17 Mar 2003

When the Tide Turned

I have just returned from the annual meeting of the Board of Directors of the Free Software Foundation. This year marks the end of the first decade of my direct association with the Foundation, and with the struggle to make and keep software free. Our Board meeting is always a time for stock-taking, giving us an opportunity to assess where we are and where the movement for freedom is going in the year to come. This year that assessment seems particularly resonant for me, personally, but also especially hopeful.

The sole purpose of the Free Software Foundation is to facilitate the development and distribution of software that is guaranteed to be freely available for copying, modification, and redistribution by all its users. Since its establishment in 1985, the Foundation has pursued that goal through the GNU Project—which has produced many critical components of the enormous body of free software that we all use today—and through the development and enforcement of our free software licenses, the GPL and the LGPL, that make it possible for developers all over the world to contribute to collaborative programming projects with absolute confidence that their work will never be reduced to anyone’s proprietary control. The ten years that I have spent working on the Foundation’s legal strategy may not have been materially enriching—I have never made a penny from my representation of the Foundation—but they have been the most intellectually and morally rewarding efforts of my life. Now, as I look at the state of our movement in the beginning of 2003, I see that we stand at the inflection point—the moment where the tide turns irrevocably towards freedom.

Two trends in the ecology of the global software business lead me to that conclusion. First, the campaign to make the world’s governments aware of the social and economic advantages of public use of free software, which I launched in these pages two years ago, has gathered unstoppable force. Throughout the world, public-sector analysis of software acquisitions is showing legislators and bureaucrats the truth of our proposition: government use of free software saves public money, increases government’s ability to customize its software, creates opportunities in the domestic economy rather than exporting hard currency to a US-based monopoly, and encourages the growth of technical expertise among the young. The largest aggregate buyer of software is government, and in that market our model of production and distribution will soon be dominant.

The move towards dominance in the public sector is reinforced by another fundamental change. Microsoft—as the US courts found during the short period of time when the Clinton White House was willing to challenge the monopoly at law—has always seen the vitality of its monopoly as depending on its ability to capture the world’s unaffiliated developers. Competing operating systems faced a barrier in the market: applications developers wrote for Windows, because Windows was what there was. Without applications to run, a competing OS could not succeed in winning the allegiance of customers. Thus the conduct of which Microsoft stood accused consisted of measures designed to prevent any organization, or any piece of “middleware,” from providing developers an alternative platform for the construction of their applications, one which could either replace, or “commoditize” the monopoly’s franchise.

But now, as recent research reports have shown, applications developers are aggregately shifting their focus. At present, Microsoft Windows is still the platform of choice for roughly half the applications development going on, with GNU/Linux accounting for about 40\%. That’s news in itself: the monopoly has lost its lock on applications development. But the most recent estimates suggest that within the next twelve months the balance will tip decisively, and those proportions will reverse: the majority of development efforts will be focused on the free software platform, and Windows will have the minority share of developer attention. Once that happens, and it will—spurred in part by the enormous opportunity presented by the opening of the public sector—the monopoly itself with wither, and, even more importantly, the principles of free software production (that every user has a right to understand, to copy, to improve, to share), will become the foundation of global technical culture. So from where we stand this year—Mr.~Stallman and I and our colleagues at the Foundation and throughout the movement for freedom—we can see the turning of the tide.

We want you to be part of this moment. Last November 25th the Foundation changed its charter, for the first time in its history, to become a membership organization. Since then, an average of eight new Associate Members a day have been joining the Foundation; it was my great pleasure to meet our Associate Members in Boston before the Board Meeting. Please consider joining us at this crucial time in the history of the campaign for freedom. See http://members.fsf.org. Help show the world that Free Software Matters.

This column was first published in the UK in Linux User. It is also available in PostScript and PDF formats.

permalink | columns/lu | 2003.03.17-00:00.00

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