Just Another Proprietary Service

One of my favourite open source institutions is considering replacing their use of an open source tool with a proprietary service “donated” for “free” by its vendor.

It’s time I just said what I think: Encouraging open-source contributors to adopt another proprietary sponsored service is against the principles I want the institution to uphold.

Pootle is an open source tool that assists with human-language translation. Contributors to a project use it to write and contribute translations of open source software into their local language. As with many open source projects, it is under-resourced. Proprietary services look more attractive, if we look as measures such as the immediate user experience and the maintenance burden.

Yet, when we ask contributors to use any “donated” proprietary service, we make those users and the FOSS community bear its cost in the domains of lock-in and advertising. I am disappointed to hear that my favourite institution is seriously considering this. (This is not about translation tools specifically; I feel the same about all the user-facing tools and services we use.)

Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting this goes against the institution’s policies, and of course there are hard-to-ignore benefits to choosing a proprietary service. I can’t imagine exactly how much pain it is trying to maintain this Pootle instance. On the other hand I do know first-hand the pain of maintaining a lot of other FOSS that I insist on using myself, and I sometimes wonder if I’d like to switch to a commercial this-or-that. At those times I remember how much I value upholding the open source principles, and I choose to stick with what is sometimes less immediately convenient but ultimately more rewarding.

Time after time I observe the FOSS community suffering from getting sucked in to the traps of commercial interest like this. A FOSS project chooses to use a commercial service for its own convenience, and by doing so it feeds the commercial service, increasing familiarity with it and talk about it (forms of lock-in and advertising), decreasing the development going in to competing FOSS services, making it more likely that others will follow. I observe FOSS people tending to concentrate on the short-term benefit to their own project in isolation, even when they are peripherally aware that their field would benefit in the long run from working together with others on the tools and services that they all need.

What could be the cultural process led the institution to this place?

“Current tools are poor… Let’s try another ‘free’ service to quickly overcome our problem.”

I feel like there’s a cultural step missing there. Where is the step that says,

“We are hundreds of open source developers needing a good translation service. Other open source developers are trying to develop good translation services for people like us. What a great fit! Let’s work together!”?

I would rather join and contribute to a new project group whose purpose is to provide an Open service (in this case for translation) for the institution’s projects to use, doing whatever development, customization, maintenance and IT infra work it needs depending on the state of the available open solutions.

To fill in the missing step, I feel we need to introduce a culture of speaking out at a membership level to say, “Here’s a challenge; who can volunteer to form a group to solve it?” and encouraging members to think of working together on communal service provision projects as a normal part of the institution’s activity.

By working closely with the FOSS people who want to provide a service that we need, our contribution to the upstream software projects would benefit others for the public good, and more generally we would foster mutually beneficial growth and normalization of adoption of FOSS technologies.

I’m not saying it isn’t hard to get the necessary contribution level to make a difference, or that folks haven’t tried before. (Some communal service projects are used in this institution, but they tend to be small scale in-house projects rather than collaborations with other FOSS projects.)

How can we drum up support for doing it the FOSS way?