Thursday, April 05, 2007

"You can't handle the kernel!"

So, one point of contention (amongst many others) that came up in the course of a conversation with Sam Ramji, who heads Microsoft's Open Source Labs, regarded the usefulness of access to the code. As Ramji put it, "You want the kernel? You can't handle the kernel!". I've heard this one before, and its fairly simple to express. Don't hype access to the code when most users (insert your favored percentage here), simply can't code, or even if they didn't wouldn't want to inspect the code, and even if they did, wouldn't be competent enough to understand it, and even less competent to fix it. Fair enough. But what substantive point about free software follows from this, and does it lessen the normative weight of the request made in the Free Software Definition? I don't think so. Note that access to the code is a precondition for two out of the four freedoms (freedom 1: to study the code and adapt it to your needs, and freedom 2: the freedom to modify the code and release improvements). Now, note that the competence argument that is being deployed here simply says "you can't use the freedom to study the code and adapt it to your needs, because you aren't competent enough to - and concomitantly, access to the code also means nothing if you aren't able to modify the code". But again, the access to the code is merely a precondition to these freedoms; nowhere is the claim being made that access to the code is sufficient for code study and improvements. Those latter activities will only follow upon inspection and modification of the code by competent programmers, and here is where the crucial point lies (pardon me if its obvious to you): with code available to me, I am free to take my ignorance elsewhere (including presumably to the original programmers) and to ask more competent folks to help me. What access to the code most importantly secures for me is the freedom to pick and choose (within some reasonable bounds) who fixes my code and when.

As I indicated in my interview at the Open Source Labs, there is a free market out there in the free software world. Its a free market for programmers, able to bid on coding jobs with their eligibility determined by their portfolios (or some other demonstration of excellence).


Blogger greebo said...

Some good points Samir. It was certainly an interesting few days, and it was great to meet you.


PS - I've moderated your comment on my blog :)

7:51 PM  

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