30 Years of GNU and Software Freedom Day

It’s 30 years of GNU — 30 years of freedom and 30 years of owning one’s computers. I can’t imagine a life where I don’t have control over the software I run. I’m going to be eternally thankful to RMS and Linus for starting the mass movements that have not only transformed an entire industry, but also shaped my thinking and my career.

A few Red Hatters (including yours truly) have shared stories of their first brush with free software here — give it a read, it’s a good trip down the memory lane, as well as some inspiring anecdotes from people who have been involved with free software for a really long time.

Here’s wishing everyone a liberating Software Freedom Day (Sep 19th), and many more years of freedom to everyone!

We open if we die

I wrote a few comments about introducing “guarantees” in software — how do you assure your customers that they won’t be left in the lurch if you go down. It generated a healthy discussion and that gave me an opportunity to fine-tune the definition of “insurance” in software. Openness is such an advantage to foster great discussions and free dialogue.

So reading this piece of news this morning via phoronix about a company called pogoplug has me really excited. I’d feel vindicated if they could increase their customer base by that announcement. I hope they don’t go down; but I’d also like to see them go open regardless of their financial health; if an idea is out in the market, there’ll be people copying it and implementing it in different ways anyway. If, instead, they open up their code right away, they can engage a much wider community in enhancing their software and prevent variants from springing up which might even offer competing features.

The Art of Convincing and the Importance of Freedom

A kid walks to her father. She wants a chocolate. She knows the father can’t refuse, but mom has tighter control over whether she can really have it. The kid is smart. She tells her dad “mom says I can have it if you agree”. The father says “OK”. Then she goes to mom and says “dad thinks I can have chocolate. Give me one.”

What’s smart about this is that the kid knows the opposition well. Microsoft seems to know it as well. OOXML, the format they’re proposing to be an ISO format for storing documents, needs support from the industry and countries for it to be a standard. Nothing’s wrong with that. But the problem is they don’t want to reveal all the specifications of storing files in their format. Which basically means they continue to have a monopoly and tight control over your documents.

Let’s say you’ve bought MS Word or MS Office in 1998 and are happy with it. It still works. All your documents are stored on your hard disk. Now you decide to upgrade your computer and with it, all your software. You purchase the newest version of MS Office. You open your old document. It doesn’t open. You try another one. Same result. You think something’s gone wrong with your backup. You blame the computer vendor who gave you the new machine and promised to restore your old data. The problem, however, is not caused by the vendor. It’s caused by Microsoft. Over the years, they decided to change the file formats and not support the documents which were created by older versions of their software. So now you’re left with unusable copies of your documents because there is no support available for you to import the data to the new format.

Why can this happen? Because Microsoft didn’t want to share the details on how they store your information with others. We saw why this is bad. But if they were to share the details, won’t your documents be insecure? Won’t others be able to see what you have? Well, no. As long as there are people who have the same software that you have, they’ll be able to open your documents.

Also consider this: you don’t want to purchase the expensive software from Microsoft to store your documents. You use free software available (free as in freedom, not price) to store your documents. But someone sends you a document in a proprietary format. How do you access the information present in it? Since Microsoft doesn’t share details as to how it stores information, you won’t be able to access it. You don’t want to buy a few thousands Rupees worth of software only because some other people use it.

So isn’t Microsoft’s proposal to make its file format a positive step? In a way, yes. Because it proves that opening up of that information does not in itself constitute insecurity. If you want your documents to be safe, password-protect them and take precautions to not expose them to suspicious people.

But that’s it. It’s not a positive step for the simple reason that they don’t want to publish the entire file format. What they’re proposing is a mini-skirt. Show a little, hide a lot.

India just voted against making OOXML an ISO standard. This is a very positive move. We’re not encouraging bad practices and we want interoperable standards. The rival format, ODF (Open Document Format), already has two office suites supporting it and using as the native file format (OpenOffice.Org and KOffice). Everything is open and interoperability is guaranteed. No one has to buy anything from anyone to open a file stored in this format. Just download a copy of either of the office suites and you’re ready to go.

Thanks to the efforts of everyone involved in rejecting the OOXML standard.