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The future of free software – are we on rocky ground?

In this months column, openSUSE community manager Jos Poortvliet ponders the future of free software…

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard several people wonder about the future of free software. Once you could say free software and Linux were cool. Interesting things happened there, barriers were broken. To some extent this is still true. But much attention has been going to things like Android and iOS. Are they more cool now? And what does that mean for free software?

Let’s think about what makes people get involved with free software. It is not a trivial thing: joining a project means learning not just the tools and technology, but the way of working and the people. The way of working, how to get things done, is quite unique. That much is clear from seeing many firms stumble while trying to collaborate with a community (or trying to build one). Meritocracy is a well-known buzzword. And ‘who does the work, decides’.

What do they mean, really? Well, first of all: if you want to influence anything, you have to pull up your sleeves and put in the work. But you also have to be persistent and independent. Persistent, because you will often find bumps in the road. Technical – some issues can be hard to solve. Or social – others might not be interested in what you want or simply not have time to review patches. And independent, because you’ll have to figure most things out on your own.

So it is not easy to get involved. Then, why do it? For most people it begins with discovering Linux and free software. They discover it and read up on it because it is interesting. Exciting technology, new things: that is what brings people close. Then, at some point, they might want to try something themselves, and subsequently get involved. Many projects work hard on lowering the barrier to entry, making that second step easy. But not all realise how important it is to talk about the interesting stuff they do! Developers blogging on a planet about their work are probably one of the major things guiding someone on his/her way to contribution.

And what if other things become more sexy? Exactly. If a free software project is not seen as innovative, as ‘doing cool things’, it loses momentum. Which, due to the high turnover in free software, quickly leads to a project’s end. This might indeed be the effect of being able to write software for mobile phones which everyone can get their hands on. It is far more cool if you can do that, get your ‘app’ out there, even make a buck.

The obvious answer to the question you don’t even have to ask is then obvious: yes, to make free software grow, it needs to be more interesting. We need to talk about technology. Not talk down new initiatives, but be excited about them! This is why I applaud GNOME for the work on GNOME Shell. This is why I think what KDE is doing with Plasma Active is awesome. Such projects bring energy, excitement and, most importantly, new contributors! New people in free software!

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