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Dave Crossland on libre software

In a forum in which Adrien Tetar's Trufont UFO font editor was discussed in 2015, the conversation turned to free versus proprietary software. Many argued that you get what you pay for. Dave Crossland had one beuatiful (long) reply to many questions or objections, in favor of free software for making fonts. To the comment I guess I just don't understand what it is that you cannot get from proprietary software, other than "free", he replied:

"Freedom" is a pretty wooly term, and clearly hasn't conveyed the idea to you. I'll try to explain another way: I get personal responsibility, or, control of my design process. Consider the times you've experienced a crash in a program that went unfixed longer than you wanted, or had an idea for a feature of a program that has never been implemented. Sure, you can get along with those negative outcomes, say to yourself "well, I paid my fees and this is what I get, I take it or leave it." But it kind of sucks, right? Most people are willing to go along with that arrangement until the crashes or the bug or the missing features become really annoying. Then what can they do? Today in our community, some people are petitioning Adobe to add what they see as 'missing features' for font OpenType Features. How do you feel about that? For the last few years, many people here have been asking FontLab Inc to fix crashes in FL5. What was that like? Why do those negative outcomes happen? I think that they happen because the developers have a monopoly on those programs; only they can decide when a crash is fixed or when a feature is added. They are totally, 100% responsible.

The argument of a pro-proprietary poster: One gets what one is willing to pay for; it has always been that way. Otherwise there is little or no motivation for software developers to continue to make their product better. Dave Crossland's reply: There has been little or no motivation for Adobe to make OpenType Font features conveniently accessible to users; there has been little or no motivation for FontLab to fix bugs knowns about for years. Sometimes proprietary software is available without a fee, and sometimes libre software requires a fee to access a copy. You got what you paid for, and that was it. RoboFont calls this being a "victim" in its design principles. What I want to get is the ability to get involved in how my tools work, so that when those inevitable moments arrive when I want the tool to work in a way that the developers are not providing, then I can take personal responsibility to get what I want to happen, happening. That kind of ability is a particular one, I think accurately called freedom.

A new commentary: I have looked at libre products in other areas in the past and while I was impressed by the effort involved on the part of the programmers, the end result was not as good as that of commercial versions. David Crossland retorts: I'm going to nit-pick here, because I think your phrasing raises an important point. You say "the end result," as if the program was never going to need to be changed ever again. There is one program I am aware of that is at that 'end result' stage, Donald Knuth's TeX: it has not had any bugs identified in years, and works exactly as it was specified and is documented. But the world is always changing around us. Other pieces of software are being written that each program could be combined with. But if there is a monopoly on development, can it? This is not a technical question; it is a social question, "who decides?" If TeX was not libre, I doubt that it would ever reach that 'end result' stage. And because it is, its 30+ year history continues: The original TeX can't interface with OpenType fonts, so a version of it was made that can, XeTeX. But in turn XeTeX can not easily typeset multi-script documents, so the SILE project was started; a clean start that yet still includes parts of TeX. So an important point about why tool freedom matters is that a tool's utility value isn't just what it can do today, but what its future/potential utility can be. If only one person or organization can decide, that is not a market monopoly, but a monopoly de facto. But really your point here is that in your experience, the overall result of libre programs is not as good as proprietary ones. I can agree that the overall result of many software projects is less than satisfying, but for me the balance is in favour of libre ones. All too often I want to do things that the program can not yet do, and through somewhat bitter experience I have come to the conclusion that there is a principle that tools I use ought to be libre.

Next objection: Profit is the best driver. Dave's reply: Many libre software projects are developed for-profit, though :) So I totally agree that when libre software projects are not backed by full time - waged - developers, then the overall result is more likely to be dissatisfying than if it is only developed by part time hobbyists. The greatest thing about a capitalist mode of production where companies offer customers something they want so much they will pay enough that the company is profitable, is that focus on what users want. The problem for users is about the monopoly on development this often entails. But for-profit development isn't incompatible with libre software development. Many libre software projects are developed for-profit! :) For me, the paid development of libre software is really the sweet spot, and I work hard to raise funds to pay people to work on libre software and fonts. I feel sad indeed that almost all of the libre graphics applications are developed by hobbyists, and are inadequate for many professional designers. Blender and Krita stand out as exceptions. Red Hat Inc is the largest example of a for-profit company like this; it is public traded on the NASDAQ. The business model works just like one that many proprietary software companies use: users pay a subscription to the developers, and the developers earn the money by developing software that users want. Happy customers continue to pay, unhappy customers shop elsewhere. I very much hope that someone starts a business developing TruFont like that.

Next comment: I can't speak for Dave, but as a software developer there are times when it's frustrating that you can't crack open some piece of software to either fix some issue or to add some missing functionality. . Dave's reply: Most frequently it is people who have learned some programming who care about this ability, people who can say with a straight face, "I am a software developer." I'm rather unusual in that respect, as I don't know much about programming, but I really value my freedom to use, study and modify my design tools. When I was studying to be a designer, I expected to have revenue from clients for whom I would perform design services, and I planned to use some of that revenue to hire people with programming skills to make the changes that I wanted. I was much influenced by those classes and keynotes in the type community about 'designing the design process,' where the importance of designers being able to work on their design tools, as well as with them, is highlighted. That is really what the software freedom movement is about, for me.

One more comment: That being said, that means that GUI OSS is going to be a fairly limited appeal if that's the only additional draw. Dave: Jack, you're an active user of RoboFont. Are you completely happy with it? Are there things you think that Frederik will never fix or support? I must admit that I rather bristle when people paint the idea of software freedom being a wooly, abstract, impractical concept. To me it is an entirely practical thing. If all else is equal, who would prefer a proprietary tool to a libre one? Of course I understand, as stated in the design principles, that RoboFont is built as a platform. "The extensibility of its object model allows a designer to build whatever they can think of on the base of RoboFont." Therefore some RoboFont users might say that it doesn't matter if Frederik will not fix or support something, because one can write your own version of whatever you need that runs inside RoboFont. The problem I have with this is that for some things, I would need to have access to the internals of RoboFont; this things are not available to each user, only to Frederik. A few years ago I discussed this with Frederik and he kindly said that, well, in a real situation like this I would only have to email him and he'd share the source code I needed. That's a wonderful offer, but what if he says "no"? I hear RoboFont users complaining about the speed of the program in various ways. I suspect that it isn't possible for RoboFont users to improve the speed, without complete access to the source code. However, TruFont is built with PyQt5, so it should be able to fix all speed problems that arise. In the FAQ there are a number of questions to which the answer is simply and firmly, "No." Chief among them is if there'll ever be a version of RoboFont for computers running something other than Mac OS X. Adrien runs Windows, and doesn't want to use a Mac. Thus, TruFont.

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Luc Devroye ⦿ School of Computer Science ⦿ McGill University Montreal, Canada H3A 2K6 ⦿ lucdevroye@gmail.com ⦿ http://luc.devroye.org ⦿ http://luc.devroye.org/fonts.html