Everyone knows that the obvious difference between proprietary software and free software is the licensing model. What few people know is that free software’s biggest strength is the people that are drawn together to make up a community that is incredibly powerful. I saw this power first-hand in Mountain View, CA, USA at the KDE 4.0 release event. If you use Gnome, XFCE, or even Microsoft Windows, put your bias aside. This is about the community of free software, and to a lesser extent, some of the individuals that make free software what it is – not just KDE.
From across the globe they came; these developers and artists and marketing folks (how else do you get the word out about your product), end-users, and enthusiasts alike. Educators and academics, business executives, students, consultants, scientists, system administrators and more were there as well- for they are one-in-the-same, and all come with an equal voice. Many, having worked together for years, met for the first time face to face, often introducing themselves by IRC nick to one another. Never have I been in a room with such intellectual power all woven together by real humility and a common cause- a truly incredible group.
When I first met Aaron Seigo, I was struck by his out-spoken and intense demeanor. He had a bit of that stereotypical “artist passion” in the way he spoke and moved. I was somewhat surprised to learn that he was a software developer and not a graphics designer or a rock star. His ability to convey his passion to others and his formidable coding prowess made him the natural choice for leadership on the KDE project. Before his keynote address, Aaron said to me that, while he had a difficult time stomaching the concept of KDE applications being ported to Microsoft Windows, he could see the view of others within the community and the importance of putting the best free software in front of the largest market share. Purpose over personality is the common thread in this community.
“My concern was in doing these ports without a clear plan or commitment. I felt, and still do, that if simply done ‘Because’ that it could be a very risky proposition for the community and Free Software in general. Thankfully, the community came together and had a very involved and open conversation about these matters. Out of that came a strategy, a clear set of goals and reinforced commitments to Free Software platforms,” Aaron later told me.
Another example of the focus on purpose was the one-on-one talks that occurred between developers from “competing” projects like discussions between Inge Wallin of the KOffice project and Alexandro Colorado of OpenOffice.org. This cooperative attitude is another aspect of the free software model that really stands out from proprietary models. Free software developers strive to make the user experience better while proprietary developers work to make their corporate bottom line better.
This view of the better good manifests in subtle ways sometimes. Take Adriaan de Groot, the Vice President of KDE e.V., for instance; he and one of the staffers at the Wild Palms made fresh cookies for everyone on Thursday evening. Although they were quickly devoured, some commented that they were made from “just frozen cookie dough”, implying it wasn’t a big effort. The next evening, Ade went to the grocery store and purchased all of the ingredients to bake fresh oatmeal chocolate chip cookies for everyone. A very kind gesture, in my opinion, and indicative of the type of people that free software attracts.
Better software and a better user experience driven by a passion for what they do. You’d be hard pressed to find such a dedicated group working for the common good. This is KDE. This is the free software community.