When Free Software is Not Free

The Free Software movement was created with the assumption that software should be freely modified by its users. The main premise being that having the rights of using a program also means the right of modifying it when necessary.

Free software exists today in different forms, and it is widely used, however in many situations it hasn’t provide what it proposed.

Consider the case of the Linux Kernel used on Android Phones. You are free to download and study it if you have a suitable Internet connection. After all, the software is in many ways the same used in any other Linux machine.

However, if you really plan to use this software to do any useful improvement you are out of luck. First of all, changing the operating system in one of these devices will break all warranties. I wouldn’t even be surprised if it make the mobile phone stop working.

You only hope of getting your modifications into the OS is making changes in a simulated environment and then submit a patch to Android developers. Then, if they are interested in your patch you might have a chance of seeing it in the next version of the Android OS, when released by your vendor.

The same thing would happen if you used the iPhone, which has a BSD-based kernel.

Free For Whom?
As you see, the fact that the software is free didn’t take away the right of companies to dictate what they want you to use. And this is the key for this new generation of open source deployments.

What the technology companies learned is that it doesn’t matter that anyone has the right the change the software. What really matter is that the companies still have the right to say what you can run or not — and their problems are solved.

Using this tactic, technology companies have the best of both worlds: they are using free software, which makes it seem like they care about freedom. This also makes it possible for them to use billions of lines of free, tested code. On the other hand, they don’t need to give away control of the resulting system, and any changes need to be approved by them.

Free software is a fantastic bargain: all of the excellent free code can be combined into powerful frameworks for very little price. In fact, a big company just need to hire some of the same developers that created the free software project.

At the same time, companies such as Google and Apple can put themselves into direct competition with, for example, Microsoft, which by their own decisions decided to create software from scratch.

Ultimately, the power of open source is demonstrated by the fact that it can be used successfully in such a scenario.

If this is what their creators intended, it is another story. I am pretty sure, however, that this was not the future intended by the Free Software Foundation, for example.

But only time will tell if free software will really mean freedom for developers, or free profits for big companies.

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About the Author

Carlos Oliveira holds a PhD in Systems Engineering and Optimization from University of Florida. He works as a software engineer, with more than 10 years of experience in developing high performance, commercial and scientific applications in C++, Java, and Objective-C. His most Recent Book is Practical C++ Financial Programming.

4 Responses to “When Free Software is Not Free”

  1. Free software means freedom for the user, primarily.

    Nonfree software leaves the user at the mercy of the developer, and unable to share with their community.

    By Matt Lee on Aug 3, 2010

  2. I think with free software we see a philosophical divide between those who believe in positive rights vs. those who believe in negative rights. Those focused on negative rights are simply happy that the government allows us to jailbreak our phones; those focused on positive rights think we should be able to do so and the smartphone companies foot the bill.

    I am not entitled to have my software changes incorporated into any software package used by a company any more than I am entitled to have my column published in the New York Times. However, if I like, I can still write my own software for my own phone (taking the corresponding risks), or I can even start my own company.

    You talk about corporations making money off open source software as if it is a bad thing. But by them doing so, yes profit margins are still high, but the overall cost to the user is lower since they spend less on development and there are more competitors out there. If Google and Apple didn’t get into the game with their unix/linux-based kernel, every smart phone would be Windows mobile, and I don’t think anyone would be happy with that. Your argument is self-defeating because you seem annoyed that companies using “free” software go against Windows, in which there is nothing “free” about it.

    By Chance on Aug 9, 2010

  3. If this is what their creators intended, it is another story. I am pretty sure, however, that this was not the future intended by the Free Software Foundation, for example.

    This is a valid point, but this is usually the case with “freedom”, it always seems to be too open for many people’s tastes. It sounds very reminiscent of people’s complains about the First and Second Amendments. Not that it necessarily makes that point wrong; just an interesting parallel that I see.

    By Chance on Aug 9, 2010

  4. My problem is not with corporations make money, that is natural. The issue is that we have each day less control over this free software. I cannot change much of it, when installed into proprietary devices such as the Kindle or the iPhone. Free software in this case is just helping that type of company to prosper.

    By coliveira on Aug 11, 2010

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