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On standards in free software engineering

I have previously written on the economics of software insecurity, and I quote a couple of paragraphs from that post below:

One option that is not fully explored in the book, but which I believe could be worth exploring, is this: development of critical infrastructure software could be taken away from the free market.

Now the size of even the U.S. government IT budget probably isn’t sufficient to completely fund a bunch of infrastructure developers, but there are other options. Rice correctly notes the existence of not-for-profit software development organisations (particularly the Open Source Initiative and Free Software Foundation), and discusses the benefits and drawbacks of the open source model as it applies to commercial software. He does not explore the possibility that charity development organisations could withdraw from market competition, and focus on engineering practice, quality and security without feature parity or first-to-market speed.

Today I was re-reading Free Software, Free Society by Richard Stallman, a collection of his essays and speeches on topics including copyleft, the GNU system and General Public Licence. In thinking about this book, I went wandering back to the idea of non-commercial driver for good quality software.

I am now convinced that the Free Software Foundation should be investigating, researching and promoting standards, practices and quality in software construction.

The principal immediate benefit the FSF would gain is in terms of visibility and support. Everywhere that software is used—public, private and academic sectors—organisations are interested in finding out ways to improve quality, reliability, deliverability: in other words, the success of their software. An entity that could offer to evaluate and report on whether particular techniques are feasible and offer improvement—in return for funding and staffing the production of their sought-after free software—would be welcomed and would be put to good use.

The FSF is well-placed to achieve this goal, because all of its output is copyleft. A large problem with analysing the success or otherwise of development practices is that the outputs are proprietary: not just the code, but the project documentation, meeting minutes and so forth. With an FSF project everything is (or should be) freely available so inspecting how a project was run, what the developers did and—crucially—whether users are happy with the end result is much easier. Conclusions should be reproducible because everybody can see everything that went on.

Notice that in this scheme, relationships between the FSF and other (proprietary, open source, whatever) organisations are mutually beneficial, not antagonistic as is often either actually the case or just assumed. The benefits seen by external parties are the improvements in process and technique; benefits that all developers can make use of. The discussion moves away from free vs. fettered, and becomes making the field of software engineering better for everyone.

Incidentally, such a focus would also put free software at the forefront of discussions on software quality and deliverability. This would be something of a coup for free software, which is often associated with chaotic management, lack of road maps, and paucity of documentation and support. OK, the FSF wants people to consider freedom as a value in itself, but there’s nothing wrong with ensuring that free software is the best software too, surely?