Brazil’s free software forum: wrap-up

By Andy Oram
April 22, 2006

When you go to any hotbed of free software development in Latin America, such as the Fórum Internacional Software Livre (international free software forum) I attended this week in Brazil, it’s clear that Richard Stallman is the hero and the flagship personality. Quotes from his speeches turn up first on every web site discussing the conference, stereotyped likenesses of his signature hair style appear on posters, and supporters line up to pay five reais—a bargain compared to what he charges in Europe!—to get their photo taken with the real article. (The money all goes directly to the Free Software Foundation, so the charge is meant as a fund-raiser, and also—I suspect—to cut down on tiresome time-wasting.)

I noticed the same reverence for Stallman about five years ago when I attended FOSDEM, the impressive free software conference in Brussels. Such popularity outside North America (and in some quarters within North America) seem strange to many other people in the free software community who decry Stallman’s insistence on strong positions and his seemingly obsessive attention to language. He is criticized as uncompromising, which is not really fair because he compromises quite often on strategic grounds.

Many other people doing free software wish secretly or openly that Stallman would cede his public position and let others represent the movement. Not likely! And from what I saw at Fosdem and FISL, not necessarily beneficial to building the movement either.

Odd circumstances (concerning a change in bus schedules) led me to share a cab for half an hour with Richard and two members of a project, whom he was lobbying to remove all mention of proprietary software products from their web site. I won’t go into the considerations and arguments—which Richard articulated very well, and which I don’t feel I could do justice in summarizing—but I noticed that the two developers took his objections very seriously, even though one called his position “extreme,” and that they promised to present his position before the project leaders.

One of the cab’s occupants, KDE programmer Aaron Seigo, told me later that he doesn’t take positions as strict as Stallman’s but believes Stallman’s views are “in line with the goals of the KDE project.” Seigo prefers to seduce people into the benefits of free software (such as being able to do whatever they want with multimedia, unencumbered by DRM), but recognizes that a person who takes relatively absolute positions, such as Stallman, is necessary for a movement to make a mark.

Thinking about other historical movements, I realized that deep, cultural change requires insistent advocates—fanatics, if you insist—like Richard Stallman. Take affirmative action, for instance. Whatever happened to the laissez-faire argument that went, “Businesses that hire talented minorities and women will end up with a better staff and drive out businesses run by bigots?” That never went anywhere. Only marches, strikes, lawsuits, and impassioned appeals to morality in the press made the change (and it’s still a woefully unfinished revolution).

Another appeal of free software

So morality makes a difference. The Free Software Foundation tries to draw a hard-and-fast line between proponents of free software and proponents of open source, because the former stresses the ideal of freedom. I don’t recognize any such line, because the value of openness is also an idealistic and socially critical value. The moral issues of both freedom and openness are recognized by the open source movement. But if I ever saw a speech that fit the image of “open source” as a practical business pitch, it was Michael Tiemann’s speech today, titled “Escaping the Software Crisis with Total Quality Source.”

Tiemann, it must be said, has been both an important contributor to free software (having written key parts of the GCC compiler suite) and an articulate advocate for morality in society and business. So he was merely displaying one (very accomplished) side by discussing the reasons that proprietary software lower quality and security. For instance, if developers encounter a bug in a library or platform, they can’t fix it, so they work around it—and soon everybody’s software is loaded with what Tiemann calls scar tissue.

The whole thrust of Tiemann’s speech was: if you’re a hard-headed businessman concerned with return on investment, you’ll run—not walk—to open source. He pointed out that cars using overly complex, non-free software have major reliability issues. In contrast, he pointed to a top-of-the-line sound recording console by the company Midas, which not only uses the Linux kernel in its product but boasts of it in their ads.

Free software in the school and in the enterprise

When I heard Tiemann talk about Linux-based recording equipment, I thought back to the previous day when I heard about a communications school that trains all its students—TV, radio, journalism, etc.—on open source software. I talked to a faculty member from this college—Escola Superior de Estudos Empresárias e Informática, in Curitiba—over a lunch table that kept growing and growing throughout the afternoon as each person who joined invited his or her friends to pull up another table. After Izabel Cerqueira Valverde described her school—half media and half IT, with a lab of 150 machines and monthly journal, among other projects—I decided (just so she could put the issue to rest) to ask the pesky question that everybody asks at first: “How can you train students on systems they probably won’t be asked to use when they graduate and look for jobs?”

The reply is that this is less of a problem in media studies than in other fields, and less of a problem in TV or radio than in print journalism, because good education focuses on concepts and design skills rather than tools. But to ease the transition, the college forms partnerships with firms so they’ll hire students upon graduation.

Seigo, who was part of this evolving and ever-growing lunchtime conversation, said that many companies use free software tools, but that Microsoft intimidates schools with claims that students need to learn Microsoft technology to get a job. He said it’s incumbent on companies using free software to approach local universities and make it clear there is a market for graduates who know those technologies.

Follow-up on cooperatives

I reported in earlier blogs about Solis, a free software cooperative, and heard later that an organization named Latinux has been formed to carry out a similar type of organization on a larger scale across Latin America.

The problem that Latinux tries to solve is this: free software developers who build up a good reputation in Brazil can get consulting jobs at the largest companies, even government agencies, but the system is informal and uncertain. Income is irregular.

Furthermore, major support contracts currently go to large computer firms who can promise continuous coverage—and who then proceed to contract out the work to individual free software developers. This allows computer firms to pocket the vast majority of the contract money, just as the money to clean up Hurricane Katrina’s destruction in the United States goes mostly to well-connected contractors who skim off a good chunk and hire other firms to do the work. Cooperatives in Brazil allow free software developers to deal directly with large agencies.

I talked to one firm named Propus that is part of Latinux. Propus is a consulting firm that supports large GNU/Linux and network installations; they also provide GPL’d software that makes system management easier. A representative told me that they are big enough to land contracts for the entire country of Brazil. But when a multinational client wants coverage in several countries, Propus lacks the legal framework in other countries to offer its services there.

Until Latinux was formed, the client would contract with an international company that would take most of the money and then contract the work out to Propus. With the advent of Latinux, Propus can collaborate with simliar firms around Latin America to deal directly with multinational clients.

Final notes

I’d love to return to FISL. The technical and philophical sophistication of the attendees is quite high—I felt it possibly higher only at FOSDEM—and the energy is equally winning. The conference location lacked the warmth and cheerful spirit I found in other parts of (upscale) Porto Alegre, but things were well organized and there was plenty of scope for interacting with speakers, exhibitors and peers.

My own speech this morning went very well, with a reasonable number of attendees (about 30) given that it came first in the day. An article on the subject will follow.

There is much promise here. Only by continuing to follow IT developments in Latin America will we know whether the promise is fulfilled.

Earlier blog postings on this conference:

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