LIFE HACKS INSPIRED LIVING No free lunches for me CHARLES ASSISI
My once-socialist-now-capitalist heart skipped a beat the other day. The catalyst was
a news report. Apparently, the V S Achutanandan-led communist government in Kerala has
decided to put its might behind the free software movement. Achutanandan, it seems,
dislikes monopolies. And free software sounds a hopelessly romantic idea which his
government is in love with.
What it means is this: children in the 12,500 high schools across the state will be
weaned off proprietory software of the kind Microsoft builds. Long-time friends will
impale me for saying this. It is a bad idea.
As far as ideas go, free software is too damn nice an idea. And nice guys finish last.
For that one reason alone, my guess is free software will always remain on the fringes of
Having said that, I must confess that until a few years ago, I swore by free software
and all that it stood for. My interest was stoked after I first heard Richard Stallman
talk at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). His contention was a simple
one. If something goes wrong with your car, you take it to a mechanic. He opens the hood,
peers under it, figures out whats wrong with it and doesnt waste much time fixing the
car. With software, things dont work that way. If something goes wrong with an
application, software companies dont let you look at the lines of code that have gone
into building it. This means you cant figure out where the bugs are to re-write the code.
So you just wait until the company issues a fix.
Would you buy a car if you couldnt open the hood? Stallman thundered. Nooooo, I
screamed with the rest of the crowd. Then would you buy software you cant rewrite? he
thundered again. No friggin way, the crowd screamed again. If Ive paid for software,
I ought to have the freedom to fix it if its broke. That, Stallman said, was free
software. Free as in freedom, not free beer, he said and pumped his fists into the air.
I was sold.
Over the years, Ive mellowed down. I dont care much today whether I can fix
software. I dont fix my car when its broke. In any case, there is a fundamental
difference between fixing a car and fixing software. An analogy I can think of is what I
do for a living. While writing, what emerges is the outcome of ideas that have occurred to
me. When somebody tinkers with it, two things happen. Firstly, while the kernel may be
mine, what finally emerges may not necessarily be mine. In fact, it may turn out to be a
highly evolved version of what I had originally thought up. The collective is always
better than the individual.
But by thinking something up and offering it to the collective to improve upon, I
stand to lose my livelihood. In fact, for somebody as selfish as I am, it leaves me with
no incentive to write. On the contrary, Id think up something else to earn a living. Im
willing to bet most people think the way I do.
Its much the same thing with software. Take away their incentive to create it and the
world will have fewer pieces of software to work with. Cars are a different proposition. I
wouldnt mind too much if a few thousand mechanics tinkered with what I built. They
wouldnt have the muscle to build cars in the first place. And I wouldnt want to waste
time fixing whats broke. Maybe, Im not a nice guy. I dont care.
"Nagarjuna G." <nagarjun(a)gnowledge.org> wrote: ---------- Forwarded
From: Nagarjuna G.
Date: Sep 1, 2006 3:49 PM
Subject: Response to Charles Assisi's Article
This is in response to the article "No Free Lunches for Me" written by
Charles Assisi, Times of India, 31th August 2006. The author is
either 'blind' or irresponsible or both. If this article were written
by a newbie journalist, I would not have reacted this way, but Charles
Assisi is a known name, also because he interwiewed me once or twice.
He may be a popular technical writer, he may claim that he was once a
socialist now a capitalist, or he was once convinced about free
software but not now anymore etc. This style of writing informs some
readers that the author has experienced both worlds and then writing
with experience. What this journalist lacks, now I realize after
reading the article, is a sense of responsible journalism.
He is essentially reacting to the decision Kerala Govt is going for
free software in place of proprietary software. The only reason that
he says free software should not be used is because it is backed by a
very good ethical principle of sharing and "nice guys finish last". So
this irresponsible journalist is asking people to be bad guys and
finish first. If this wasn't the message, what was it?
Let me demonstrate how blind this journalist is. First: he assumes
that nice guys don't finish. The already successful operating system,
the only competitor for the proprietary software today, is the
GNU/Linux operating system with a large number of applications for
almost every purpose, including computing in Indian languages. If
this operating system is not complete, how is this system being used
by millions all over the world. Which concept of computing does this
operating system does not implement, except possibly viruses, that the
system be declared unfinished? The system is not only finished,
several millions all over the world use it exclusively. That is not
to say that the system is not evolving, it is evolving at a pace that
people already began to call it a revolution.
The second point of the argument made by the author is that it does
not feed programmers, or why would software programmers work for free
software without incentive. Again, this is entirely baseless. Save
one major company, which other major company does not use or depend
their business on free software? If there is no money why did RedHat,
Novell, IBM, Sun Microsystems etc. ventured to business by supporting
free software. Even the exceptional major company, saved above, is
known to use whatever is borrowable from the free software world.
True, free software business doesn't happen by selling what is
essentially and eminently shareable entity called code. But, people
who make money in free software make money by providing various
services: making a free software accessible in the form of
distributions, helping in installation, customization, maintenance,
documentation, training and so on. In the case of propreitary
software both the things happen, namely selling what is not sellable,
as well as servicing. In free software only one of them is possible.
Therefore it is true that one cannot make as much money as one would
make with propreitary software. The reason why free software
community chose to give up on the additonal profit is due to ethical
committment, to live a moral life. A lot of service business in
propreitary software also happens by providing service to fix
vulnarabilities, such as software viruses, which were fixed by free
software by choosing a secure multi-user file system. It is an open
question: Why wouldn't a proprietary company doesn't fix a fixable
It is true that several hackers (not crackers) who contributed to free
software were hobbyists and worked out of their free time and without
much in expectation. That is because they were intervening in a
system that is ridden with evil practices. They are sacrifycing their
time to give the world and its people freedom, a better and healthy
place to live in future. No freedom movement will win without
sacrifice. This jounralist is pleading the Govt and people not to go
for free software because good things never win. What a hopeless
He writes: "Take away their incentive to create it and the world will
have fewer peices of software to work with." The author assumes that
their incentives were taken away, which is a baseless. If you ask the
users of proprietary software, who created the application they are
using, they will be mum. You ask the same question to the users of
free software, they will tell who the original contributors are. Even
if they are ignorant, may be they didn't pay attention to it, they can
find out by visiting their favourite search engine and will answer in
a jiffy. In the case of proprietary software, even if you give them
the library and also the Internet, it is very difficult to find out
who contributed what. Acknowledgement and maintaining authorship is
the real incentive any author, including journalists, would ask for.
How many journalists will find their job worthwhile if they were to
write articles without their names printed along with the articles.
Reporters on the street do not get enough attention, true. But they
continue to report with the assumption that one day when they become a
known writer they can imprint their name with each article they write.
This is the incentive that an author always asked for, which makes
each of the authors immortal, for they wish to make their mark in the
history. Proprietary software companies don't create any history by
masking the code as well as the contributions of millions of
programmers who work for them. This is the culture that free software
movement is trying to correct in the society, among others.
As scientists, we may never publish a paper in a journal if the
publisher asks us to be anonymous, or intends ot use another person or
company's name instead. The incentive we get is citation, readership,
and name, apart from the salary that we draw for our service.
Thisculture already exists in the traditional knowledge business, free
software business follows and embellishes this tradition. Thus, the
author's view that there exists no business model for free software is
not true. What is true is, free software does not produce
billionaires in half a generation time.
Proprietary software was created by converting knoweldge into a
commodity. This happened by encoding electronic documents in a format
that only their systems can decode. By asking people to pay for
decoding these documents for life is unethical lockin policy. This
is, by ethical standpoint, an illegal activity, for knowledge doesn't
continue transmission by privately locked code. Free software
momevent is asking the policy makers, Government bodies all over the
world, to correct this mistake too, and that is why we demand for all
electronic documents to be in open standards.
An unrepairable technology is evil. Proprietary software is
unrepairable since the source code is not made public. No 'garages'
are possible in this model. But we need garages for software too,
since no software can be perfect. Free software is repairable just
any system of ideas. Unless people at large participate knowledge
does not evolve.
If Kerala Govt. took the decision to change their schools to free
software, that is a very wise decisiion. We wish that all other
governements all over the world follow them to create a better digital
I would request the editor to publish this response to correct the
misunderstanding the article by Charles Assisi would create about free
Dr. Nagarjuna G.
Scientist, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Eduation, TIFR, Mumbai
Chairman, Free Software Foundation of India, http://www.gnu.org.in/
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