Monday, 19 October 2009

What would Richard Stallman do?

It’s been a while since I talked about open source theory, but it comes up now and again because it’s pretty much a part of everything I’ve been working on lately. There’s been the open source Illuminato X Machina project (schematics, gerbers and software here), the Open Source Hardware Bank (and the Open Source Hardware that was produced as a result). But before I wax philosophic (perhaps something for later this week), I decided to try applying open source to a current problem.

Folks have been picking up the Portable Megapalm for one reason or another, where a touchscreen and buttonpad come in handy. But John and Glenn made an excellent point – why not have some handheld/mobile computing type software running on it? Maybe even some form of Linux? In any case, this could really go one step closer towards a truly customizable, open source, handheld/mobile computing device.

Then Matt and I looked at each other and asked “WWRSD?”, or “What would Richard Stallman do?” The phrase works just as well with Linus Torvalds, or your favorite open source hero :-)

Well, the conventional, closed-source solution would be to spend $1000’s (if not more) paying for full-time coders to develop proprietary software for such a project.

The open source solution would be to turn it around to a community of talented coders, passionate about driving their own projects and bringing open source devices one notch up versus closed source alternatives.

Nevertheless, Richard Stallman might mention something about the open source battle cry “free as in speech, not as in beer”. The classical gratis vs. libre distinction suggests that everyone is free to modify, reuse and contribute – but this does not necessarily equate to zero-cost. In the case of software with little marginal cost, however, open source has tended to mean both gratis and libre.

Despite the fact that many coders on open source project spend time on a project out of personal interest in a cause, it doesn’t mean that they couldn’t use some extra pocket cash.

It’s not the first time that someone is offering a little bit of money to help light the spark for an open source software project, though. My beloved New York City just launched an initiative called NYC BigApps, seeking software developers to create the best applications to analyze NYC’s open data sets and help improve the system, offering a $20K prize and a dinner with the Mayor.

Github launched something similar to improve its functionality. They offered up a nice ~$70 bottle of liquor in a friendly competition to solve a problem and get some new ideas and recommendations.

So I talked to Stephen, a staunch supporter of OS, and asked him what he thought of the situation. He said that he’d even redirect his I-bills towards getting some functional software written on the Slide and Portable Megapalm, on the condition that it was written collaboratively, and in an open source fashion.

Here’s what he was thinking in terms of stuff for the Portable Megapalm, all of which is open to thoughts and comments:

$1000 in funds towards folks who could develop a PDF reader
$500 in funds towards those who can get a quick JPG viewer up
$500 in funds towards functionality, features, or projects that the community votes on and is interested in seeing

Of course, it’s open source and collaborative, and shouldn’t be a hardcore competition! Hence I say “funds”, as it will be distributed across the top 5 or so contributors to each project.

What do you think? If you’re interested, or have an idea on how it could be better structured, feel free to send me a note or comment: jhuynh at gmail

On Friday, I’ll wrap up a few of the feedback that I get and kick it off next week. Looking forward to it!


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