Google Analytics

fredag 5 november 2010

Introduction to FLOSS, for the media technology student, from a technical guy

During the lecture today, I noticed how nobody seemed to recognize Richard Stallman among the three bearded gurus on that one slide to identify them. I knew, of course; it was even the only one I could name without mistake, but I wanted to assess just how much the class as a whole knew about Free software. Maybe others did as I thought and we ended up with nobody answering, but nonetheless, I have decided to put up a little post on this blog to give a few pointers to those of you who'd like to learn a bit more about FLOSS.

Oh, and by the way, FLOSS stands for Free, Libre, and Open-Source Software. It is the neutral term that ought to be used to refer to the whole movement so as not to vex anybody, though, in all honesty, it is probably not that popular except among hardcore FLOSS advocates and fans who can't live without being Right-On-The-Internet(tm).

So, you are a media management student or otherwise a non-computer scientist; but you're not a random user either, you want to know more about FLOSS culture? Where do you start?

Well, first, a disclaimer: I'm a technical person, and a dormant FLOSS actor (that is, I've had no significant contribution to whatever project), so my view, beside being my own and not that of any larger greater entity I might ever belong to, is biased towards a technical perspective. But it may actually a good thing, for a serious introduction to the topic, because, as you will come to understand if you stay around long enough, if there is one thing that unites people in FLOSS communities, it is the technique. There is a wide variety of views among members of these circles, either users or contributors: from the paid pragmatic programmers who work on open-source for a living, to the political activist such as Stallman; from the money-conscious manager who wants to save on licenses he won't have to buy to the Apple-level 15-year-old fanboy who's got his first penguin tatoo without his parents' approval. In the end, the only thing that everybody agrees upon is that the FLOSS development model brings them some sort of benefit, be it cost-cutting or (perceived) self-elevation.

It was a long disclaimer, but it is as far as I go, with my own interpretation. The rest of this post will give you a few names and pointers to things and people you may want to check out to enrich your FLOSS culture in whatever way you may see fit.

You may want to visit Wikipedia for complete definitions of the terms FLOSS, Free software and Open source. But beware, Wikipedia is very well-informed on the subject, so you may just end up not knowing where to look at for basic information. In essence, it all deals with software for which the source code is available to a wider audience.

So, what kind of software do you find under that denomination? Well, here's just a few well-known projects (read: FLOSS organizations that "produce" software, in a broad sense) you may or may not have heard of. You can easily search any of them on Google or Wikipedia.

  • the GNU project;

  • Linux;

  • Mozilla (mainly known for Firefox and Thunderbird);

  • Apache software (including the Apache web server);

  • the various BSDs (FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, etc.);

  • (OK, this is getting obscure...);

  • Ubuntu (and now it's getting ridiculous, so I'll stop);

  • etc.

Beside software, you may be more interested in the people. Well, this is where my technical background kicks in: I am only aware of those who write or have written some code at some point in their life. People such as Eben Moglen, though a major Free software advocate, I've hardly ever read. Here again, a list of a few you may want to look up:

  • Richard Stallman, head of the GNU project, who wrote the GNU manifesto, a historical view of Free software you may want to check out (if you can read Benkler, it'll be fine...);

  • Eric Raymond, famous for the Jargon file, a hacker culture dictionary, and The Cathedral and the Bazaar, an essay on the open source development model that, again, you may want to read (of particular interest to this course, in my humble opinion, is the 11th chapter, entitled The Social Context of Open-Source Software);

  • Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux;

  • and finally, included for trolling purposes, Theo de Raadt, another cult leader, a.k.a. authoritative figure of the OpenBSD project.

That's about it! Enjoy your ride in that stranger world, if you are new! (And then you might want to reread this post to check the jokes you didn't get. :p) Feel free to criticize, comment or otherwise correct me if you're actually an old hacker lying in the shadows in wait of my making a mistake. ;)

4 kommentarer:

  1. I taught a ph.d. course on "Cultures of programming: Hackers, crackers and open source" something like 6 or 7 years ago. It was mainly attended by ex-hacker ph.d. students at KTH (one of the wrote the great term paper "Hacker behind the Iron curtain").

    Here are the different themes the course treated:

    1. True hackers
    2. Hacker culture
    3. Hacker identity and world view
    4. Art, hobbies and hacker (AI) philosophy
    5. Hackers and (software) engineers
    6. Crackers and the computer underground: Then
    7. Crackers and the computer underground: Now
    8. Open source: Sources
    9. Open source: Analyses
    10. Open source: Motivation and money

  2. You can get in touch if you want a copy of the looong literature list for that course.

  3. Interesting, so there are courses like that! I wouldn't have thought so.

    To be honest, I am among these open source people who think that there's too much politics going on and I prefer to focus on the code. That is not to say that I do not have an opinion on these matters, merely that I prefer to stay discreet.

    Hence, my TODO list would certainly welcome some litterature on the subject, but given its already significant size I cannot alas guarantee that I will be able to find time for it in the near future. :)

    As you probably know better than I do, time is the one most precious resource to any open source developer, after all!