Does the FSF still matter?

The opinions stated here are my own, not those of my company.

I haven’t really been following along with the controversies at the Free Software Foundation. Apparently Richard Stallman was kicked out but now is being welcomed back. That has made a number of people angry that such a prominent organization is taking back this person.

This post is not about this controversy at all, and I don’t intend to defend this decision at all. Rather, I keep wondering how much this decision matters. How much does the FSF actually matter in my life, and the software industry in general?

Free as in speech

The software industry has changed a lot over time. The foundation was created in 1985 by Stallman to promote software that was free and open source. But not just free to download, truly free without restrictions and burdensome licenses. They developed GNU, other software, and promoted their principles to others.

Frankly I wasn’t around at this time, but I know software was something you’d pay for in a store and install via floppy disks or CDs. I remember getting a bunch of CDs to upgrade the family computer to Windows 2000. That was exciting.

Free as in beer

But let’s not pretend this is the state of the art today. With a single mouse click I can download and install all the software I need. Very rarely do I pay for software, mainly games, and other times licenses are enforced via subscriptions. Subscriptions usually are used for online services to get extra features on top of whatever I get for free.

I think it’s good to pay for things. We should not be relying on the graces of volunteers, who can easily get burned out. Paying for things is simply a more sustainable approach. It even allows for open source software to become more professional.

Many of these online services are closed source. I pay money and it works, but I can’t verify what it is doing. Nevertheless, I don’t mind. I don’t need to audit the New York Times website to read an article. I really don’t care about the Times that much, as I’ve got more important things to do with my time. (Not really, but I hope you get the point.)

Does the FSF really do anything with open source software today? I do use open source software, but it’s not necessarily intentional. A lot of software is open source today. VLC is simply a good media player. Chromium-based browsers are great. Much of what we do today is founded on top of open source.

Small set of projects on

But this fact also means that the FSF is less influential. Google maintains Android and Chrome. Google has thousands of open source projects, many of which are fundamental pieces of software today like Tensorflow, Kubernetes, and Golang. (It should be said I work at Google, but my open source work is not fundamental.)

Corporations in general have adopted open source as core to their principles. Microsoft’s VSCode is a great software editor that is open source on GitHub, which they also own. The popular React is owned by Facebook. The source of Apple’s Swift language is public. Goldman Sachs has a few open source projects. Basically Googling “[Company name] Github” will show the scale of open source today.

Perhaps you may argue that the FSF created a cultural shift that has led to the prevalence of adoption today. You can say that the FSF played a valuable role in the past. But are they still relevant today?

Free as in unemployed

I’m looking on their campaigns page and I don’t see anything that matters. Of course, the page clearly hasn’t changed in a long time. One project, PlayOgg, is promoting the video HTML5 tag instead of Adobe Flash and MP3s. But Flash is gone, and the MP3 patent has expired.

Another project is trying to get rid of DRM so people can own the music and videos they buy, but everything is streamed today.

Their Free JavaScript campaign seems, based on my reading of it, to be a targeted spam attack on website owners who don’t comply with their demands.

Then there’s their effort to make GNU a thing.

Can someone tell me why the FSF is relevant today, or why Stallman is relevant today? None of their projects seem to actually relate to the state of the industry.

Regardless of their historical contributions to the culture of today, do we still need them, or will they fade away while we move on with our lives?

Perhaps mirroring Marie Kondo we should thank them for what they’ve done in the past and then let them go away.



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