Strategy and serendipity

Paul Boddie paul at
Wed May 8 13:55:55 UTC 2019

On Wednesday 8. May 2019 11.41.56 Carsten Agger wrote:
> On 5/8/19 9:12 AM, Bernhard E. Reiter wrote:
> > The GNU project was started in different times. To me it has reached its
> > goals and should have been called concluded for good. (See comments to my
> > article [1]).
> It's my understanding that GNU considers itself to be a project for the
> creation and maintenance of a free operating system called GNU. As such,
> it is upstream to a lot of related GNU/Linux distributions, such as
> Debian, Fedora, etc.
> And, again as such, it's hardly ended. There's still a need for someone
> to take ownership over and maintain the huge number of packages that
> constitute the GNU part of GNU/Linux. Also, I believe the struggle to
> have a free operating system is an ongoing one, as there's also forces
> who want to undermine the access to a free OS (giving us, e.g., all the
> proprietary Android flavors).

As I noted in another message just now, the virtues of persistence and 
vigilance are required in this area as in many others. Noting that the Linux 
kernel is out there and that there are a bunch of GNU packages which can work 
with it doesn't mean that the job is done and everyone can retire happy and/or 
wealthy. (Well, the top-tier of Linux kernel development could, I guess.)

Previously, I may have described an enquiry I made some time ago to the Hurd-
on-L4 mailing list. Being generally interested in different operating system 
architectures, I had hoped to be engaged in enthusiastic discussion by a group 
of people who hadn't had much to discuss for some time. Instead, someone felt 
that they had to go and ask Richard Stallman whether people should be working 
on the Hurd or not, to which the reply was that GNU/Linux already exists and 
that there are other things that the FSF evidently cannot persuade people to 
work on.

The consequence of this is not that those "other things" get all the 
attention. Although I like to think that I can turn my attention to many 
different things, enthusiasm and motivation play a role. So, for the example 
given of CAD software, faced with the choice of continuing to look at 
operating system technologies or "digging deep" to tackle writing "a 
replacement" for some existing CAD solution, with no funding available for 
either, I would rather keep doing what I personally want to be doing.

(If I were someone involved with the FSF, I would find it depressing that the 
FSF or GNU, or whoever, isn't interested in pursuing new technological 
avenues. For a long time, proprietary software apologists claimed that Free 
Software was merely copying existing products, never mind that *people* are 
responsible for creating these things, and they can make whichever licensing 
choice they like. But what such a lack of interest means is that other kinds 
of organisations are exploring new areas and opportunities, leaving the Free 
Software realm to belatedly react to such exploration afterwards.)

And the point about "the struggle" is absolutely correct. Not only are there 
forces at work who wish to dilute GNU/Linux with proprietary software, but the 
viability of the Linux kernel ecosystem should be reviewed with continual 
vigilance. Considerable effort is needed to "upstream" code so that the 
development process may hopefully carry it along before its inevitable 
ejection. The social dynamics involved can be rather unpleasant, as anyone who 
has scratched the surface of kernel development can attest. And end-users 
still seem to end up with obsolete software on abandoned hardware.

(One might argue that the kernel development project only survives thanks to 
the sheer volume of manual effort involved and some rather fortuitous 
technological circumstances. It somehow survives despite contradicting all 
those things that are taught about software engineering, and yet it has the 
arrogance to believe that its good fortune disproves those things.)

There is absolutely a need for a diversity of solutions and directions. And if 
we needed another example where calling a victory and failing to remain 
vigilant has punished Free Software, we could very well consider various 
groupware projects with which Bernhard has had familiarity in the past. Where 
we once saw Free Software being deployed widely and with fanfare, within a 
decade we then had people struggling to justify the procurement of Free 
Software solutions, even those descended in some way from the ones that 
supposedly "solved" the original problems.


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