Update from jeff covey: I'll post my own thoughts on the issues soon, but first scoop asked me to clear up some confusion people are having about this editorial. No one has any intentions of turning freshmeat into winfiles.com. Windows users already have plenty of places they can go to find software. You will not be seeing announcements of new versions of Excel popping up between sendmail and gcc.
With the Free Software/Open Source movement well under way in the Linux community, we have transformed from crusaders and vigilantes to explorers and conquistadors. Where we were once aggressively defending a scorned corner of "enterprise computing,'' we now stand by our achievements and the newfound recognition (and investors and developers) they bring. At this point, it's time to think about where to go from here -- to begin to focus not inward, but outward. If free software can propel the GNU/Linux community to stardom in just 8 years, what could it do to an existing, well-established platform such as Microsoft Windows?
The Free Software Foundation, headed by Richard Stallman, supports the idea that software should be free, which entails the following:
These four freedoms define the core of the GNU GPL (General Public License), under which a good part of software for Linux is licensed today. They are also in extreme contradiction with the fundamental precepts of Microsoft's EULA and other similar software licenses, which state that the software is not the user's, but rather belongs to the company that wrote it and can be revoked at any time if the terms of the licensing are not obeyed. GPLed software is also pretty much guaranteed to include or have availability of its source code, whereas closed software isn't, and for the most part doesn't. As a result of the closed and restrictive nature of Microsoft Windows, the software developed for it is released in binary-only format, and the user is generally required to pay for it either immediately on receipt or after a trial period (for software known as shareware). With Windows's rise in popularity/market share, the shareware market also grew. In order to get people to pay for the binary-only shareware, the coders released their utilities with built-in nag boxes, missing functionality, a time period to use the software before it automatically disabled itself, or any combination of the three.
What if, however, instead of binary-only releases, nag boxes, and sometimes poorly functional, overpriced software, Windows users could also download (and even compile) their favorite utilities, games, and applications? What if they could take advantage of the free software development cycle, added to the familiarity of the Windows platform? Being a classic download junkie when I was a Windows user, I would have been ecstatic to get software that I didn't have to ignore nag-boxes to use, or to avoid that guilty feeling about downloading cracks for utilities that I used all the time on my system, or to get a full-featured, quality word processor on which to write my papers that didn't cost $100. Free software is a good thing, on any platform. In Windows, it would balance the cost of owning the operating system by providing the software that makes it useful under terms that essentially make it free. For programmers, it would provide nearly limitless resources of reference and help, in the form of other programmers and the work they've done laid out in the open. For the everyday user, it would open the door to focusing on getting work done, rather than worrying about whether they have registered and paid for the commonest utilities on their computers. For the administrators, it would mean Christmas bonuses for everyone, because the per-seat license fees that are in common practice would just disappear.
It's not an immediately viable solution, however. In order to attract Windows programmers to release their code as free software, they need a reason. After all, personal changes in attitude only happen when they're wanted. One good carrot to get the cart moving would be the existence of a good, free, visual development environment for Windows, in the same vein as the incredibly expensive Microsoft Visual C++ or Borland Turbo C/C++. If tools to do the job are totally free in the Free Software community, why shouldn't they be free to encourage the development of free software in the closed community as well? If it costs nothing but time to get the job done under Windows, the programmers will be more inclined to offer their products as tools, rather than with the intent of making money, like in the GNU/Linux community.
I'm hoping that this becomes a reality. With the DoJ in position to take Microsoft to the can, a really good way to promote the eventuality of this would be to push for a full and complete documentation of the APIs Microsoft uses, if not a total opening of the Windows and friends' source. It has the possibility of making Windows a useful tool, rather than a market-driven wallet-vacuum.
Steve Killen is attending UMBC as a student of Computer Science
and a recent Linux user of only one year, and is freshmeat's night-owl
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