Ada Lovelace Day

For some reason this year I feel like doing a post on this day. I’m generally a critic of the language and philosophy of geek feminism. Most Ada Lovelace posts strike me as patronizing and play in to tokenism, even though I’m quite sure the authors don’t intend that in any way.

So why am I contributing to Ada Lovelace Day? Because I woke up this morning, read the blogosphere and three thoughts came to mind:

  1. I can still count the number of women in FLOSS that I’ve personally met or worked with on one hand.
  2. Whether it be my math-phobe wife or math-loving labmate now doing her postdoctoral research at Wayne State University,  every woman I’ve talked to about gender issues in science and math has had a negative math/science experience. They all felt at some point (usually in elementary school) that they were either being discouraged from math/science or treated differently because they were doing math/science.
  3. A common thread I’ve encountered in talking to women about their struggles and experiences in math/science/technology is that relationships are key. Negative relationships during the learning experience seem to have a great impact.

So what conclusions did I draw? How can we make math, science, and technology fields a welcoming place for women? As Lydia just pointed out, role models are key.  Safe places and support community are key. But also very important is that we remember that the learning experience (attitude, tone, etc.) can be just as important as the material being taught.

Lastly, I know I rarely see rude/sexist/derogatory speech in official Ubuntu channels I hang out in, but I know the crap women in FLOSS have to put up with on a daily basis on IRC is incredible. If you see people being rude or harassing people online, don’t let it go, confront it! Chances are, 99% of the channel will be (perhaps silently) thanking you.

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Making money with FLOSS, really?

Martin just posted a lengthy critique of an article by Nick Fox on Linux business models. I’m not going to address Nick’s post but I do have a few issues with Martin’s.

Martin says regarding the idea that commercial software == closed-source software:

It also assumes that FOSS can’t possibly be commercial, a big mistake and a common myth. You can take a copy of a GPL licensed program and sell (that’s right, for money) the software to someone.

I would say it is a common FOSS myth that you can make money selling FOSS just because you are allowed to. This is why you will (almost) never find an company that actually sells just the open-source software. In an age when distribution of software is so cheap, why pay for something that you are almost guaranteed to be able to download for free?

Martin says:

The nature of the free market is that goods or services will be priced very close to the costs of replication and distribution.

In a free market the price is dictated by supply and demand. Supply depends on not only the cost of replication and distribution, but significantly in this case on the cost of production. It’s trivial give away something for free which cost you nothing to get! The reality is that software is not free to produce, even open-source software. You can ask Mark Shuttleworth about that. Additionally, there is currently high demand for closed-source, proprietary software products. This is mostly because this development model can still give good quality, professional software at a price that people don’t mind paying for. This is especially true in niche markets that don’t have a lot of interested FLOSS developers. The FLOSS development model can give better results, but that doesn’t mean it always or even often does, at least at this time.

I think there are a number of people out there in the Linux community that feel that open source would dominate the software world if only it wasn’t being “suppressed” by the big bad corporates and those odious, evil patents . I think that these definitely create an up-hill battle, don’t get me wrong. But I think our single digit market share still has more to do with the lack of quality software, quality support, and good money-making business models. It’s hard to be profitable in FLOSS (you essentially have to sell something other than the software), which makes it less appealing to big companies and mostly remains the land of “computer geeks”. I still love it, but it seems to me that FLOSS is more an academic and hobby enterprise that you’re lucky if you get paid for. Of course as time goes on, and the trend seems to support this, FLOSS could be come the dominate software development model for businesses. I sure hope so! But I don’t think it will come from selling software.