Superconducting software requires freedom

Apps. Chances are even your maiden aunt Phylicia has heard of them: those little programs one can install with barely a breath, that one can update enmasse with nary a glance. Such elegance. Such innovation. This sort of revolutionary tech could only come out of the shiny, well-funded proprietary labs at Cupertino, surely? Until a couple of years ago, if you wanted to install an application, didn't you need to download it and run through an annoying set of dialogue-boxes? Then, didn't you often as not find that you also had to download the library or support program without which the application would refuse to run? And what if you wished to update all your programs at a stroke? Out of luck, surely? You had to re-download each update for each application and keep your fingers crossed. Or rely on a very limited "system update" function that seemed to ignore most of the important applications on your hard drive, but became obsessed with "updating" the one or two you never used. And that was on "friendly" systems. Heaven help one in a "messy" open source environment, you might think. Hooray for well funded, proprietary innovation! The days of having to tend one's system as if it were a complicated and cussed steam locomotive are over. Huzzah to Mr Jobs et al for surveying the chaos and razing it! So the narrative goes. The narrative, however, has it backwards.

Where, then, before Mr Jobs even had it as a glint in his eye, was any simple-to-install universe of applications? Where was this panacea which seemlessly brought in all the libraries as needed, didn't interfere with previously installed programs and allowed in-step updating at the click of a mouse or the press of a key? And where, today, does such a system exist with a scope and efficiency only dreamed of in any proprietary "app store"? In the world of the Free, that's where. Such systems have been taken for granted in the Free and Open Source world for well over a decade. As ever, when we talk about "Free", we're not simply talking about gratis software, but software released under Free licences that allow one to modify, install and distribute such software liberally. Projects released under these licences include some of the most popular applications in the world: the GNU/Linux operating system, the Apache web server, the Firefox web-browser and so forth. We at Positive have focused exclusively on these technologies since our start. So we know that the Free software ecosystem has offered for well over a decade the equivalent of the "app stores" that now abound. We also know that these Free repositories offer a flexibility and efficiency that the proprietary imitations will never be allowed to have. Paradoxically, the universe with the most "chaotic" development model has produced the most coherent distributions of software. Perhaps even more paradoxically, the least centralised, least proprietary distributions of this Free software have produced the most stable, most coherent ways of installing and updating swathes of software at a stroke, and in sync.

Now this might seem strange to you. Certainly, you may know that Open Source software has produced interesting and popular projects. Undoubtedly, it has some technocratic efficiencies. But isn't the "Freedom" associated with Free Software just a happy coincidence, a patchouli-fragranced frill exciting only to hippies and hopeless romantics? If we've learned anything in our 12 years at Positive, it's that the Freedom of Open Source software is what allows it to achieve such revolutionary innovation. And that's real, profound innovation, not the simple, glitzy-surface innovation so beloved by PR agencies.

If you think about it, this shouldn't be a surprise to you: history demonstrates that free societies, however messy and unruly, usually end up more prosperous, more interesting, more vivid. Unfree societies might pretend, for short periods of time, to make the trains run well, but we all know how that ends. Why should it be any different for software? Dictatorship and oligarchy fail through the inefficiencies of their repression, in as much as anything else. A case study has existed for nearly two decades now: we at Positive use the Debian GNU/Linux distribution. This contains not just the operating system, but a whole galaxy of all the software our clients would require, each package therein maintained by independent individuals and groups. The Debian project, effectively a loose collective with strong rules, has no overarching corporation at its helm. It has no imperative other than to produce excellent, coherently packaged, stable software. Each package maintainer understands his or her duties within the project, but otherwise follows his or her self interest in packaging software that he or she finds productive to use. And then adds it to the greater stew, so to speak. This infrastructure has, perhaps surprisingly, produced a software ecosystem that is not radical and brittle, but conservative and stable. Indeed, people's frustrations with it are that it sometimes seems too conservative, too willing to err on the side of caution rather than introduce sparkly new features quickly. The loosest, most chaotic, least centralised system of packaging up the most libertine of software has produced what is generally renowned as one of the most stable, productive, coherent and easily upgraded platforms.

Certainly, proprietary funding and fiddling allows for shallow surface coherency. But for a deeply productive, intrinsically sustainable software ecosystem, only freedom reduces the irrelevant friction to the degree demanded in today's networked world. Indeed, Free software might be termed "superconducting" software: where all unrelated impediments to smooth and efficient production are removed, be they legalistic, marketing-driven, shareholder-demanded or otherwise. If you still find this a paradox, then perhaps you should reconsider Churchill's statement: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried". Similar could be said about software. In a future posting, we shall discuss more the role of Open Software and its Enemies: those who envy the unencumbered competition that such software offers, and how they repeatedly attempt to throw a spanner in its works.