Note: This is a follow up to my blog entry earlier in the week titled "founding philosophers". If you have not read that one yet, please do so before continuing here.
Pondering the "big questions" is all well and good, but it matters little if words are the only results. To have an effect, the ideas need to be translated into action and Free software did that in a big way. While GNU Hurd may not have gotten very far, the Linux kernel certainly did as did thousands of other Free software projects big and small.
These efforts were by and large led by pragmatic individuals who were drawn to the idea(ls) of Free software but who had a focus on producing working technology. Thanks to their committed efforts, Free software has become a global force both in terms of technology and the size of the industry based around these efforts. Whether we look at Apple's successful rejuvenation by taking Free software and crafting OS X from it, Google with both its search empire and Android mobile OS, IBM's backing of Linux or Red Hat's successful climb to 1 billion in annual revenue, it is undeniable that Free software's ideals have translated quite clearly into tangible results.
In the process of achieving world domination, the philosophizing was largely factored out of the community. I mentioned a few individuals in the "founding philosophers" entry, and I think it is interesting to examine what happened with them.
Admittedly, it is extremely difficult to remain relevant in a growing and shifting community for an extended period of time. There are means, however, such as refreshing one's image and message over time. In contrast to Madonna's ability to remake herself to remain relevant, Richard Stallman continued his largely monotone quest for software freedom. He spent much time and energy on trying to get "GNU" tacked on to "Linux" or insisting people say "free" rather than "open source". The increasingly pragmatic Free software world grew increasingly less interested in these sorts of discussions and as a result the influence of the FSF waned in many areas. Richard is still widely admired, often quoted and certainly relevant, but he isn't breaking new ground in quite the same fashion he did in the 20th century. During this same period of time, the rather more pragmatic and action focused FSFE has risen in importance and respect.
As for Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens, they both fell to the same arrows: a lack of new ideas combined with increasing partisanship. The latter issue is particularly interesting because it highlights a significantly negative shift that the pragmatism may have inadvertently brought with it.
For instance, in 2004 Eric proclaimed on a popular (at the time) Free software podcast that KDE would be dead as a project by the same time the next year. I also recall the day that Bruce sent an email saying that not only would his new brain child User Linux not include KDE or PostgreSQL by default but that he would not abide anyone else working on support for them on top of User Linux. The message was clear: not all Free software efforts were welcome.
Personally, this ran completely counter to my expectations, namely: we're all doing this for the betterment of each other (globally) as well as to have fun, build wonderful communities (which is a very human desire) and make great technology. To that end, no Free software is bad or should be called out for extermination, even in the case that we personally don't see much value in them. There is a fine difference between "I'm not interested in..." and "I think it should die"; between "I want this to succeed..." and "Success means the failure of alternatives..". This change in attitude grew alongside the wonderful achievements of the Free software pragmatists. Were the two processes related?
During this period, another interesting attribute began to develop: Free software communities started measuring success based on traditional market metrics: total cost of ownership, market share, etc. There is nothing inherently wrong with such metrics and they can make for great goals to reach for, particularly as they influence the adoption of Free software. However, are they really the measure of success?
By way of example: If we follow the mainstream tech media, desktop Linux's small global market share does indeed mean it has "failed". Some who do or have in the past worked on Free software desktop components have bought into this thinking. Stepping back for a moment, though, I have to ask myself: "Is a dominant share of the global desktop market the only or primary reason I'm doing this? Or would that simply be a great result, a goal to strive for?" It all seems a bit like telling a self-made millionaire who got there by doing what they love that they have failed because they aren't a billionaire. These are perhaps more philosophical that pragmatic ponderings, however, and Free software has increasingly become less philosophical.
The advances of Free software under the hands of the pragmatists have been fantastic and in many cases gone beyond all possible expectations of greatness. However, the partisanship that paralleled this has resulted in Free software competing against itself in various, and I would suggest unhealthy, ways. It even undermined the founding philosophers who lost themselves to naming struggles ("It's GNU/Linux..") or rooting against Free software efforts they personally didn't like. It also distorted our own sense of success and failure where only being #1 globally was good enough. Of course we must ask ourselves: does it matter that these shifts have taken place?
As Free software has evolved, several "big questions" have arisen as can be seen from the various outbursts of contention around contributor agreements ("CLA"s). Many such issues remain precariously open and could use with some critical thinking, popular essay writing and public discourse. At the same time, we are left without many philosophers amongst the "A-list" Free software personalities. Today, they are much more likely to be cut of the pragmatist cloth, and this is a polar shift from where we left off in "founding philosophers".
(.. and no, I'm not yet done with this blog entry series. You probably now understand why I've broken it up into a series. ;)