, whose mission is to "Create and gain wide adoption of Open Source application software of uncompromising quality".

From Kapor's Weblog: OSAF is covered in the New York Times of Monday, October 28. Said one expert "I haven't seen any evidence that there's a hole in the market here," he said. "But all the rational people have been completely wrong about most of these markets. So the fact that this sounds loony is probably a good thing."

The above comment is probably applicable to most of free software. Whether Free software succeeds or not is secondary. It provides us with choices and we know that freedom is meaningless in the absence of a meaningful set of options.