Revisiting Ethos

When I first heard about Free Software in 1998 I was mesmerized by it’s potential. Sure, back then the software was complex and some would argue ugly, but underneath the rough edges was a thing of beauty — the opportunity for people to come together to make new things, and anyone with the inclination and energy could take part. Back then our community was small and intimate. Most people seemed to know each other, and there was a tremendous sense of family within Free Software.

Things are quite different today: while the ethos has remained unchanged, Free Software and Open Source are popular concepts and terms, we have many comprehensive Free Software platforms, and our small community has now become a huge, sprawling, global community that has diversified; inspiring everyone to bring their gifts and their talents to the community.

So, why am I talking about this? I think these days it is easy for us to purely focus on the ones and zeros, the bugs and patches, the squabbles, the emails, and the challenges that face Free Software. While these things are part and parcel of our community, I worry sometimes that we forget the very human reasons why many of us got involved.

I was reminded of this last week. I was having a pretty shitty day, I had spent most of the day on the phone, I had oodles of email and TODO items to get though, and I was just feeling a bit tired and worn out. As my day came to end I saw a tweet show up on my desktop from someone who had just used Linux for the first time and was expressing how excited they were at exploring their new system. When I read it it took me right back to 1998 when I felt exactly the same way.

My take away from that day was that I think it is healthy for us to remind each other why we got involved in Free Software and Open Source, and I wanted to ask you all what attracted you, and what still attracts you to our community. To be frank — I don’t care which community you are in, whether it is Ubuntu, Red Hat, Solaris, GNOME, KDE, X, OpenStreetMap, whatever — I am more interested in the ethos which transcends the borders if these different communities.

So, why are you passionate about Free Software and Open Source?

  • Jack

    My first big adventure in open source was using trixbox. I was working for a telecoms company at the time. Was sent on a VOIP course, where the instructor was using Asterisk@home, to demo. I can remember being astounded, that this fully functioning pbx was free!! It was better than a lot of so called professional solutions out there. Just sort of spiraled from there really. Since then, I’ve dabbled with linux, mainly Ubuntu, though this dabbling has been beneficial in my day job. What I really like about it is that, if you don’t like how something is working, you can change it. You can, to a certain extent, get involved, and make a difference. You can have a say.

  • Andrew M

    I like it because it puts the power back in the hands of the users. I get the choice to use something or not. I get the choice when to upgrade and when to stick with what I have. More than anything I get the feedom to use the computer the way I want to use it.

    If i find a problem with the software or it doesn’t work how I want it to, it’s my responsibility to either fix it or engage the developers in a manner such that it’s likely to be fixed (sometimes it means paying them ). I am in complete control and absolutely no one can take what I already have away from me. I can rely on it being there and being available and it most cases being flexible.

  • Zhuul

    i was attracted to slackware WAY back.. i had heard that i could have an OS that wasn’t detailed in a bucket by microsoft.. i’ve had an on again off again relationship with various distro’s and since i’m a game player i always had to keep a windows partition.. fast forward 15 years.. i’m still dual booting for games but use ubuntu for my daily tasks and i’m trying to implement it more and more into the work i do.. the open capability is what has kept my attraction and i think one day that concept will dominate.. i don’t see another end at all.. will it be in the next 5 yrs.. probably not.. but 10-15.. i think there will be a shift.. as the sanctions on life and how we do business each day ramp up companies are looking for open solutions and i feel this is the best course for a paradigm shift.. viva la revolution! 😛 sorry always wanted to use that.. hehe


  • Patrick Niedzielski

    Thanks for this, Jono. I’m having a bad day, too. Major refactoring of Unicode stuff in my video game. (Unicode makes absolutely no sense to me ^_^”)

    What follows is my experience, which may not be the same as others. Undeniably, though, this is what got me into Free Software.

    Free Software for me has always been about two things: the ability to tinker with things (until they break ^_^”) and the community. These two things, and the wonderful people behind them, have given me the skills and confidence to begin work on my own Free Software project, a lighthearted video game. (If you want to learn about it, it’s here: . I would love to hear from you all!)

    I got introduced to programming on Windows, and for a while, I was a Windows programmer through and through. Learned C++ on Visual Studios 6 (which caused lots of bugs, and perhaps influenced my style to work around these…) But the more I learned, and interacted with the community, I found that it was not as tight-knit as I wanted. It seemed to be many individual developers all working on their own thing. Not many people wanted to just strike up a conversation. Furthermore, I was being told to drop C++, and pick up something more “useful”, like C# or Visual Basic (God-awful language if you ask me).

    Also, very little was available for me to learn from once I got past the basics. Microsoft and some others provided the libraries, and after that…you were basically on your own. Sure, on the internet, there are many examples for small things, but the high level views escaped me.

    I started running GNU/Linux out of curiosity, mainly. I installed an old version of Mandrake Linux on an even older laptop. Luckily, it came with all the source code. Immediately, I was looking at all the cool code for GTK, learning how it worked, building applications above it, compiling it on my own, making modifications…it was great.

    And I ran into problems. I had upgraded to CentOS, a community-driven distribution. I didn’t even have to ask the questions, because they were all there with more than enough information about them! As I dug deeper, I found things new, that I couldn’t find elsewhere. The community was a big help then.

    Now, I run Debian for the same reason. I love interacting with other developers and users, and I have found it to be a very friendly setting. Certainly, I love talking to others and learning from them (hopefully teaching others what I know, too).

    If I had to name the one thing that really caused the formation of the communities, it would be the freedoms and openness given to us by Free Software. Free Software boils down to the freedoms it gives us, and I support them full-heartedly. We’ve a bunch of intelligent and diverse people here, all working towards a common goal. Certainly, this is what causes the community, even if its members are geologically, culturally, ideologically, and often linguistically separated.

    Again, thanks Jono. This brightened my day. And caused me a nice distraction from my code to pause and remember why I do this again.

    Cheers, Patrick Niedzielski

  • Marc Bélanger

    Freedom of choice, freedom of action and financial freedom. And recently: quality!

    Freedom of choice: I have a huge choice of applications, settings, distributions, etc. to choose from. And I know and can choose which applications are running on my system at any given time. I also have the option to use proprietary software for hardware or codecs.

    Freedom of action: I can use almost any communication protocol – as long as it is standard – to communicate. I can track cause and effects right down to the bolts and nuts. I can rely on a stable environment that complies – or “obeys” – my every command. I can activate or disable various servers and services. I can interface with almost any device out there like cameras, printers, smartphones, scanners, etc.

    Financial freedom: I can keep any number of computers up to date, bundled with multiple softwares at no cost whatsoever, except the time to maintain them up to date. I also do not need to upgrade hardware to satisfy a software upgrade. I can network any machine and turn it into a server, Wifi spot, printer spooler, etc. at no cost. And all the softwares, right down to the utilities, kernel, modules, servers/clients, drivers, etc. are all perfectly legal to install and use as are the protocols used.

    Quality: Since 2005 a distribution like Ubuntu Linux has become a top quality product. Right now in 2010, on good quality and compatible hardware, I would say that Ubuntu is probably the fastest, most versatile, stable and innovative desktop available. The efforts to “humanize” Ubuntu were fruitful – I know for a fact (for having seen it many times) that “anybody” can use it. Also the aesthetics of Ubuntu have been revamped, giving it the polish it use to lack. Things have come a long way since I first started to use Linux in 2005, but right now, it’s just the best that’s out there!

  • Tachyon Feathertail

    Because there are so many awesome things that still have to be made! And this is just the best way of making them.

    I could tie myself to proprietary software like Mac OS X, or a proprietary service like Ubuntu One, but it wouldn’t end well, and it’d leave me with less control. And when I see people following my lead and choosing open-source software and services, I feel good about my choices.

  • Jon Masters

    I enjoy seeing Linux, Free Software/Open Source, whatever actually put to use. Sure, playing is fun but it’s nice to see a polished actual product that people can take for granted. I also wrote a few opinions on the “risk of upgrades” on my blog over the weekend that I think are relevant because we need to be aware that we’re all getting older (and hopefully, wiser), this isn’t just a game any more and we – in the wider community – need to start caring far more about overall quality and experience than thrusting the latest thing on unsuspecting users.

  • Gord

    I came for the code, stayed for the people and general spirit. Today my ethos is less about things being free/open (although that is an important part of the process) and more about working together with other like-minded people to build something, something we hope will make other peoples lives better.

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  • Brendan P

    It’s a living thing, something you can connect and relate to.

    In a world where corporates are so distant and obsessed with profits, it’s great to be able to experience this with open and/or free software.

  • Aitor

    Despite I’m no programmer and I hardly contribute (my life is actually quite far from being related to computers), I’m still a FOSS enthusiast, because using it, you really feel part of a community and, besides, you know that we build it together. It’s great thinking: ‘Hey, we’re building this system together, from all around the world’.

    A secondary reason is the capability of having and up-to-date OS with an investion adequate for my pocket: cero.

  • Jimbo

    I’m passionate because it’s my job, so I’m paid to passionate about it. Yes, I know most people believe that money can’t make you truly passionate about something, but trust me, it can 😉

    Pay me to work on an interesting closed source project instead, and I’ll be just as passionate about that (as I have been in the past, and probably will be again in the future…)

  • Joel

    Security, quality and development. In that order usually. The freedoms are important, but if my free system lets in as many viruses as Windows does then it’s not going to last.

    GNU/Linux has an enterprise-class firewall built in, Windows not so much. There’s no problem with finding what bugs are known (even if some of us may disagree on what constitutes a security bug).

    The lack of corporate doublespeek in promotion is a nice thing. GNU/Linux distros tend to sit very nicely with how I think and work. I’ve never had to bend myself to the system, which generally means being more productive. Aside from some issues with Ubuntu One not working or the default software not being my personal choice, which are easily worked around, the system works just as I expect it to.

    As a developer, it’s nice to know that I don’t have to include my own copies of every single component I use and issue a program update just to update the components used. The command line makes it easier to test and make quick changes. And it Just Works too – so many devices require installing driver packages that “require” bloated application sets that just magically work on my Ubuntu system. I can interface with just about anything, and I’ve even used my Ubuntu system to recover someone’s thesis from a USB drive that Windows refused to read and wanted to format before use.

    Freedoms are a big benefit too. I’ve saved a ton of money by not upgrading Windows or Mac machines and paying to get major security improvements, which helped a lot as a student and helps now as I recover from being a student :) The default software choices aren’t the final word, and there’s a trusted source to get all the software I’ve needed so far.

  • Philip Van Hoof

    It’s an easy way to meet and work together with people who are competent. You learn a lot from others. And indeed, ever since I’m involved in open source I met a whole bunch of amazingly competent software developers and I have acquired an incredible amount of know how from these people and their code.

    As for the companies that I do software development for, I like doing that because of the technical challenges, trying to make the difference, putting to use aforementioned know how. I follow Jimbo in his earlier comment here: being a freelancer it’s my job, so give me an equally technical challenge and the same pay and I’ll be just as passionate about that (as I have been in the past, and probably will be again in the future).

    I have a passion for technology, not for freedom-software this and that. Being passionate about technology I do care a lot about open protocols, communication between devices, interopability and software patents, though. That is what in the end really matters. That and meeting competent people.

  • ethana2

    I had played around with various linux based desktops… I switched to Ubuntu because windows sucked, Mac was too expensive, and other linux desktops were confusing.

    Then I realized I could make a difference, and that it benefitted me when I did…. and the rate of progress with free software is so fast it’s really exciting.

    I Like Excellent Software, and liberty is a great way to get there.

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  • AlexandreP

    What really matters to me is open standards. I so much enjoy when I see and read about a company (either in IT or not) going to open standards instead of proprietary formats and protocols. Open standards allow freedom of choice for the users: now softwares can compete between each other in terms of functionalities, ergonomy, price, support options, develpment models… instead of imprisonning users in their own solutions, without the ability to look somewhere else.

    I don’t know if libre software is an extension to open standards, or if it’s vice versa, but something indeniable, is that both are really tied.

  • Lyle

    I initially came to the FreeSoftware world because I disliked Windows. I knew NOTHING about the ethos of what I had just stepped into (which is now one of the largest parts of my life). I stayed on at the start because for the first time I felt like I was in control of my computing experience. Slowly I began to understand, then accept, and now finally embrace and want to further the whole FreeCulture mind set. Information wants to be free. I make things BECAUSE I want people to use them. Licensing, big corporations, all of it is just bullshit piled on top of a good thing.

    I would like to thank all the hackers that have come before me and paved the way making FreeSoftware a real possibility. Lets take that banner and move it forward again as a constantly growing number of people join our cause.

  • J.B. Nicholson-Owens

    One word: Freedom.

    Free Software respects my freedoms to run, share, and modify published computer software. Software freedom lets me treat friends like friends, and encourages me to recognize that no matter what I’m doing with a computer I’m part of a community.

    I’d like to point out that I do not mean freedom of choice. There are choices which do not convey software freedom to me. Since I value software freedom above functionality, reliability, and price, I sometimes have no choice but to pick the free software way to do some job. Sometimes I have no choices and don’t do those jobs.

    Of course I want highly functional, reliable, and inexpensive software. But I’d rather have software freedom because I know that software freedom plus work gets me those other things (no matter whose labor it is).

    When I don’t have software freedom I’m stuck with whatever the software proprietor decides on (no matter how good that is): If they decide their highly functional, reliable and affordable software shall track my movements, I can’t take out the tracking. If they decide that they don’t want to interoperate with other software I value, they’re sticking me with converting everything to conform to their way of doing some task (talk to their email/calendaring system, encode with their multimedia formats, risk losing a patent lawsuit because of their technical choices, have to maintain an old system to keep running the code they refuse to update or make free, etc.).

    For me, it’s software freedom or do the job another way which respects my software freedom. In rare cases I just don’t do the job at all. But that’s okay because software freedom has developed a long track record of letting me do more and more in a way that respects my ethics.

  • David

    Freedom and community.

    Freedom to do things my way. To make my computer, mine. Freedom to be different, to try something new. Freedom to fail miserably. Freedom to succeed. To not be forced to use something that doesn’t suit my needs. Freedom from software I don’t want or need.

    And the reality is it’s not free. It’s a product of the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of people. Being a part, however small, of that community is something that appeals to me. And seeing the heights it can reach gives me hope for humanity. Corny, I know, but it’s the truth.

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  • niq

    I’m well aware of what drew me here. It’s experience in the UK corporate environment, where developers are the lowest-of-the-low: new grads on the way to better things such as management or marketing.

    Open source is somewhere you can do great and fun things without a PHB on your back treating you as inferior because you’re not in a suit. The availability of usable documentation also helps!