Halloween is Over

Back in 2016, I sent the following letter to Linux Voice, and it was published in issue 24 as the star letter. LV came to an end (and made all of their content available as Creative Commons) when they merged with Linux Magazine. The domain still exists, but the certificate expired years ago; you should search for it if you’re interested in back numbers for the magazine and willing to take the risk on their SSL.

I think my letter is still relevant, so I’m reproducing it. Here’s what I wrote:

LV issue 023 contained, as have prior numbers, many jabs at Microsoft as the natural enemy of the Free Software believer. It’s time to accept that the world has changed.Like many among your staff and readers, I remember that period when the infamous Halloween memos were leaked, and we realised joyfully that the Free Software movement was big enough to concern the biggest software company in the world.

I remember this not because it was recent, but because I am old: this happened in 1998. Large companies like Microsoft can be slow to change, so it is right that we remain sceptical of their intentions with Free and open source software, but we need to remember that if we define our movement as Anti-Microsoft, it will live or die by their fortunes alone.

While we jab at Azure for their plush Tux swag, Apple has become one of the largest companies on the planet. It has done this with its proprietary iPhone and iOS platforms, which lock in more first-party applications than 1990s Windows did when the antitrust cases started flying. You can download alternatives from its store (and its store alone), but the terms of business on that store prohibit copyleft software. The downloads obtained by Apple’s users are restricted by DRM to particular Apple accounts.

Meanwhile, Apple co-opts open source projects like Clang and LLVM to replace successful Free Software components like GCC. How does the availability of a cuddly Tux with Microsoft branding stack up to these actions in respect to the FSF’s four freedoms?

We celebrate Google for popularising the Linux kernel through its Android mobile OS, and companies like it, including Facebook and Twitter, for their contributions to open source software. However, these companies thrive by providing proprietary services from their own server farms. None has embraced the AGPL, a licence that extends freedom to remote users of a hosted service. Is it meaningful to have the freedom to use a browser or a mobile device for any purpose, if the available purposes involve using non-free services?

So yes, Microsoft is still important, and its proprietary Windows and Office products are still huge obstacles to the freedom of computer users everywhere. On the other hand, Microsoft is no longer the headline company defining the computing landscape for many people. If the Free Software movement is the “say no to Microsoft” movement, then we will not win. Rather we will become irrelevant at the same time as our nemesis in Redmond.

You may think that Steve Jobs is an unlikely role model for someone in my position, but I will end by paraphrasing his statement on his return to Apple. We need to get out of the mindset that for the Four Freedoms to win, Microsoft has to lose.

Graham Lee

Their deputy editor responded.

I had never stopped to consider this, but what you say makes 100% sense. In practice though, for most people Microsoft is still the embodiment of proprietary software. Apple is arguably a more serious threat, but Microsoft keeps shooting itself in the foot, so it’s an easier target for us. Apple at least makes a lot of good products along with its egregious attitudes towards compatibility, planned obsolescence and forced upgrades; Microsoft seems to be successful only by abusing its market position.

Andrew Gregory

Things have changed a bit since then: Apple have made minimal efforts to permit alternative apps in certain categories; Microsoft have embraced and extended more open source technologies; various SaaS companies have piled in on the “open source but only when it works in our favour” bandwagon; Facebook renamed and is less likely to be praised now than it was in 2016.

But also things have stayed the same. As my friend and stream co-host Steven Baker put it, there’s a reason there isn’t an M in FAANG. Microsoft isn’t where the investors are interested any more, and they shouldn’t be where Free Software’s deciding battles are conducted.

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