Open Ballot: does free software need a figurehead?


We're prepping up for our next podcast, and having just returned from interviewing Richard Stallman (coming to an issue of LXF soon!), we want to ask you: does free software need a figurehead? We all talk about the freedom and democracy that FLOSS brings - but does it also help to have a strong character at the top keeping us on the right path?

Let us know what you think in the comments, and we'll read out the best musings in our podcast. This does not apply to grey, soulless drones who call themselves Anonymous Penguin, of course.

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Your comments

yes of course

Maybe not a single figurehead, I think RMS doesn't even wants to be that 'leader'. But yes, some many people who stands for the principles and the motivations... RMS is just one of them, not the only one, perhaps one of the more important ones, but yes, this kind of people are important. There's always a need of sense...

Absolutely yes!

With such "friends" as Canonical and Novell making steps in the wrong direction (read: mono), there is an absolute necessity for such a figurehead as RMS. He helps to keep the general direction right.

Yes, we need people like RMS

It's people like RMS who shile like a beacon towards the direction of software freedom.

Without their shining white light, only the red vulcanic light of Mordor remains.

Yes We Do

Because beliefs tend to fall along a spectrum, you need people on the extremes to show you where the edges of the spectrum are. So you have RMS to show what FLOSS should stand for and then you pick where you fall along the spectrum. I think without a strong personality there, things move around and perhaps GPL wouldn't have made it past version 1.


and it should be Mike :)

Is the pope catholic!

Of course we do.

RMS keeps us all on the right path. Even if most of us do not go the whole distance to the RMS ideal, the fact it is there gives us something to aim for, a benchmark for openness. Without it we might all shift further to the right and consider it acceptable.

RMS, I may not agree with you all of the time but we should all be thankful that you are there.

Not at all

The beauty of the free community is that everybody can be the nutter in his or her own right, that the general populous points to and laughs at.

For a single person to horde all the ridicule, although not strictly against the letter of the GPL, goes against it's spirit.


Yes! No!

Software freedom means milk for schoolkids again.

Two (Figure) Heads Are Better Than One

Open Source (as we always say) is all about choice. So it only makes sense that there would be many major personalities each representing different opinions. But they should be equal.

RMS is certainly one of these. But one of many.

NO. Freedom is the figurehead.

Freedom is the figurehead, how ever hard it is to define.

Whilst Canonical et al, are attempting to create monolithic centralized systems (of yore).

It is more important than ever that the FOSS remain decentralized and focused on the main aim, Freedom.


Yes of course it does. Without someone spearheading a project then there is no clear course in place. Without a clear course it won't get very far.

It should be a democracy

Not having any one person in charge of FOSS is both a good and bad thing. It means that anyone and everyone can make their own choice and not theirs. But it also means that some might keep the whole thing on track.

I think we should have a vote on the people who figureheaditise (is that a word) the Linux* and FOSS community and that we should all vote for them. This would mean that we have someone to keep us on track but also give us freedom of choice (which is one of the reasons I use Linux* anyway).

Maybe there could be like a FOSS parliament where we have all sorts of parties like ones held be Stallman who promote everything GPL and some who want Linux to be used commercially. And their could be voting and stuff.... Or am I getting too over the top?

* GNU/Linux was abbreviated to Linux for briefness. :)

A figure of speech, a council of elders

I think that Gwilym Kuiper has got a good idea with FOSS parliament, although this sounds like quite a big organisation. I think a FOSS council, perhaps of a dozen representatives from different parts of the FOSS spectrum could be useful for guiding the general direction of our cause.

One necessity might be a figurehead or council leader, a good orator, who would publicly champion the FOSS council cause, whilst remaining a democratic member of the council, thus preventing any sort of dictatorial comparisons.

So, yes, we do need a figurehead, but one that will represent freedom in a way that meets the ideals of all computer users who subcribe to it.

Yes absolutely

but you've gotta wonder if RMS is the man for the job!
I mean he's got high principles which he will never break or even bend slightly - which is good - but he can really really annoy people and quickly get their backs up - which 'aint good.

Maybe someone like Simon Phipps would be good


No, what Linux needs is a brand, like Google/Android. Ubuntu is getting there, it always surprises me how often I meet Muggles who have heard of Ubuntu.

Yes - but with a caveat

A leader galvanises their followers, but with the diverse nature of Linux and FOSS, who can be the leader that leads us all?

Apple have Steve Jobs, and they control the hardware and software, so he can easily lead his followers on whatever path he chooses.

Microsoft have Steve Ballmer, and they control their software empire, but have only an influence on the hardware market.

Linux's diversity proves a challenge in this particular area.

No, we already have many figureheads

There are so many facets to FLOSS in general and Linux in particular that no one figurehead could be truly representative nor accepted.

We already have many different figureheads in different areas of FLOSS. Sometimes they're at odds with each other but that is all part of the nature of FLOSS. We have Linus, RMS, Mark Shuttleworth and so on.

RMS has his purpose. He is an extreme uncompromising ideologue who fights that fights that we are unwilling to fight. He pushes the boundaries so that our comfortable middle ground remains comfortable.


This question is about a *figurehead* and not a *leader* definition being "A nominal leader or head without real power" - which within the FLOSS philosophy is a very important distinction.

Now, pernicitty whinging out of the way...

I firmly believe a *charismatic* figurehead is absolutely necessary to advance FLOSS on the desktop, and on mobile devices. True, we've made a big dent on the mobile market, but Android is very much the platform for angry jailbreakers or those who couldn't afford an iPhone.

I was reading this week (it was Linux Format acually) an opinion that what makes Jobs compelling is he stands up with a FINISHED product and raves about it, then we all want one... And that's the distinction. Someone who loves FLOSS and shows it WORKING could really make a difference.

As someone else commented above, on yer soapbox Mike!

no one person could be the figurehead

No one person could be a figurehead for Linux, there are already so many different distros, packages, and ways of doing things. There can be multiple influential figureheads who can help to convince the masses of the joys of Linux and Open Source, but I do think that organisations may be better placed to do so in general.
Mark Shuttleworth could probably do more to personally promote Linux but he cannot speak for all distros, only for Ubuntu.
Google, as an organisation, is already well-established and should do more to promote Linux, especially as they have benefitted greatly from it with Android, and having banned MS Windows from their workers' PCs they probably have a lot of Linux users in their offices.

Yes and no

Yes it does, but not like RMS. Though we do need people like him in the movement, he shouldn't be the figurehead.

Yes, but...

Gswhy is everyone obsessed with RMS? It depends on what you want our figurehead to achieve: if we're talking about protecting the purity of the FLOSS ideals then he's your man, but if we want to encourage the use of Linux to a wider audience as a viable desktop alternative to Windows and OS/X then his puritanical ravings would set the wider cause back ten years! Principles? Yes please, but a figurehead to evangelise Linux to the wider world? Give me Mark Shuttleworth every time.

Drivers and brands

I don't think that if a piece of software is to be successful, it requires a figurehead. However, I do think that it requires someone who is willing to drive that software forward, and, when necessary, be the front-man. Take the example of Firefox. Most people won't have come across Mike Beltzner, but I doubt whether Firefox would be in as good a position as it is now without him.

Of course, there's a big difference between a single piece of software and the entire FOSS ecosystem. When it comes to all the free software out there, I don't think that it's even worth having this discussion: there cannot be an individual who would be acceptable to all parties. RMS is loved by some, loathed by others: just look at the responses to this question!

I think that Flamefodder and DaveS are onto something: we need brands more than we need leaders. If we can package up a slice of the FOSS ecosystem, we're far more likely to find someone to move the brand we create forward -- a Linux Beltzner, as it were. This is why, in my opinion, distros like Ubuntu and Fedora are so successful: they're no longer simply "distributions" of software, but are a single, cohesive whole in and of themselves... like an Apple product.

As hard as it would be.....

I agree with the comments suggesting a brand over a figurehead/leader.

Unfortunately we live in a brand ruled world. Not only in the world of computing, but fashion, cars, home furnishings even the groceries we buy, the vast majority of the general public will buy a product based on the brand rather than if it is any better/worse than another, cheaper/more expensive product.

One example is the iPhone/iPad. People get the iPhone/iPad because of the hype surrounding the product, all their friends have one, it looks good and is cool to have, this is despite the fact there are other more superior (technically) products available at a cheaper price.

So this needs to be translated to linux. We need to collaborate to create one "generic" (horrible word I know) distribution, tart it up, slap a shiny badge on it and sell sell sell (read market market market due to free as in beer).

I am not suggesting we get rid of the other distributions, all credit to them as they all serve their respective niches, but that's the issue discouraging new users.

We need the one launch vehicle to get the casual/general user on to linux, and then open up the wide world it sits atop.

Currently, there is just too much confusion and dis-connectedness (is that a word? you know what I mean!) for users new to linux. They have no idea where to start or what is right for them.

Let's hide all that overwhelming choice (no, choice isn't bad.....choice is goooood..... we all know that).

Then, once we have them hooked, open up the wide world of choice, individualism and freedom that is available.


For the most part, no.

I'm not sure if this is an appropriate analogy, but the WikiLeaks dilemma shows us that it's not always best to have a figurehead to an organization. A figurehead (like Julian Assange) inherits a lot of recognition but also is given the burden of (sometimes untrue) liability. If there were a recognized figurehead for all free software, chances are he/she might be accredited with the creation of illegal software as well as legal software. I think each developer should be recognized for his own work.

That said, a figurehead may give mainstream media an easier way to recognize the freeware community. If some sort of representative body is to be founded, it should be an elected council. Or better yet, a true democracy where all freeware developers have equal chance to represent themselves.

A council run on very

A council run on very democratic grounds would be a good idea.

Not a single figurehead, guys like RMS, Barry Kauler etc

Internally vs. externally

I would say NO, free software does not need A figurehead, but it does need several for varying purposes.
People like RMS are tremendously important within the community for inspiration (and stimulating debate is a positive thing); they are, however, *not* particularly well-suited for outward promotion of the mindset, whereas someone like Eben Moglen and his Freedom Box project would make sense to a lot of people who would not otherwise be oriented towards free software.

Without a doubt

Ask people who Bill Gates is, or Steve Jobs, they will no doubt be able to tell you. Now ask what Free Software is (or Open Source for that matter) and you will get blank looks back.

Yes we need a well known Champion.

it's about freedom for all, not about who leads whom

FOSS needs champions: people like RMS who stand up and say, "I stand for freedom!" These champions inspire the rest of us to do the same.

A champion does not care if anyone is under his authority. A leader often only cares about that.

-1 for a BDFL over FOSS
+1M for more champions

No . . . it just needs cool mascots, cooperation, good decisions

Figureheads are overrated. Honestly, who is inspired to run Windows because Bill Gates is such a cool figurehead? I bet the images of Tux, Puffy, and Beastie are much more powerful selling tools than the image of Bill Gates.

Steve Jobs is influential because he ISN'T just a figurehead, he did something: He turned around Apple by making smart business decisions. He has earned his place for better or worse.

The people I respect in the Free Software community are people who organize people together towards a common goal and put in many thankless hours.

The Free software community will do fine with cool mascots, working together as a community, and making smart decisions that look towards the future and not to the past.

Tux is the dude for the job

Should there be a figurehead. Hey! Tux is the figurehead. Better looking than Steve Jobs. Slimmer than Steve Ballmer. Linux can't fail with Tux at the helm!


I mostly agree with you, you've made some very sensible comments. Those plus a figurehead would mean more power!!!

@ Adam Griffiths

Thanks Adam,

The other bonus that may come with a "united front" so to speak (which I simply forgot to include in my original post) is more hardware/software support.

The multitude of different distributions is currently an impediment to hardware / software vendors not supporting Linux.

While technically it is all Linux under the hood, so a single package should be able to just work on all distros, unfortunately, there are enough subtle differences between distros and the packages/patches they use to make it impossible for vendors to decide which distro to support. They simply do not have the resources to support all the distros.

So having the one distro we put out front would make it easier. Developers would only need to create for Windows/OSX/Linux, not the current Windows/OSX/Ubuntu/Fedora/Mandriva/Arch/Gentoo...........

This frontline distro should be purely standards based, so the other distros simply need to maintain compatability with this base allowing software/hardware to be much more cross platform.




The danger with having a

The danger with having a figurehead is what happens when that figurehead is no longer there?

Karl Marx once said "I am not a Marxist" and I think the point is that Marx wanted to encourage people to think for themselves, rather than rely upon him to think for them.

Ultimately the cult of personality is harmful, I believe.

Although it is good to be inspired by others, we should be wary of a situation where we begin to feel dependent upon 1 or 2 people to lead us as if we were sheep.

As for RMS, I think he's terrific. I know he is stubborn, but, sadly, in this world, you need that. All of the rights and freedoms that we take for granted have only been won by long struggle over hundreds of years. Early campaigners against slavery were told that they were wasting their time... that slavery was part of the natural order and the chances of abolishing it at the time must have looked hopeless, but, thankfully, people were stubborn and resilient and kept on fighting nonetheless and we owe them all a massive debt.

Right, well, here's something you ALL should consider seriously!

I just did a search on this website and not one single poster has mentioned the name "Torvalds".

Good Grief! I would have thought that /might/ be something to draw your attention to. Personally I can see the point about having a figurehead, but cannot a figurehead be an idea or a concept as distinct from a person or individual (given the bizarre legal fallacy that corporations can have the same legal rights as an individual leads to ridiculous and spurious cases revolving around the kinds of issues we are only too well aware of in the free/open source community) it seems rather obvious to me that having an individual that can be considered a figurehead places far too much focus, and the wrath of those who would rather see an end to ALL open source.

Let there be many advocates, yea! Even Apostles if you like. If there can be many figureheads, the target becomes harder to define and harder to attack. As I have said before and will say again: Be your own advocate, demonstrate the ethic of open source by getting involved.

Or just use it, be grateful and maybe tell your friends how great it is. There are too many battles at too many levels for a single individual to have to be held responsible for the "whole box and dice", which saying reminds me once again of the saying that first got me interested: "All your boxen are belong to us!"

rock on.

There is no such thing as a problem
without a gift for you in its hands

@mjcpk - oops

Oh, ok, one mention of Linus. I was using the logical search in *firefox* ... cough, cough.

Tony Benn

should he ^ head linux - love the quote and the philosophical discussion that followed - and Bananaman

Prince Andrew

He will be looking for a new job soon.


I agree with the poster who

I agree with the poster who said it should be Mike!

We need representatives, not figureheads.

Putting your whole sculpture into one figurehead is too constricted. A singular mouthpiece will only ever have appeal to one part of the audience. A democratized, representative body is a better cross section of the supporters and cannot help but have broader appeal.

Strong people need no leaders

That's what early 20th century Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata said.

I don't think the FOSS movement needs a "leader" as such. And that's the difference. FOSS is a "movement" of people who share some common ideas about computer user freedom.

In this world wide movement there are lots of leaders. If you're reading this, chances are that you are some kind of leader. You might be a leader in your workplace, your school or amongst your friends.

Just keep on doing what you are doing i.e. talking to folks about the benefits of FOSS, help others to switch to FOSS, write new FOSS applications and donate to FOSS projects.

FOSS has come a long way since RMS created the FSF back in 1985 despite opposition from some very powerful corporations like Apple and Microsoft and the governments that are in their hip pockets.

Keep doing all of the wonderful things that you are doing!

Think we missed the point, a figurehead...

Personally, I think the world needs a select few people who support and promote the principle of an open source world. There are those who can speak for their own products (Shuttleworth) but at the same time promote and sell to the public the diversity and opportunity that it offers. We live in a time of individual freedom and expression. Everyone in all walks of life, and more so in the tech world, personalize everything. Linux/FOSS offers that personalization well above anything in the commercial market. I'm sure all here have "tweaked" a distro to their own liking more often than not. A figurehead is nothing more than the promoter of that individual expression. That figurehead just stands up as a constant recognizable entity that is associated with the ideals and product that we all enjoy. And we all know that every one here immediately thinks of Apple when they see Jobs, golf when they see Tiger Woods and even M$ when Bill Gates pic flashes the screen. They provide a face to represent a product. LInux has many faces, but we need one or so readily identifiable individuals to those outside the "linux world" who immediately place the concept of FOSS in everyone else's mind.

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