Please forget to FLOSS

In email to a third party, copied to me, Linux activist and long-time friend Rick Moen comments on the acronym FLOSS (usually explanded “Free, Libré, and Open Source”.

I continue to find it difficult to take seriously anyone who adopts an excruciatingly bad, haplessly obscure acronym associated with dental hygiene aids. We learned in the late 1990s a number of lessons about how not to market free / open source, and the idiots who keep coming up with bad ideas like “FLOSS” and “FOSS” are determined to rush, like urban-legend lemmings, off the very cliff of PR incompetence that we so painfully learned to finally avoid, a decade ago. I’m sorry, but those people need to be cluebombed and routed around until they stop shooting at everyone’s feet.

I couldn’t have put it better myself, so I’m not going to try.

Near as I can figure, the only appeal this term has is a sort of lily-livered political correctness, as though people think they’d be making an ideological commitment that will cause petulant screaming from a million basements if they pick “open source” or “free software”.

Well, speaking as the guy who promulgated “open source” to abolish the colossal marketing blunders that were associated with the term “free software”, I think “free software” is less bad than “FLOSS”. Somebody, please, shoot this pitiful acronym through the head and put it out of our misery.

Rick adds:

The problem with [FOSS and FLOSS] isn’t merely that that they sound like goofy nutjob organisation investigated by Emma Peel and John Steed. Worse, it is that neither term can be understood without first understanding both free software and open source, as prerequisite study.

That isn’t merely gross marketing failure; it’s a semantic black hole that sucks marketing into it, never to be seen again. It’s a finely executed study in nomenclature incompetence – and I can’t help noticing it’s promoted by, among others, the same crowd who were doing such a masterful job of keeping free software an obscure ideology prior to 1998.

Er. Yes. Quite…

41 thoughts on “Please forget to FLOSS

  1. I think if you guys want to gain a winning position, it’s better to somehow unite under an umbrella term, rather than pitting your doctrines against each other. Free software Foundation concentrates on the ideological/ethical aspect of open sourcing software while Open Source Initiative has a completely different approach trying to dwell on the economical benefits. Practically speaking, they are the same thing: “Let them see the code”

    They can peacefully coexist and complete each other. I mean each of them can be convincing for different tastes and characters. I am tempted to say that if either of you (RMS & ESR) were more open-minded no semantic/naming war would arise at all [when I read RMS's interviews, one of the first things I notice is that he strongly states "We are a different sub-culture to Open Source"]

    This is the common problem of opposition groups/growing communities fighting for a revolution and against a common enemy. They emerge from one stream but gradually tend to diverge to the point that they eventually hate each other more than the initial common enemy.

  2. >When I read RMS’s interviews, one of the first things I notice is that he strongly states “We are a different sub-culture to Open Source”

    I , on the other hand, do not make the opposite assertion. RMS wants to definitionally fragment the community, I do not – I have always maintained that “open source” is the umbrella term, invented specifically to be ideologically neutral, and most of the world writes and speaks as though it agrees. So the situation is not as symmetrical as you suppose.

  3. Ah, Is that so? Who wrote the “shut up and show them the code” article then? You told him to shut up about his screeds and write his code instead. Didn’t you notice that all that so-called ‘ideological bullshit’ is the basic idea behind FSF? Please don’t take this as an insult, but I think both of you share a certain amount of guilt for the bitter split.

  4. It is a useful term in discussions, even if not in PR. Asking about “can anyone recommend a good FLOSS video editor” instead of an open source one on a mailing list or something is a useful way to get participants of _both_ groups focus on the question itself and not on the terminology.

  5. I’ve always put it in Lisp terms — open source and free software are EQUAL but not EQ. They describe the same product (to within a very small margin of error, if any), but the movements are different.

    I agree that the term FLOSS should die the death. It was likely a coinage of some trade rag.

  6. The problem is that the Stallmanites have succeeded in casting the term “open source” as a repudiation of freedom. Like it or not, using the term “open source” is taking one side of the debate. It’s come to denote an opposition to Stallman’s agenda more active than you probably intended.

    The Hercules developers are quite proud of doing open source, even though several of them are even more rabid about opposing the FSF and all it stands for than I am. (Yes, it’s possible.)

    We need a truly neutral term to serve the purpose Miklos points out: to get people past the ideological debate and onto the code.

  7. I agree with ESR. (And not just because this is his blog!) If you go back and read Goodbye, “free software”; hello “open source” from more than 11 years ago (I still remember reading it in 1998!), ESR was never saying that by promulgating the term ‘open source’ he was trying to create some new ethos or philosophy. To him, open source == free software. I tend to agree.

    I think the problem is that RMS, who was already a bit peeved by people using the term ‘Linux’ to refer to the entire distro rather than just the kernel, thus giving him and his merry band no credit for all the work they put into GNU, decided that when people had started adopting ‘open source’ they were talking about something different than his ideology.

    I really don’t think there is any ideological difference between ‘free software’ and ‘open source’. Some people to tend say that ‘open source’ is for those people that prefer the BSD-style licenses and that ‘free software’ is for people that prefer the GPL-style licenses, but that’s not true either. RMS himself says that BSD-style code is free software and no one disputes the open source nature of the GPL.

    So, IOW, AFAICS, the differences are only semantics.

  8. How about Free Libre Open Programs. FLOP software could transform the industry.

    Or Free User Non Kapitalist. We need more FUNK in the IT field. It’s gotten sooooo comercial

  9. “as though people think they’d be making an ideological commitment will cause petulant screaming from a million basements if they pick “open source” or “free software”.”

    This sentence grammar fails.

  10. P.S. Please a) don’t get me wrong and b) don’t degenerate the discussion into mere bullshiting:

    If Stallman hadn’t initiated the movement, no OSI would later come into existence (probably no gnu/linux either)

    Although some of my friends who I respect alot are FSF associate members I think Eric’s rhetoric is more satisfactory and humane. I’ve been even considering translating catB book into Persian. All I’m saying is that the two movements, with all their differences, have alot in common; so why bashing each other, why not friendship? Eric says I’m wrong about the supposed ‘divergence'; I hope that I am wrong.

  11. In my experience, there is a place for these sorts of terms, distasteful as they may be to the community. When you’re working in a large corporate environment, particularly one that develops software and hardware for a broad and disparate customer base (ie: defense/government contractors), the term FOSS has come into play to describe software that has a different acquisition path than COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) or GOTS (Government Off The Shelf). FOSS describes software that can be integrated into an application, but which licensing requirements (like COTS) but no associated cost (like GOTS). As long as the Free Software community insists on defining itself as different from the Open Software community, entities that don’t care about the tiny distinctions between ‘Free’ and ‘Open’ are going to continue use terms like FOSS and FLOSS to manage the category. Sneering at them for not understanding or caring isn’t going to make them use your preferred terms, any more than it has convinced the media to stop using ‘hacker’ to describe criminals.

    – Craig -

  12. >The problem is that the Stallmanites have succeeded in casting the term “open source” as a repudiation of freedom.

    There’s no reason to make them that concession, so don’t.

    Succeeded with who, anyway? Certainly not the press — or even most hackers, judging by Google rankings.

  13. Succeeded in the community. The same folks who will rabidly insist that it’s GNU/Linux, $DEITY->condemnit, will insist that it’s free software and calling it anything else shows you only care about acceptance by those nasty eeeeevil corporations, not protecting the little guy they’re out to defend. It’s all about freeeeeedom!…as long as you only talk about the users’ freedom, that is.

    That the dispute is so cliched and so common just speaks to how polarized the term “open source” has become, no matter what its original intention. Looking back, it would have been better to introduce another term for Stallman to vilify, then use “open source” as the all-encompassing term for all of it. (You didn’t honestly think Stallman was going to idly stand by and let you hijack his movement while throwing away his principles, did you?)

  14. Boy does this need to be said.

    Picking names like GIMP, FLOSS and whatever is not going to help open source go mainstream.

    This is one of the flaws of the open source model: hackers with a teenage boy’s sense of prurient humor picking these names, and who at heart have a contempt for companies and the norms and mores that help them be successful.

    Bitch about Microsoft all you want, but Windows was a simple, perfect name. One shudders to think what a Stallmanite would have named it.

    MOUTHWASH? TOOTHPASTE? Or some obscure acronym starting with an unpronounced G? The mind boggles.

  15. GNU Arbitrarily Random Batch Argument Generation Engine.

    Pronounced “ARBAGE”. The G is silent, you see.

  16. Darrencardinal:

    We (meaning open source hackers) did not choose the name FLOSS. I thought it was started by a trade magazine aimed at suits (given where I’d begun hearing it earliest and most frequently), but likely sources (according to Wikipedia) include the U.S. Department of Defense (“FOSS”) and the European Commission (one originator of “FLOSS”).

    Upon thinking about it some, I think Eric is right in that “open source” is the strictly broader term: an “open source hacker” releases liberally licensed software for unspecified reasons (up to and including World Domination); calling someone a “free software hacker” implies a certain Stallmanian ethos.

    Myself, I like the Indian term for it — Swatantra Software.

  17. GNU Arbitrarily Random Batch Argument Generation Engine.

    Pronounced “ARBAGE”. The G is silent, you see.

    Most G’s in GNU software (including that of GNU itself) are pronounced.

  18. >but likely sources (according to Wikipedia) include the U.S. Department of Defense (”FOSS”) and the European Commission (one originator of “FLOSS”).

    The first people I heard use it were European academics.

  19. Yes, it comes from certain people who feel that no one may be offended, and that all beliefs must be accommodated. It’s a horrible, horrible term. FOSS is no better. Just call it open source. Yes, it will piss off the Stallmanists. Oh well.

  20. @Russ Nelson: Seems as if you ruthless zealot commanders have set out to do the promised “World Domination” :)
    good for you, but thank GOD you don’t rule the world yet.

    P.S: to be serious, I think F/OSS is not that bad,at least much better than FLOSS, esp. With “/” because it refers to free OR open source software; considering their difference.

  21. Ideologically I am a big fan of “Free Software” and to a lesser extent “Open Source”. I think that the main problem I have with the term “free software” is that it is a noun and not an adjective. Writing “I am creating a Free Software editor in Linux” sounds silly while open source is more descriptive.

    Using it as an adjective to describe software seems rather awkward.

    I am still trying to come up with a “neutral” term, but Free/Open Source Software seems better than the compressed acronyms which I agree seem useless and require far more explanation than either the original terms used.

  22. I usually make official releases of stuff calling it “Open source under version (x) of the (xyz) license.” , anyone downloading the code with the idea of hacking and sharing (these days) is more than likely aware of what my license means. Most of my stuff these days is under the X11 (3 clause BSD) license. I think that license proliferation is almost as bad as patent proliferation, if your license of choice prevents even one hacker from using your code thereby forcing them to re-invent a perfectly good wheel. To that hacker, your license may as well be a weak patent.

    I have a lot of respect for RMS. He did not just conceptualize some sort of utopia where we escape mundane restrictions and can just do our work, he worked his ass to the bone trying to make it happen. Ideals have their place, most people just want their computer to work. I don’t see anything wrong with RMS working to ensure that people realize how things were in the 80’s and early 90’s. What I take issue with is the “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality. Depending on the list, if I don’t call it FLOSS, FOSS or Free Software, I’ll be coated in proverbial feces. So, yeah, I use the term quite often.

    I think, one one hand, we need to realize who we’re addressing and ensure that the point of our correspondence is not lost in an idealistic shit storm. On the other hand, I think you are correct, its always better to treat the problem rather than the symptoms.

    So, yes, it should be “Open Source” or “Free Software”, depending on the audience. Dental hygiene has little to do with it, and by the looks of things, FOSS is rapidly approaching FOSSIL .. however that name space is already taken.

  23. >I think F/OSS is not that bad,at least much better than FLOSS, esp. With “/” because it refers to free OR open source software; considering their difference.

    I think you mean F|OSS… :-)

    The use of the logical symbol begs the question: How is F|OSS really different from F&OSS?

    Can someone point me to a list of licenses that qualify as OSS but not FS? FS but not OSS?

  24. >Can someone point me to a list of licenses that qualify as OSS but not FS? FS but not OSS?

    I think there used to be something like two exceptions of this kind. One went away when Apple ditched a license term the FSF disliked. The other exception was a vanity license nobody ever cared about. For all practical purposes these categories are the same.

    The experimental era when lawyers were churning out trial open-source licenses by the dozen seems to have ended around 2005, so this seems unlikely to change.

  25. I don’t like any of the terms..
    FOSS/FLOSS are plain confuzing, OpenSource is gibberish for people who relate programming to what’s going to be on television, and free makes people think about price, not freedom.

  26. >FOSS/FLOSS are plain confuzing, OpenSource is gibberish for people who relate programming to what’s going to be on television, and free makes people think about price, not freedom.

    What would you call it?
    Open source is, at least, a term for which not many people already have a binding, so it’s easier to introduce to people. I think it works best of these alternatives–it’s not intimidatingly confusing or ambiguous.

  27. >For all practical purposes these categories are the same.

    Ok, so if I am understanding this correctly, FS and OSS are the same thing when referring to the actual software, but there exists an ideological dispute as to what reasons one should publicly extol concerning why people should be using this software. So, in effect, this is a holy war over marketing strategies.

    Now it makes sense that people who don’t want their innocent communications on the topic to touch off yet another battle in an ongoing holy war, so they want to use a term that is understood to give a nod to both camps. But I guess that some people don’t like the oral hygiene reference, and/or the obvious awkward addition of the extra “L” to stretch it into that reference. So, another term that combines both camps, but isn’t at all awkward or cutsey, is clearly what is needed here. Therefore, I submit “Combined Opinion Marketing For Your Source of Free and Open Access” or:

    COMFYSOFA!

    There ya go – problem solved – no need to thank me – just doing my job… ;-)

  28. >Ok, so if I am understanding this correctly, FS and OSS are the same thing when referring to the actual software, but there exists an ideological dispute as to what reasons one should publicly extol concerning why people should be using this software. So, in effect, this is a holy war over marketing strategies.

    Correct. However that is not what the FSF will say if you ask them – they’ll moan endlessly about Deep Moral Issues. I don’t know how much of this is genuine failure to get it versus humbuggy holier-than-though positioning; probably it’s some of both.

  29. >Correct. However that is not what the FSF will say if you ask them – they’ll moan endlessly about Deep Moral Issues. I don’t know how much of this is genuine failure to get it versus humbuggy holier-than-though positioning; probably it’s some of both.

    AFAIK, the FSF’s Deep Moral Issues are all about reasons why people should use free software. So why are they saying that it’s not about marketing strategies? Or are there other Deep Moral Issues that I’m not remembering?

  30. > Can someone point me to a list of licenses that qualify as OSS but not FS? FS but not OSS?

    This question is also complicated by the question of who decides what licenses are Free Software or not. For all the ideological bickering the FSF is involved in, my experience is that most developers care much more about what Debian thinks is a free software license than what the FSF does.

    IMO, this makes the OSI’s definition and the DFSG’s much better indications of what is “Free” than RMS’s rants. It also leads to a number of other issues, in part because the Debian folks actually have to address how licenses are used and their judgements affect actual distribution of software in a way the FSF’s pronouncements don’t:

    1) GNU licenses are NOT always Free according to Debian. The GFDL is non-free when used with invariant sections and this includes most GNU manuals. Should we include these documents as “Open” but not “Free?”

    2) The GPL v3 additional terms clauses might at some point trigger non-Free judgements by Debian. This means that all GPL v3 software is open source, but only a subset (currently the full set but this could change) is Free.

  31. Tom, the difference is that the FSF thinks that Freedom (as they choose to redefine it) is all the marketing anything ever needs, and so anything else, or any deviation from their message, is an attempt to Shackle the Poor Unsuspecting User, and therefore eeeeevil and deserving of nothing but derision and hatred.

  32. The examples that spring to mind are the Netscape Public License (FSF-free but not OSI-Open Source) and the Open Watcom Public License (OSI-Open Source but not FSF-Free and not DFSG-free, and such a horrifying document I’d be loath to use it, let alone redistribute or modify it).

  33. One of the more difficult (but necessary) tasks in this area is seeing the subject as it appears to the uninitiated who come across it. The term “free software” is infamously misleading in English for reasons already discussed to death. “Open source” is much more self-explanatory, generally leaving the difference between genuinely forkable source and viewable source as a fine point to clarify later on.

    Now consider FOSS/FLOSS. The problem with those isn’t merely that that they sound like goofy nutjob organisation investigated by Emma Peel and John Steed. Worse, it is that neither term can be understood without first understanding _both_ free software and open source, as prerequisite study.

    That isn’t merely gross marketing failure; it’s a semantic black hole that sucks marketing into it, never to be seen again. It’s a finely executed study in nomenclature incompetence — and I can’t help noticing it’s promoted by, among others, the same crowd who were doing such a masterful job of keeping free software an obscure ideology prior to 1998.

    Rick Moen
    rick@linuxmafia.com

  34. > What would you call it?
    I’m no great thinker, I’d call it Free software, or simply call it software, and not consider non-free software. Because In denmark, things that do not cost anything are called gratis, and free is always referring to freedom.

    > Open source is, at least, a term for which not many people already have a binding, so it’s easier to introduce to people. I think it works best of these alternatives–it’s not intimidatingly confusing or ambiguous.
    Agreed, doesn’t mean that I think it’s the clearest possible description, but for now, it’s pretty good.

  35. I believe that “free software” is a poor name for the software we are discussing. I’m pretty sure the average computer user who doesn’t spend his time learning as much as he can about computers believes that software like Google Earth and iTunes are “free software.” “Open source” software concisely describes something dramatically different than the commercial world of Microsoft (or even Apple or Google much of the time). “Open source” software is a better term because it is does not carry with it the inherent ambiguity of “free”. Stallman can think all he wants that he has redefined “free software” with his Free Software Foundation but he will likely never win that battle.

  36. Marketing and PR have always been a serious shortcomings in the free software/open source communities. Many computer geeks just seem to be very bad at picking names or considering how they look to the outside world (is this really a surprise?) Consider “Linpus”. What a beautiful name! Compare “F-spot” and “Picasa”. Or “BitchX”. Consider the fantastic PR work that was done to reassure everyone that every possible step was being taken to prevent permanent hardware damage during the Intel Network Card debacle: https://bugs.launchpad.net/ubuntu/+source/linux/+bug/263555

    Is there any hope? Big companies have professional PR representatives paid to make them look good full-time. They feel financial pain when their reputation is damaged. We have an army of amateur philosophers with foot-in-mouth disease, who cannot accept constructive criticism. Linux can compete technically, but not in marketing and marketing companies are very good at winning market share.

    I was explaining the “Embrace Extend Extinguish” strategy to my brother yesterday and he was genuinely surprised to hear about Microsoft’s underhandedness.

  37. Well, great comment @Leslie…

    3 years later I have to say I’m tired of GIMPing along, this is totally LAME, and Open Source has won because it is exactly right. How anyone can argue “Free Software” vs “Open Source” only shows their personal investment of time, or ego vs. sensibility. I guess there’s no arguing about Open Source now, is there?

  38. Pingback: Open Source Can Do No Harm | ZekeBlog 2.0

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