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Open source software as seen through comics and cartoons

There has been a proliferation in Open Source Software (OSS) adoption over the past decade, with particular momentum following the 2008 global financial crisis. Much of the challenge in convincing companies and individuals to adopt OSS lies in demystifying deep-seated stereotypes that have typically framed OSS as an affront to closed source alternatives.

These fears and concerns have been recast in jokes and jibes that, coupled with more serious aspirations to the original ideals of OSS, form a satirical sub culture in the OSS community. Many of these jokes have found expression in tech-oriented comic strips.

What the following list of comics represents is a satirical (sometimes foreboding) glimpse into an industry in a state of rapid change. Today’s cloud-based, social Web seems a far cry from the early years of BSD and Linux development, and yet fundamentally, the ethical questions about the nature of our relationship to the way information is produced and controlled remain the same.

Perhaps a disclaimer is needed here, not because the material below contains controversial language or imagery, but because the humour is up there with some of the geekiest stuff ever made. We all know that geeks are cool, but nonetheless, to the uninitiated the fact that this is humour at all may seem like a very large stretch. For that reason, I have included some context to some of the cartoons.

The list is far from comprehensive, so please do share your favourite comics in the comment section below and I’ll be happy to add them to the post.

 

1. So You Don’t Need to Pay?

Author: Mike Krahulik & Jerrry Holkins | Year: 2002 | View large

A classic take on the age old problem of financial sustainability in open source software development.

 

2. OSS Hackers vs. Microsoft BSD

Author: Unknown | Year: 2002 | Large size

A little backstory is needed to understand this one! BSD stands for Berkeley Software Distribution. It is a Unix operating system that was developed by the Computer Systems Research Group (CSRG) of the University of California, Berkeley, between 1977 and 1995.

Nowadays, the acronym BSD is used in a more general sense to refer to any variation of BSD in the family of Unix-like operating systems. Operating systems derived from the original BSD code remain actively developed and widely used.

Many of the current BSD operating systems are open source and available for download, free of charge, under the BSD License, but there are some notable exceptions, one of which is MacOS. See this chart for an overview of BSD evolution and open vs closed source rivalry.

Famously, back in 2000, Microsoft incorporated elements of BSD code in its release of Windows 2000. In particular, the company used elements of BSD in its implementation of TCP/IP protocols and command-line networking tools.

So the “slap” in this comic strip is not so much that hackers would try to reclaim Microsoft’s use of BSD code as open source, but the fact that many people see this proprietary usage as a fait accompli.

 

3. The GPL must be stopped!

Author: Randall Munroe | Year: 2007 | Source: XKCD

This is part of a genre of comics that raise the middle finger at proprietary software developers who appropriate and close off OSS, thereby threatening the survival of the movement. As the comic points out, it has become so prevalent that OSS advocates have to be ready to fight back.

If you’re new to the open source world, then the two names dropped in the comic strip, Eric S. Raymond and Linus Torvalds, are two of the pillars of the community. The former is perhaps best known for his theoretical arguments in support of OSS in his seminal book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. The latter is known as the lead developer of the Linux Kernel, which became the basis for the Linux operating system.

 

4. Use open source for everything!

Author: Scott Adams | Year: 2007 | Source: Dilbert in SFGate.com

Dilbert is a legendary American comic strip written by Scott Adams, that began in 1989. It is an ongoing satirical take on US office culture and its relationship with new technology.

In this specific episode published in August 2007, Adams captures the trend at that time of corporate companies adopting open source software.

What I like about this one is the clever twist in logic at the core of the comic strip’s message. On the one hand, the general perception of open source software – outside of OSS circles – is that it’s a space that requires thinking. It is not an automated production regime.

At the same time, the employees clearly doubt their boss’s capacity to think for himself and demand the “trade publication” that sparked his interest in OSS.

Ultimately, the comic strip takes a jab at the OSS “bandwagon” phenomenon that was rife around 2007-2009. The 2008 global financial crisis saw many companies switching to OSS on the sole motivation that it is free. The question of why it is “free” is all too often overlooked.

 

5. The fear of open source software

Author: Unknown | Year: Unknown | Source: Unknown

The beauty of this comic is that it gets straight to the nub of the battle between OSS and proprietary software. But it also gives the story a little twist.

The comic plays with stereotypes. On the one hand, it suggests that closed source software development is a narrow-minded, individualistic and repetitious practice – fearful of competition in the marketplace.

On the other hand, it paints an idyllic vision of open source software as community driven, organic and forward thinking – free from the strictures of commercial competition.

At the same time, the comic suggests that since both entities share the same ecosystem, it is just a matter of time before they find common ground.

 

6. But is it really “free”?

Author: Unknown | Year: Unknown | Source

This comic strip comes from a line of writing that reflects on the meaning of the word “free” in FOSS (free and open source software).

Freedom in OSS is as much (if not more so) an approach to the creative and collaborative structures involved in the production and modification of software as it is to offering an end product free of charge. It is an ethos not just a price tag.

At the same time, to function as a practical ethos. it needs to be sustainable like all other types of production in society Freedom of intellectual property is at the core of OSS, but that freedom can only be protected if its authors and users help with the financial costs of producing OSS.

The comic gives the example of paid software support, a point that was often overlooked by companies making the “big move” to OSS back in the noughties. The point is, that if OSS is reduced to being a short-term fix to lower company overheads, without investment in its developers and a shift in company culture, then it will never be a sustainable alternative.

 

7. Everything is open source

Author: Salvatore Iovene | Year: 2009 | Source

The author of this cartoon is Salvatore Iovene, an Italian computer programmer based in Finland, who works for the Intel Open Source Technology Centre.

At the heart of this comic is the question of open source code. In what way is it different to proprietary software code? Iovene’s position in the comic is that in essence there is no difference, particularly at the machine level of code. But is that right?

There’s an interesting article by the programmer Paul Graham given as a talk in 2001, called “Beating the Averages” in which he discusses a “power continuum” among programming languages.

Early on in the article, he cites Eric Raymond’s recommendation to would-be hackers in “How to Become a Hacker,”  to learn 5 programming languages: Python, Java, C, Perl and Lisp. Graham notes that Raymond lists the Lisp language as a kind of holy grail; not a language that you would use in practical terms, but one that will help elevate your coding skills to a new level if you do master it.

Raymond’s strange recommendation/dismissal of Lisp prompted Graham to think about the criteria one would use in choosing a coding language for a new startup. Graham argues that Lisp is one of the most powerful languages on the “continuum,” stating that:

“The only programmers in a position to see all the differences in power between the various languages are those who understand the most powerful one. (This is probably what Eric Raymond meant about Lisp making you a better programmer.) You can’t trust the opinions of the others, because of the Blub paradox: they’re satisfied with whatever language they happen to use, because it dictates the way they think about programs.”

The “blub paradox” is a phrase coined by Graham to illustrate the point that coding languages, like all languages, are a matter of patterns and habit. The limitations of language are defined by a person’s ability to see that language in relation to others. We become locked into language, when we have no alternative reference points.

In a similar sense, returning to the cartoon, I would argue that there is a difference between open source and proprietary code, not at a syntactical level, but at the level of cultural and behavioural use.

 

8. Open Source Relationships

Author: Rob Cottingham | Year: unknown | Source

This is a nice little stab at the “fanboy” culture that exists in the OSS community. The fact that for many, developing and using OSS remains a position of resistance against profit-driven proprietary software leads to inevitable factions and software loyalty battles. Biases creep in all too easily.

 

9. “I’m Installing Ubuntu Today”

Author: Scott Johnson | Year: 2006 | Source: Extra Life

I love this cartoon, because it reminds me that contrary to popular belief a lot of OSS is more robust and usable than its proprietary equivalents.

 

10. Fighting for freedom

Author: Randall Munroe | Year: 2010 | Source: XKCD

Even though this comic was written in 2010, it brings the discussion of OSS vs proprietary software up to date.

As Dave Hillis points out in his article on TechCrunch, over the past couple of years, the battle between the two platforms has rapidly become subsumed under the emergence of cloud computing:

“Software is becoming a service and IT infrastructure a metered utility. While software distribution can be almost free, services always cost money. Both commercial and open-source software companies need to adapt to the new tech economy and move to service-oriented business models. In fact, in the cloud economy open-source and commercial software essentially have the same business model.”

That being said, I still think Randall Munroe’s comic applies in the context of the cloud – perhaps even more so than in the old Web. The ways corporations lock users into proprietary models are ever more concealed and insidious.

The example of Facebook as the Web’s largest walled garden of user generated content is one riddled with problems of transparency, data mining, information bias, free speech, intellectual property rights and so on.

This is not to mention other major forces – including governments – trying to lock down the Web. Open source software was born out of the idea of the Internet as an open space for exchange. That openness is under severe threat, so to me, the battle continues.


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Will Ellington

Originally from the UK, I currently live in Osaka, Japan, where I work in higher education. I’ve been a WordPress user since 2004 and have developed numerous projects with it over the years. Wpliving is a place to share things i've learnt along the way, and to explore innovations in WordPress too.

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