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Free as in freedom, not as in price

Updated Tuesday, 8th February 2011

Linux champion Jon "Maddog" Hall loves the exchange of ideas - and the pace - of Campus Party. He tells Gareth Mitchell why 'free' is so important.

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Jon 'Maddog' Hall Creative commons image Icon Fernando Cavalcanti / Campus Party under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Copyright BBC


Gareth Mitchell

So, the concept here is very much about throwing a whole load of bright people together, giving them free internet access and somewhere to sleep, even if just for an hour or two, and then seeing what happens and I suppose it’s a kind of microcosm of the entire open source software movement.  Jon “Maddog” Hall certainly knows all about that.  He’s been at it since the late 1960s and these days he’s Executive Director of the non-profit Linux International.  And John, I’m not referring to your age, but you are a kind of elder statesman of open source, what does it mean for you to see all these people coming together at the Campus Party?

Jon “Maddog” Hall

Well, Campus Party is a good time for young people, particularly high school, college and post-college people to exchange ideas at rapid pace.  We do a lot of work over the internet but my observation has been that when people get together in a room and can point and talk to each other and share food and share ideas, that they do it at a much more rapid pace, and also arguments that may have gone on for months over the internet are quashed in a matter of minutes.

Gareth Mitchell

And you are one of the grandees of the open source and open software movement and you are really one of the founding fathers of Linux itself.  People listening in Western Europe or the United States might be thinking, well, operating systems, they’re still Windows and it’s the minority who are using Linux.  You come here to South America and it’s the other way round.

Jon “Maddog” Hall

Well, it’s interesting because while on the desktop Windows still has a dominance Linux is the most used operating system in super computer design.  Today it is the foremost design for cell phones so the Android system is based upon the Linux kernel, and that is by the way outselling the iPhone at the moment, and if you take a look at a lot of the web pads that are coming out, a lot of those are based either upon Linux or based upon Android, so if I was Microsoft I’d be a little worried.

Gareth Mitchell

And you might be worried if you were Apple from what you were saying as well.  You’ve already mentioned that Android handsets are now outselling the iPhone for instance.

Jon “Maddog” Hall

It comes down to volume, because if I am a developer of applications I want to hit the greatest volume of people possible, and volume is what drives the computer industry.  I will give Apple its due, they have a very well designed system but they tend to keep it closed and that means that basically Apple is one of the few people to make money off of Apple, whereas Microsoft took a different strategy.  They opened it up to all sorts of different hardware, all sorts of different systems and a lot of different people can make money off of it.

Gareth Mitchell

People do say don’t they, iPhone users say, well okay, Apple is a closed system and if you’re a developer it’s a very hard one to develop apps for.  The hoops you have to jump through to get something onto the App Store is incredible, and it must put a lot of developers off, but what it means you get an iPhone or an iPad and you generally know the applications are going to work, they’re going to be stable, they’re going to have all these things.  Sometimes the perception with Android is it’s a bit hit or miss; the good stuff is really good but the bad stuff can be really bad.

Jon “Maddog” Hall

Well, I think that what’s going to happen with the internet is that that’s going to quickly solve itself because you’re going to have people who will vote for the applications and before you go in to look for an application you have to do a little bit of homework yourself, but on the other hand you don’t have somebody telling you, no, you can’t have this application on the phone because somehow it could be, I don’t want to put Skype on there for some reason.  And the other thing about Android being open is that a person can actually change the operating system itself; you can actually go in and develop an application below the operating system.  It’s changing the operating system itself that allows the phone to do something that Mr Jobs never even envisioned for it.  That’s why I like free software, it’s because it returns control to the end user.  And the key word of free software is control, because when we say free software, we’re not talking about the cost, we’re talking about the freedom that you have in doing it.

Gareth Mitchell

So, finally then thinking about the future and you have been around for a while and so has Linux; it predates Windows, Unix is the bedrock of Mac OS, so Unix/Linux got there first, what do you see for the future?

Jon “Maddog” Hall

Well, actually I think that proprietary closed source software is only a spike in time.  I think that closed source proprietary software is actually doomed, and the reason for that is that originally all the software was in effect open source; you got the source code for it.  Now, in those days if you had a problem you could call up the little company that made your software, you could talk typically to the president of the company or the chief software developer and you could get a fix to whatever problem you had - maybe overnight.  But today when you call up a company and say, I need a fix to this software, you don’t get the president or the chief programmer or anything, what you get is, please press button number one for sales, button number two for support.  So, you press button number two and then what you get is Muzak, Muzak, okay, and then after a while you get disconnected and this is a problem.  And the problem is only going to get worse because more and more and more people use computers and more and more and more people are putting demands on the software for different languages, for different cultures, to address different businesses and they’re not going to be able to get the changes that they need.  Free software gives you the chance to say because you’ve got the source code, to say, I really need that change, I really need that bug fixed and if I don’t have the skills to go in and do it, I have the source code, I can find a programmer who has the skills and I can make the business decision about whether I’m going to pay them to make that change or live with the software the way it is.  But that’s my decision, not the decision of Bill Gates, not the decision of Steve Jobs or anybody else, and that is the freedom and the control that I’m talking about.


Digital Planet goes to the Campus Party Brasil 2011






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