The Professionalization of Free Software

„When I say the professionalization of free software what I mean is doing things the best way we can.“

Shane M. Coughlan is the Freedom Task Force coordinator of the Free Software Foundation Europe. In September 2008 he discussed the future and the professonalization of Free Software with the Viennese Fellows of the FSFE.

  • Date of recording: Fri, 2008-09-05
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00:00 Hello everyone, I’m Shane Coughlan and I’m the legal coordinator of Free Software Foundation Europe. In practice this means that I do a lot of work in determining what our policies and approaches to legal issues are going to be. I run something called “The Freedom Task Force” which Reinhardt mentioned; it’s our legal project, though it’s often mistaken as being some type of superhero project because of the name. The KDE board still teases me about that. I’m here today to talk about the professionalisation of free software, an issue which is very much connected with my legal work. It’s like wherever you do anything important that involves a lot of people - you get a lot of lawyers; it’s some kind of parasitic relationship.

00:55 Free Software Foundation Europe has quite a lot of work with stakeholders across Europe. We do a lot of work with companies, with projects, with governmental organizations, we do work on the EU level as well as a little bit of United Nations work. What we do in essence is we create a dialogue that allows everyone to get together and talk about where we go with free software. Years ago free software was kind of the alternative, it was the “something else”, it was the approach to software that gave the freedoms to use, study, share and improve, and it challenged proprietary approaches to software that offered very restricted grants to users. Interestingly, free software has proven to be probably the most attractive approach to using software possible. It has gone from being an alternative to being very much the mainstream, and with that we’ve seen incredible growth, we’ve seen growth in every direction: of course users, and of course developers, but also growth in terms of investment from governments and corporate entities. We’ve seen growth in licenses, in the legal sphere, as lots of people thought free software was a good idea, lots of people also thought “Hey, why not write our own license?”. It’s kind of a normal consequence of having departments of professionals: your engineers want to create something, your lawyers want to create something, and sometimes people kind of re-invent the wheel.

02:43 In the last ten years or so, we’ve seen explosive growth in free software. We’ve seen growth from being quite a closed and highly skilled community, to being something that is projected by you and your marriage university to account for up to 4 percent of the EU GDP by 2010, to involve up to 32 percent of the European ICT industry by 2010. Indeed, as you might be aware, there are firms which produce a lot of statistics and data for people. One famous firm is Gartner. There was a Gartner report recently that they estimate that 90 percent of enterprise software by 2012 will contain free software - Massive, huge, astonishing adoption. Very good stuff. And in the legal sphere very challenging. Great, but challenging. The explosion of the interest which lead to an explosion of licenses lead to an explosion of legal complexity for some people; not more complexity than other approaches to software, but slightly more complexity that free software had previously had. It used to be a world where we had licenses like EGPL and the BSD and modified BSD licenses. Now we have these licenses and many many more. I know that Black Duck, which do scanning for free software code, have found quite a lot of licenses. I was told informally by someone involved in this area of business that they counted over 1,000 licenses that claimed to be free software. Of course, not all of those are, but it gives you an idea of the type of explosive growth we’re seeing.

4:46 Free Software Foundation Europe engages with this. We’re a non-profit, non-governmental organization. Our job is to kind of support the basics, the infrastructure, to build the platforms that allow other people to do stuff, projects to make cool code, companies to make lots of money and governments to do very sensible things with communication infrastructure. In the legal sphere we’ve approached the challenge of becoming mainstream, like getting stakeholders to gather in something called The European Legal Network, and getting everyone to say “Well what do we need to do to make this as simple and as effective as possible for everyone?”. We’re talking about how when you deal with licenses you understand what licenses are popular and why, and if you use licenses -what type of approaches do you need to deploy the code effectively, how do you mix code, how do you know when you need to go and talk to a lawyer? We’re trying to answer these questions in simple ways so that everyone will benefit.

5:58 Some of our work is already public on Free Software Foundation Europe’s website. We’ve got some of our material online at you’ll find some documents, like useful tips for users and vendors of GPL2 Software. These documents act as simple guidance to help people, especially a management player or people who might be unfamiliar with free software licenses and might require a little guidance to get their head around free software, especially if they’re moving from a proprietary environment towards free software. As you might well know, proprietary software tends to allow you to use it but rarely to modify, share, and improve it. In other words the licenses are usually very restrictive. Free software tends to do the opposite, in that its licenses are very very permissive, they tell you to do a lot and that everyone should do a lot, so people need to adjust when they adopt that. We’re trying to make that adjustment as painless as possible.

7:09 We also do kind of cool stuff with that which we call the community at large. If you go to the Freedom Task Force website you’ll find ways to contact us with any questions you might have about free software licensing. Quite a lot of people do talk to us, in the last two years I think I answered about 350 or 400 incoming requests for information regarding free software licenses. Some of these requests are very simple, like at one point someone said “If I have GPL software can I get the source code?” - it sounds like a no-brainer but when people are new to free software it’s kind of surprising. It’s kind of amazing to a developer who is brand new, and it also involves a little bit of hand holding: “Yes, you can get the source code and you can modify it, and you can share it and all of that” and they go “Whoa!”. We also get more complex questions. Like when there’s a violation of a license. And we work in partnership with to help resolve violations across Europe.

8:18 Indeed, I think nowadays it’s almost a misrepresentation to say we work with because we work with them very closely, but that’s not the only person we work with. Remember I said that this is no longer the “alternative”, we’re the mainstream, and a consequence of that is that we’re also working with a lot of the companies involved in distributing Free Software, we’re all talking together saying “Ok, if we can isolate a problem how do we go fix it?”. Free Software is definitely not about conflict, it’s definitely not about picking on corporations, it’s definitely not about being the little David fighting a Goliath - free software is about an incredible, incredible approach to software, an approach to software that’s very simple but provides huge benefit to absolutely anyone who uses it. What we are finding now is that more people realize this, more people understand this, and more people work together to accomplish this. Because in its core, free software suggests that by pulling our knowledge and talent we do better. It’s working really well and that leads me to what I call the professionalisation of free software. Earlier today I was doing an interview with a chap from a website and he misunderstood initially what i meant when I said the professionlisation of free software. He thought I meant companies doing free software or investing in free software. Not at all! Free software has never been either hostile nor dependent on corporate investment, free software is a big paradigm, an approach to software. It’s beneficial to corporations, it’s beneficial to governments, it’s beneficial to individuals. Its scope is much larger than corporate investment or not.

10:36 When I say the professionalization of free software what I mean is doing things the best way we can. Free software was initially about really really great ways to make great software, and it can allow you to use many different models, development models and approaches to make great code. Now free software has scaled to the point where it’s running critical infrastructure in every country in Europe and in North America, probably the world. Our challenge is to make sure that we have the knowledge and the ability to manage that, to manage the future which depends on really really solid, really good technologies to allow us to communicate, to share information. The professionalisation of free software is about adding more knowledge and competence, this is no longer about programming, this is no longer about just code, it’s about what the software means and how do we deliver it in the best way possible. So the professionalisation of free software sees projects which are gaining in popularity, gaining layers. You have projects like for example the KDE Project which increasingly is building in management layers, layers of people with marketing expertise, layers of people with knowledge about how you do things like usability. Professionalisation means understanding what we need to do to make our delivery of x, y, z better. You can see this in other places as well. Big projects often end up with something like a foundation to support them, to deal with financial and legal matters, to add in a buffer, so programmers don’t have to deal with these questions and can focus on code.

12:33 Some people would say that all of this sounds mighty like corporate environments or it sounds very institutionalized. I don’t really think so, I think free software is simply benefiting from the fact that it’s attracting people from other areas, it’s attracting political scientists, it’s attracting people with MBAs, it’s attracting usability engineers, and artists, and marketing professionals who think it’s cool too and want to help out.

13:07 As I travel around Europe and do my stuff, either legal stuff or conference conversations about free software, I’m finding that some projects are building incredibly efficient layers of professional management and some projects are building innovative new types of ad-hoc management, but everyone is evolving and everyone is facing an interesting challenge, because now free software is snowballing in adoption. Suddenly people are asking more and more questions, like “What are the milestones?”, “Are the APIs going to be stable?”, “How are you going to test the releases on these cycles?”, “What’s our support span on the major releases?”. People are asking very interesting questions. In a way, our dream has come true of getting mainstream and being a very viable alternative to anything else, and to support that, we have to go and build new layers, we have to go and build new competence. And we’re doing just fine. This isn’t the moment where I tell you all that we’re in trouble, and we’re going to have to go and get MBAs hired quickly because otherwise we’re all going to get sued and will fail, not at all, not at all. We basically don’t have to worry and we don’t have to be stressed because these people are coming to us, because enough people are now realizing that free software is an essential future that they’re coming to help out. And we’re getting really really cool contributions in the way of governmental assistance and corporate assistance as well, because parties that are used to what you would call perhaps self-interested investment have realized that in the context of free software self-interested investment is community investment, because the way you get the best value for what you put in is by making sure that everyone else can get it and it becomes part of the big pot that we all build on top of. This is very cool, it’s very very cool, but as the marketing people would put it, we still have a few “interesting challenges” left - which is what they say to cover up problems. 15:20 We have some fascinating challenges for the future. As free software becomes more popular than it is now, we’ll face new approaches, especially on culture, and this is something where the professionalisation of free software is going to challenge us the most, especially as developers of free software and as cultural users of free software. I’m absolutely fascinated to see we’re seeing adoption of free software on a huge scale in Asia and Africa, and I’m also fascinated to note that we haven’t yet worked out how we’re going to integrate all of the innovation and advances on other continents into our development methodologies. Simple things, like on mailing lists, we, as in developers in western Europe, are often a little bit confrontational when it comes to talking on the mailing lists on development. Someone submits a patch and someone else says “That sucks”, and we’re used to that and we just reply “It doesn’t suck, your code sucks”, and we have a productive conversation [Laughs] and that’s cool, we’re used to that, but in Asia that’s not so cool [Laughs]. And an interesting part of our professionalisation I think what will look like fun but also a challenge is when we begin to work out how do we integrate the other 70 percent of humanity into our development cycles, and we don’t assume that everyone is going to be speaking English or we don’t assume that everyone will like being flamed. And that’s going to be fascinating. Cultural management methodologies are probably going to stretch us a little bit. They’ve stretched everyone else, and it’s not like we’re going to face challenges that, for instance, proprietary software doesn’t face and we’re in a much better position to deal with them, but they’ll be there, they’ll be there.

17:29 Another interesting thing about the professionalisation of free software is probably that code on its own is becoming a little bit less important than delivery of the solution that the code provides. You know, increasingly I’m hearing people saying “Optimization is what we need”. We need to talk about skill ability across different devices, we need to talk about thinking about software that’s completely modular, that can be paired down for running on low power embedded but scale upwards for other areas. Even on things like document processing, you know - can we have one library that will process your e-mail attachment on your mobile phone and your desktop? Now that takes optimization. That kind of challenge lies ahead. It’s not a coding challenge, it’s a design challenge, it’s an architecture challenge. 18:26 Somewhere where we haven’t really gone deeply before in free software is probably architecting. You know, some people have done a lot of it - definitely the BSD guys, you know, net BSD and so on have always been very strong about “Let’s architect this solution as much as possible”. But a lot more free software, including you could probably say The Linux Kernel, has been much more about “Let’s try and get the functionality and the stability” rather than architecting. But as Consumer Electronics embedded becomes the software on hardware market, we’re going to see a C-change in that. And it’s going to! You know, I was talking with someone from the industry and they were saying: Well we’re looking at about 400 million desktops deployed in kind of a cycle that’s what the sales you can expect in the near future, and we’re looking at about 2 million embedded units being sold on the mobile sphere, and then we’re looking at all of the rounters and all of the televisions and all of the dvd-players, we’re looking at billions upon billions upon billions upon billions of units being shipped - with free software a lot of them, but a completely different market place, a completely different hardware space to what we usually indebt. Part of our professionalisation will be going and talking to people, and talking to them and saying “What on earth are you building and what type of architecture do you need to make sure that free software works on this?”.

20:02 We’re seeing the dialogue now - you’re seeing companies which used to be very focused on proprietary software, like Nokia, suddenly beginning to try to open up a lot more discourse with the community at large. You know, one aspect of that of course was when they went and they bought all of the Symbian Foundation and then checked it out as free software. We’re seeing a C-chance, and everyone’s coming together in the middle. It’s going to be a cool time, a challenging time, but a cool time.

20:33 Another perhaps interesting part of the professionalisation of free software as I see it, is that things like licensing, which have been very topical right now, will go back a little bit. Licensing I think became very topical because we went mainstream and a lot of people were talking about the licenses in free software because we were dealing with new challenges and outside of free software because they were saying “What on earth is this?”. And of course when you’re looking from a company perspective especially, the first thing you look at is the legal liability and the legal terms. However, when it comes down to it and you look at the figures, licensing is not the main discourse in free software. Free software is kind of powered by licenses, but licenses are just something that mainly happen in the background, and the statistics do not indicate great complexity. There are varying statistics, but GPL code is somewhere about 65 to 70 percent of the free software code out there, and LGPL code is another 8 or 9 percent of the code, modified BSD about 6 percent 7 percent depends who talks, but basically you’re looking at a handful of licenses covering most of free software. So licensing is not a huge question once people understand the basics. That’s going to drifts us to the background, and the discourse that we’ll have is going to be much more about “how do we work better together?”, “how do we stop pickering?” “how do we get projects from doing the same thing to sit down and work together?”. We’re seeing great progress on this, I don’t see our Slashdot but I think they feed on controversy. We’re seeing great progress on this in practical terms - like, I know recently there was a meeting of… I think projects working on ODF (OpenDocument Format) translation filters for basically an ODF library, so you can do document calls from any application to read and write ODF - loads of different projects for working on this, so they all got together and they sat down and said “Ok let’s talk about who’s doing what, let’s get a common API, and let’s make sure, as much as possible, we don’t overlap - we simply complement”. We’re going to see a lot more of that in the future. Complice Fusion was another good example I think, and they relatively recent announced that KHTML rendering engine from KDE and Webkit, the Apple fork of that, are going to re-emerge. You know, these kinds of announcements are an indication of our future.

23:12 Part of our professionalisation will be to reduce the amount of overlap, increase our efficiency, and really focus on engineering best if you’re an engineer, or if you’re for instance a user - asking for something that just works absolutely as well as possible. Quality control of course is a consequence of this. You know, the professionalisation of free software is pushed by demand, and part of our demand is that we have a lot of users, and not all users are developers, a lot of users want to just use and they want to do stuff that just works. So we’re seeing a whole new little… I think ecosystem of completely crazy people who love quality control. And they’re doing a lot of work on it. I know KDE has a whole bunch of victims who download the latest stuff and crash it and they report “File crashed”. It’s kind of scaling beyond what was all previously, which was your closest fans complaining, and it’s becoming more of a semi-professional approach to free software, cause people who can’t code want to help and know that they can click buttons and test it for you - and they’re doing it and we’re getting all these really cool mechanisms for reporting bugs. We’re even improving on our mechanisms. I don’t know about you guys, but I like usability, and I’m horrified by “Bugzilla”, I’m horrified because it looks so complex to say “my stupid browser crashed”, or whatever, it just looks too complex for the job. And I’m speaking to quite a lot of people who are dealing with bug-tracking and they’re agreeing and they’re talking about ways to make it more simple to submit problems. We’re moving forward in that direction.

25:00 I’m a big fan of free software in… I think what you could call the market economy. I’ve been fascinated by how well we’re doing as an approach to software, because when I started being involved in free software I was working on freeDOS - I always choose projects focused on the cutting edge of technology [Laughs]… “Hey we’re still shipped with laptops in Asia, don’t mock us!” [Laughs]. You know, freeDOS was interesting but I approached it very much as a hobby, and it was very much as “This is very very interesting, but there’s no way I see this taking over the world”… well, it could have! [Laughs] We just didn’t want it to, alright? [Laughs] And you know, gradually I began to use more and more free software. But even when I started to adopt it on a larger scale and I got really interested in the philosophy behind it and the reasons that it’s a good idea for society as a whole, and for an information society especially, I guess I still didn’t realize that we were actually going to move so quickly into everything. It’s been very very cool to see stuff appearing. Like I know Asus on the Eee shipped a version of Xandros which I believe was initially incompliant (yeah we got reports inthere on the FTF) but you know, they were pushing an approach to free software that went and sold I believe 10 million units, which is fairly impressive. And stuff like that shows just how incredible it is that we went form kind of hacking around on slightly geeky things to actually going and providing information infrastructure that runs the planet, and that of course bring us to the Spiderman motto you know - with great power comes great responsibility. And that’s where the professionalisation of free software comes in. Cause it isn’t really a hobby. Individual participation might be a hobby, but free software is not a hobby. Free software is an approach to software that is allowing more people to do more things with the technology they have access to. And especially in the developing world, we’re going to see this becoming … well, “more important” is an understatement - we’re going to see this becoming the key to the developing world’s next steps in ICT.

28:10 You know, we’re seeing things happening where… I was talking with the KDE guys and they were mentioning there’s a conference about 600 kilometers outside of Timbuktu, and that’s really in the middle of nowhere, and the KDE guy I was speaking to said… I asked how many people were expected to turn up, and the answer was “between 1 and 2 thousand”! It’s awe-inspiring, and it’s an indication of where the future is. We’re going to see incredible adoption of free software, and an incredible responsibility, a social responsibility - not a coding responsibility but a social responsibility - to do our best if we’re making tools to make sure that they will help people as much as possible. Because of course we’re going to get that back, we’re going to get thousands upon thousands upon millions of people doing really cool stuff that will come back and blow us away in a few years. And it’s our ethical responsibility to invest a little time in doing our best to make sure that whatever tools are going out are going to help people as much as possible, and not, you know, crash and re-format their hard drive. I’ve had that experience with freeDOS beta 7. That shouldn’t go to Africa [Laughs].

29:33 Professionalisation of free software is sort of an acknowledgement that an individual might have hobby time and invest in free software as a hobby, but we shouldn’t regard free software as a hobby. One reason is that it’s already mainstream right now in our infrastructure, another reason is that for a substantial proportion of the world’s population in ICT, free software is probably going to underwrite their primary experience with relatively modern technology. It’s a very cool thought but also a kind of scary thought because I’m sure a lot of us in this room have put out code which is… questionable… that should be like “Oh… how many countries have I destroyed?” [Laughs], and that’s kind of where I come from, that’s just my mental picture, and I’ve been really blown away in the last few years dealing increasingly on the legal side of free software through FSFE’s European Legal Network, I’ve been dealing with a lot of parties who are traditionally regarded as very much from the “We don’t care” side - lawyers and corporate entities, and I found the opposite’s true. A lot of the concerns I’m mentioning to you about the future of technologies are also the concern of entities which people often brush aside as not caring. And they, of course, they’re not concerned (as some people have said in conferences), they’re not concerned because they want to be altruistic, they’re concerned because they see a vision of development in the future that understands that we can’t stand on little islands and get the best; that understands that you’ve got to invest in people in society by giving them a lot of tools and ability to get back a future. So for a lot of lawyers for instance there’s fascinating and brilliant challenges about how you make free software work across borders in individual legal systems. And they’re fascinated by this because by helping with this process they get back incredible data that helps them as well, it helps them with their practice and it helps them intellectually in their field.

31:55 For businesses there’s a knowledge that we’re looking at a situation where most development, most free software active universe is kind of restricted at the moment to about 800 to 900 million people. And that’s about to blow-up into about 4 billion people having access to computing technology in the next generation. And companies are very much aware that first of all the dream of selling 4 billion licensed copies of Windows is just not going to happen [Laughs]. But on a more serious note, companies are very much aware that something like free software is going to go out there, it’s going to be part of it, and if you invest in this, if you’re part of the support and the integration and the building of future engineers, what you’ll get back is an incredible pool of talent, an incredible pool of technology on which to build the future in ICT in general. And they are all investing energy and cash into doing this, it’s very very cool.

33:00 What’s perhaps the coolest thing is that we are in the driving seat. And this is maybe something that the… what you could call the traditional community of free software, is not fully aware of. We created free software, we showed how it works, and we continued to drive its innovation. That’s not because we’re special or more intelligent than other people, but we’ve had a lot of practice in this sphere, we know it inside out, and a lot of our vision is compatible with where a lot of people want to go. And other people investing in free software, like governments and corporations are usually aware of this, and they listen to us carefully. The community of developers, of skilled people who know free software, and the community of people who’ve supported them for years, are in a great position to continue leading the agenda on free software, to continue pushing the values that are high in free software deeply into future infrastructure and deeply into future social growth.

34:14 The concept of being able to have freedom with software is also a concept about leaving people to do the most they can out of stuff: you know - you can use, study, share and improve this software, it’s a good idea, here’s why, blah blah blah. We can continue to push this agenda because everyone’s asking us to explain what we should all do to bring free software to the next level. And people are giving a lot of support. We are seeing tremendous financial investment in free software and resource investment, and we can utilize that. We can use this if we have a strong vision about maintaining the core ethics of free software, and applying it to as many people as possible so that it will get more benefit as an end result. As I say, we have challenges, our challenges in professionalization are probably largely based on ego and culture. We must not be arrogant, we must not assume we are always correct in the methodology we use in development, in communication, in management or whatever. And we must be aware that, however you look at it, we’re all in a minority. We’re not representative for any particular mass of humanity - well, apart from the Chinese who statistically make up one third of this audience. We have to be modest, we have to keep this wonderful spirit of learning, studying and working together to improve things. I’d like to see that, I think we can do it, I’m very very in that I’ve been traveling around all across Europe and I see a huge amount of people in free software. I see people who’ve been there for a long time, re-energized by the fact that we’re mainstream and we’re seeing so much activity. And I see even more new people asking questions about… “Okay guys, this is cool, where do we go next?”.

36:38 I’m convinced that free software will continue to be brilliant, I’m convinced that the community ethics, the great community we’ve got where lots of people help each other out, share ideas, flame each other occasionally but generally do the right thing will continue, and we will be able to lead this agenda not just in free software, but ultimately lead this agenda to guide ICT and to guide, or at illustrate by example, how technology can benefit humanity to the maximum extent possible. Not benefit by being a super communist plot. Not benefit by denying commercial activity. Not benefit by taking down governments. But benefit because it rocks, and it suits everyone, and it does more for everyone and by simply opening your mind and your eyes a little, you can get that. Take it and apply it to your context. Now I’ve already out half of you to sleep, so I’m going to wind up a little bit, I’d just like to say I’m very glad to take any questions you might have, about legal matters or about the professionalization of free software or about whatever or about Free Software Foundation Europe, of course. Final note, as you might have gathered, Free Software Foundation Europe does a lot of stuff, we do a lot of stuff, with like, that many people, and that many resources, so we need help. And that’s you guys. We need people to lend a hand, we need people to do stuff, even if it’s just telling someone “Free software is a good idea” or helping us set a booth, helping us talk at conventions, help and support us, helping us by giving us your ideas. I’d love for people to spread the word about free software, and I would really really be grateful for people to spread the word about Free Software Foundation Europe, to talk about things like our fellowship - this meeting was organized by our fellowship - they are like our super-ninja volunteering people who do all the hard work. Have a chat with them, they’ve all got these t-shirts like me, have a chat with the fellows and have them think about maybe how you could participate in free software, by using it, or telling people about it, or if you’re really hardcore - joining in with us and doing stuff. This is a very cool time, a very exciting time, and a time where, probably more than any other moment in technology, people can make a difference by helping set very very big agendas that are going to have knock-on effects for literally billions of people. Thank you very much indeed, and I’m done but questions are most welcome. As far as I can guess they’re probably get like 40 hours for that. [Laughs] [Applause]