I’ve long believed there’s a general phenomenon that underlies the free software movement. It’s “volunteer-driven, internet-powered collaboration”. I think it will ultimately touch every industry that has any digital workflow. Lets face it, that’s pretty much every industry.
The phenomenon has three key elements:
- Freedom-driven licensing. If you want the magic, you have to set it free, because it’s the possibility of doing things for themselves that motivates people to build on your work. Just exposing the “source” (whether that’s code or other content) isn’t as interesting. Microsoft will show you the source to Windows these days, but they won’t give you the freedom to remix it.
- Community. The net allows us to build a community of eyeballs and fingers based on personal interest rather than personal geography. It used to be that companies always had to do the best they could with local talent – or fly people in and deal with visa issues (that’s why Microsoft is a big proponent of greater H1-B visa allocations). Today we can find the best talent wherever it is, talent that is really personally interested in the underlying issue. And we call that talent pool “community”.
- Revision control. I’m much happier to give you read AND write access to my stuff, if I can know who changed what, when, and easily revert it. And if that revision control allows cheap branching, then there can be multiple, parallel efforts to solve a particular problem.
Consider wikipedia in this light: it clearly meets all three criteria. Its content has a license that gives you genuine freedom. There is a big community that takes a personal interest in that content (actually, multiple communities, one which I call “the librarians” wants to make sure the institution itself is healthy, the others are communities that form around specific content, given the nature of wikipedia as a repository of knowledge). And of course every change is logged with some level of identity associated with it.
The linux kernel is the same, as are most of the components we associate with a GNU OS.
But why stop at just code and knowledge? I’m a big fan of the work of the Creative Commons, because they have taken to heart the idea of generalizing the licensing problem. And conferences like the Digital Freedom Expo in South Africa this week, which TSF has agreed to sponsor, are forums for discussing the ways in which these principles can apply to other domains. I would love to be part of the exploration of this phenomenon at all levels but Ubuntu is plenty of work for one lifetime. Nevertheless I think there are real opportunities, both social and commercial, in this idea.
Incidentally, one of the reasons I picked the Bazaar revision control project for use in our infrastructure, and why I sponsor it, is because I think it will be great to have a revision control system which can be adapted to manage LOTS of different kinds of content, not just code. And the Bazaar guys abstract things to an appropriate level to be able to do just this. I’d like to be able to see a house I like, and “bzr branch” the plans to that house, then share my modifications together with my experiences of living in that house so that others can merge the ideas they think worked best. All we need is bzr embedded in an architectural drawing application
A number of folks have asked about the new “radical freedom” flavour of Ubuntu that I hinted at in the announcement of work on Gutsy Gibbon.
Part of that initiative is focused on code freedom – going further than anybody else, though, beyond the CPU down to the level of the code running in firmware on your peripherals. We want to highlight the good work of hardware vendors who have completely embraced that idea. Of course – if you REALLY want freedom then you need to run that flavour on a SUN SPARC chip in an FPGA, in which case you would have freedom to modify even the CPU itself, and everything running on it. Raising the profile of genuinely free hardware is one way I hope we can reach the point where we no longer choose to include any binary drivers in vanilla Ubuntu.
But a broader part of this “radical freedom” thrust is to explore freedom in other domains. If we ship a PDF, do we ship the source document? If we ship a JPG, do we ship the source artwork? If we ship a nicely edited video, do we ship the original, unedited recording so you can really remix it? If we ship music, do we ship the samples and the separated tracks?
Potent medicine indeed. I’m looking forward to seeing how far we can push the concept, just inside the Ubuntu project.