The importance of open source technologies

If you want to make an application to run on Android or iOS, the two dominant operating systems for mobile phones in the world, you need to get them cleared by the company which makes that operating system in order to get into their application store. You have to pay a fee in order to upload the application (which honestly is fair since they are going to store the app on their servers), but they can deny access to your application, and there is no legal requirement for those to be fair or reasonable. While I do indeed use Android, I find it works just fine for my daily use, this is one thing which is always at the back of my mind. The fact that Android can choose to eliminate any application I use, for any reason, and I then can lose all of my data stored on that application with no recourse. This doesn’t happen often of course, if a platform became known for consistently arbitrarily deleting user data no one would use it again, but it is an ever present threat with closed source operating systems.

Imagine that if you wanted to make a website you needed to get it cleared through a single private company. If you had to pay not just a small fee to host the website but also have it cleared by a single private company which literally controls the internet and has the opportunity to deny any website for any arbitrary reason, the internet would not be the place of open discourse it is today. We are very fortunate that ICANN is a nonprofit which is fairly benign and doesn’t censor who can and cannot make a website for arbitrary reasons. It took me less than $10 to register this domain, renewals are very inexpensive, I have unlimited emails on my domain, I use LetsEncrypt to keep my website secure, and the cost of hosting this website on Dreamhost is very minimal, so I have no complaints. I can publish anything I like on my website here, I could set up a subdomain, or do basically anything I want as long as it is legal and my website will still be live. This is how it should be.

There are still concerns regarding internet service providers, which are an inevitable bottle neck in the delivery of the internet. Similar to Google, Comcast has a vested interest in limiting any data destruction or website blocking they do, because otherwise people would have the incentive to contact their local politicians and seek a change to the status quo. This bottleneck in internet access is also made less severe because Comcast has to compete with cell phone companies for internet access, so people would be more likely to be able to see if Comcast was significantly blocking specific domains for arbitrary reasons. If the prices for Broadband became too high or the speeds too slow relative to services in other locations than we do find that local people start to form political organizations to form public internet service providers, and with the ability to do that if things get bad enough Comcast has every incentive to not become too extreme with high prices or low quality before local governments collectivize this natural monopoly. This has already happened in over 750 jurisdictions across the United States.TuxLinux is similar to the internet in many aspects. It is free, it is open source, and it is public.  Anyone can make software for Linux with the proper tools, and either give it away for free or charge for it. It is free from spyware, so you can be certain that your system is secure. Security experts are unanimous in their agreement that backdoors are open doors in security systems. This is part of the reason why Linux is the most trusted operating system in the world, controlling over 90% of the server market. When computer professionals need an operating system which is reliable, fast, and secure we choose Linux. Being open source, the code is extremely clean, which makes the operating system take up far less room than Windows or iOS. This speed means you have more CPU and RAM available for YOUR programs. Just because the operating system is free doesn’t mean that people can’t make money with Linux, indeed quite the opposite. The Linux Foundation is sponsored by many massive companies which everyone has heard of, companies like Google, Facebook, Oracle, and even Microsoft which donate billions of dollars to build the most important open source software in the world. Trusted by the largest financial institutions, governments, and almost any company you can name, they probably have one thing in common, and that is that they use Linux somewhere in their infrastructure. Even though we receive a lot of funding from massive companies, the code base is free and if any one of these companies were to try to take over they would be unable to prevent people from making and distributing their own Linux distribution, so they do not even try. It would be impossible to do the classic extend, embrace, and extinguish strategy with the greatest open source project in the world. The world runs on Linux, meaning companies of every size would continue to keep Linux running even if one of the big companies tried to end it.

Linux is ideal for development. If you want to install a program on your personal Linux distribution, you don’t have to get it cleared through any large organization, you can just unpack it. If you want to offer it through a package manager you can host it on your own website and in one line of code anyone can add your repository to their personal Linux installation and install your program into their operating system in two commands. There are no gatekeepers, which is part of the freedom which Richard Stallman talks about. This allows practically unlimited innovation. You can release a beta program which runs on Linux without worrying about whether it will be approved by Google or Apple. Because it will be installed with a package manager your initial users will get all updates as they are released every time they run a single standard command on their operating system. This makes it easier to find bugs in the software because you can start to expand your user base in a smaller amount of time and this can significantly speed up development because you can eliminate the bugs on your initial rollout.

Now, Android and iOS do a fairly good job at ensuring that people are able to release their applications on their platforms. If they didn’t, no one would use them. But I remember there was a time when I had an iPhone in 2013 where they forced me to use Safari because they banned Google Chrome for a time. I found Safari to be unintuitive and slow then, and have never had a reason to go back to it. When I help my clients with Safari I find it regularly fails to render some websites properly which work fine in Firefox or Chrome. Apple is apparently continuing this behavior with Google with this news report from 2019. This is the cost of having a closed source operating system. Google generally does not do this with Android, but if you are a young tech startup building a mobile app and you get blocked by iPhone for a frivolous reason, you have lost a significant market share right there. I am not exactly sure why people still use iPhones to be honest. This fortunately doesn’t happen often, but when you are working at a tech startup the threat is always there. Firefox is particularly good because you know that your browser is not sending information back to headquarters, it has some of the best security available, and it follows all W3 standards.

The advantage to open source is that you don’t have to worry about a giant tech hegemon blocking access to your entire firm, putting your entire wellbeing at risk. You also can know that there is no spyware on the software you are using. I am happy with Android but sometimes I wonder if I might move to Linux on my smartphone. I definitely want to someday try it out, and see what it is like.

The final point I wish to make about where I would like to see open source go in the future has to do with hardware. Almost every CPU, whether it is AMD, ARM, or Intel is a closed source system. The biggest rival I can find which I believe has the best chance of challenging these three largest CPU manufacturers is RISC-V. Similar to Linux, it is a non-profit foundation with multiple large corporate sponsors. The big reason why people should care about their CPU architecture is because it is easy for companies to put in management systems which can act as backdoors to their hardware, like Intel has had since 2008. Any backdoor to hardware is a security vulnerability, plain and simple. Privacy is an important value in a free society, enshrined in the United States Constitution, and should be a basic expectation for any freedom loving person. That is probably the biggest importance of using Open Source Technology, even more than a better user experience and the ability to use any technology you want. Open source guarantees the ability to know for a fact that your computer is not spying on you, which comes down to a very important right to privacy. This is not about whether you are guilty or not. When I build a brand new program, and it is supposed to be private, if the companies which manage my operating system or chipset are able to see everything I am building, then it is not actually private.

There are three layers to privacy in any computer system, you have your hardware, your operating system, and any programs you are running on your computer. Your hardware and operating system should not send any information to their manufacturer without your consent. Microsoft and Intel indeed do collect information from people who use their products. The programs you run on top of your operating system also need to have strict rules which protect what type of privacy is being used as well. If there is any data being sent back on usage beyond bug reports it needs to be anonymized, and private from government agencies unless if there is a warrant from a public jury upon probable cause of a crime. Currently the only way to know for certain, and probably for a very long time to come, is to choose to use open source technologies for what you do on a day to day basis for anything which is important.

Open source is generally faster, more secure, and far more customizable. This is why I believe open source is important for a free society, and vital for economic development.

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