Thoughts on FOSS + Community in context of FOSS United

@mriya11 recently asked me about what is the “vision” for FOSS United and I did not have a clear answer, so here are some rambling thoughts.

When we say “FOSS”, I am realising it means very different things to different people. Here are some that come to mind.

  1. Software “rights”: If you look at the origin of “Free Software” (Stallman), it strongly comes from the perspective that I should have the right to study and change the software that runs my hardware. Period. It is not concerned with how software gets paid for. So far this has been the ideological core of the movement over the years. I should have full control over my machine and that means the right to modify my software as I see please. And once I modify the software, then I should also have rights to distribute it.
  2. Industry Collaboration: Freedom and sharing makes it very convenient for a large number of companies to come and collaborate on projects - to share engineering costs to build and maintain complex software. Linux and Linux Foundation are great examples.
  3. “Open Source” and Entrepreneurship: This comes from the perspective of how do we “sustain” all the work that gets created. While we want the “rights” on software, we also realise that there is a lot of thankless maintenance and housekeeping and vigilance that is required to sustain upgrades to the software - this is where open source comes in the perspective of software released and maintained by companies. A lot of funding that has gone into FOSS projects comes because people have realised that it is possible to sustain and thrive with just providing additional services around FOSS projects (hosting, support etc) and even by keeping some parts non-public (which kind of violates #1)
  4. Learn world class engineering: One of the collateral benefits of software being “free” both open and free is that it becomes and excellent tool for learners - this is where we are seeing maximum traction in the FOSS United community with students using the opportunity to interact with these projects and learn how large scale software projects are being built and maintained. What are world class engineering standards and how they can learn just by observing and participating.

How does this translate to the FOSS United community?

  1. If we look at our community, we have very few idealists. Probably @Abhas is the only one who truly “gets” the idea of software rights, and is passionate about living his ideals. The rest of are just regular folks. (edit: another person I can think of is @Arya_Kiran)
  2. We have very very little industry collaboration - because we don’t have a critical mass of leaders inside companies who believe that FOSS is a great way to build software. There are very few @knadh s out there who are part of companies that have scale and understand the dynamics of cross industry collaboration. Even though there are several large companies now using ERPNext, I don’t think they look at community as a medium for long term sustainability (except Zerodha of course). The closest we have to industry collaboration is the End Software Patents initiative. While we have had some support from academia, we have found very few takers in industry.
  3. The last 3-5 years has seen a few projects who have come up with the idea of building sustainable businesses around FOSS (or strictly, open source) projects - this seems to be a fast growing and acceptable model in India and we have a few startups here - Chatwoot, Hoppscotch, Tooljet and others (including Frappe). FOSS United can provide an excellent platform to launch new “open source” projects get access to early users and mentoring. This seems to be already a win.
  4. Learning is where we have the fastest traction - because India has a large and enthusiastic student population and they don’t have many opportunities to interact and learn from world class engineers.

Here is the map of what this community probably looks like

To build a sustainable / prosperous community we need to work at all 4 levels. Doing community events is a great win for all parties. Having an active online community is great for education and open source. These are the things we have been doing right.

The question then becomes how do we drive more industry collaborations and create awareness about software rights? Or maybe we just wait for those leaders to come and drive this organically or can we do something to make this platform more open?

The broad vision is to build a community where all the 4 levels are activated. I am not sure how.

Just some random thoughts, comments welcome.


I’m not sure how “capable” I am to participate in a discussion like this. But here are my 2 cents on the above sentence.

Instead of us driving more industry collaborations, I honestly feel that the folks in the industry driving it with them having interest in the collaboration is more important and legitimate. Not that, we should stop or not try driving industries in. But, we are not 100% sure how much they are interested in collaboration or how much do they understand or align with our vision of Open Source, Free Software rights or Idealism. Reaching out to that particular group of people or industry is something we need to do a good scale if we want better and healthy collaborative bond with the them.

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I am confused, do you think we should drive this or not? :thinking:

Overall, I think this has to be “inbound”. I don’t see we have the depth in industry (or even understanding) of how cross industry development can happen around FOSS.

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1 is free software (no need to call it idealism. The idealism is built into the definition of free software philosophy)

2 & 3 are the same - both are open source

4 is hacker culture that FOSS United founders seem to have put into FOSS United goals ( “To promote the spirit of hacking and tinkering.” )

Please don’t build pyramids like this. It “frames” thinking in terms of some hierarchy that doesn’t actually exist. Unless of course you do believe that free software is the ideal. In that case, and you believe in this pyramid, “free software” becomes the ideal and the vision for FOSS United. You’ll have to change the name to Free Software United.

If on the other hand what you meant was to show relative size of different thinking, a bar chart or histogram might be best.

Yes, the difference is that one is driven by industry and other by entrepreneurs.

Most people have affinity to an idea but don’t think of it as “life’s mission”. The idealists are those who embed these values deeper than most - so maybe the pyramid represents both volume and idealism (?)

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Okay, maybe let me think this from scratch.

What’s the question? What’s the vision for FOSS United

Let’s first think about who should answer that. If FOSS United is a strictly hierarchical organizational entity, then those at the top have to answer it. If FOSS United is a democratic entity there’s scope for discussions like these and consensus building. I assume here the latter is what’s happening.

So, then, what follows is how I would think about an organizational entity like FOSS United and set a vision for it, in the hope that I can build consensus around this vision.

Firstly, I would have to think about what’s the change in the world that I want to see happening. I could be interested in

  1. A just and equitable world where every individual lives up to their full potential
  2. A world in which the activities I’m interested in happens much more frequently and in full vigor
  3. A world in which I’m very rich/famous/both.
  4. The world needs no change.

It is for me to choose. Depending on how much agency I feel in life, I might choose more ambitious goals. And depending on how much I care about others, I might choose more socially oriented goals.

Let us run through some scenarios. Let’s say I’m interested in a just, equitable world.

Then, we have to look at how we can reach such a world. We need a theory of change.

We could start with one assumption: “The world is far too complex to think in simple models and we need to be very widely read, think interdiscplinarily and intersectionally, use complex models like complex adaptive systems model and keep working out what we need to do”.

An alternative assumption could be: “Although the world is far too complex, we can break it down into smaller parts and understand those fully and work on those parts”.

If we go by the second assumption, we would have to figure out a way to break it down into smaller parts. I personally feel that without keeping the larger, complex world in our mind, breaking it down is impossible.

But nevertheless, let us say we still break it down. I could say the following statements:
A: “Software is a useful part of the world.”
B: “Sharing and collaboration are useful for the society”
C: “Sharing software and collaborating on software are useful for the society”.

Now, A might be very agreeable for many. B could be context specific. And C therefore becomes context specific.

Aside: A & B could be arguable as well, but I believe FOSS people start with this assumption and I don’t want to generate all the possibilities this discussion could go into.

What are the contexts in which B/C becomes wrong?

This is where our more complex world interferes with our simple model.

Sharing and collaboration could be not useful for the society in the following cases:

  1. When sharing and collaboration in the short term leads to less sharing and less collaboration in the future.
  2. When sharing and collaboration can lead directly to harm (this could be because either A is wrong and the software itself leads to harm, or because B is wrong and there’s something specific about this software that leads to harm when it is shared)

What’s free software philosophy in this lens?: Free software philosophy is the idea that sharing and collaboration on software is a moral and ethical imperative. That there are no situations in which sharing is bad. And that all software ought to be shared freely in a free software license. This is the Stallman philosophy.

What’s open source philosophy in this lens?: Open source philosophy is the idea that sharing and collaboration is good as long as it doesn’t lead to less sharing and collaboration in the future. An example would be source-available licenses and projects that rely on open core model - wherein the assumption that’s being made is that maintainers of a software need to make money and sustain and they should be able to do it with the software they’re building itself and this shouldn’t be hampered by competitors. (Of course this is my definition of open source philosophy because I am not aware of any philosophical essays on what is open source).

Now, let us perhaps introduce one more complexity in this simple software focused model. Let us say the following statement:

  • “For a just and equitable world, we need to have lots of jobs and this can be achieved through lots of companies building software.”

This might be what people like Nandan Nilekani think about the role of software and the world based on this snippet

When we look at it from that assumption, the question becomes, how do we build a lot of jobs through software companies? Let us reassess sharing and collaboration with this lens:

A: Sharing and collaboration on shared challenges (like database, web framework, etc) is useful because it allows building faster
B: Sharing and collaboration on a subset of the company is useful because it allows wide adoption and retains a revenue source
C: Sharing and collaboration (or at least the perception of it) builds goodwill and is useful for the company

A is the @jackerhack definition of open source: Open source is shared infrastructure that decreases cost for everyone using it.

B is open core model

C is what is referred to as open-washing. Projects like Telegram, IndiaStack, etc do it.

With the above exposition what I’m trying to point out is that we need to have some shared set of assumptions and values if we’re to work on one goal.

The fundamental difference between free software philosophy oriented people/groups and open-source philosophy oriented people/groups is that the former puts moral imperative above profit and the latter puts profit above moral imperative. Which is why these groups usually hate each other.

What FOSS United has been doing till now is to Unite Free and Open-Source Software groups. To do this, it used the following commonalities:

  1. There is a spirit of hacker culture, tinkering, writing software to solve problems in both these groups. They’re united by coding.
  2. There is a shared set of licenses, software projects that satisfy both the free software criteria and open source criteria. They’re united by codebases.
  3. There is a shared ideology that software that’s permissively licensed is more or less useful to the society.

What has FOSS United been doing.

  • As a platform/forum connecting people together and allowing them to network (through telegram, indiafoss, etc)
  • As a generation-accelerator by giving reason for people to write code (through grants, conferences, and prestige)
  • As an adoption-accelerator by engaging with top-down adoption through government policy work and through working with NGOs, etc directly

What should FOSS United’s vision be?

I spent a lot of time in the Telegram group of FOSS United. And some events and hacks. Why? For me the vision of FOSS United was/is:

  • As a platform/forum which is ideologically motivated and working towards increasing FOSS in the world
  • As a group which works on increasing awareness of the value that sharing and collaboration is good for human society
  • As a group which works on a bottom-up approach of social change by engaging with a very large number of people (even if it means not using FOSS)
  • As a group which engages constructively with the top-down approach (of government or industry) by focusing on the value of sharing and collaboration and pushing the top actors to adopt these values

These are very well in line with what is documented on the about page:

So when you ask this:

My answer is that

  1. Industries definitely don’t share the ideals of “free software philosophy”
  2. Industries could be convinced by the practical points of “open source philosophy”
  3. But industries are probably not bothered by the vision of social change and they might or might not use open source temporarily or not.
  4. It is a futile process.

In other words, I believe that there are fundamental differences between FOSS United’s values and industry values that make it very hard to get any permanent engagement with industries. I would make a bet that If @knadh goes away from Zerodha, even Zerodha will stop producing free software. But if you still believe that chasing the industries is useful, you will have to see the parts of open source philosophy that they might resonate with - minimizing infrastructure costs.

But if you are interested in deeper social change, you have to look at the deeper underlying social phenomena - like capitalism, globalization, surveillance states, caste, patriarchy, etc.


Very thoughtful (and thought provoking post). Will respond over the weekend

Apologies for the wrong phrasing.

We should do, but imposing it as our need would be a kind of one way connection only. To summarize, I meant that the industries should also be enthusiastic enough like us to do a collaboration.

At the end it will beneficiary for both the organizations

I broadly agree - there is no real interest from industry anyways. Also the values align with a bottoms up democratic, member driven community than a top down industry driven. When I say democratic, I mean a system where we have a process where everyone’s voice is heard and we come to solutions by dialogue and consent (as against power and authority). I don’t think we have a model in place for that yet (there is another thread on this), but my aspiration exists.

We need a way to come to agreement on things like what should be the thrust of FOSS United’s policy initiatives and why. At least in these matters there should be a way to hear more diverse voices and come to some conclusion.

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Entrepreneurs evolve into industry. These are not mutually exclusive concepts.

The pyrmaid is not realistic. Reality here is not a neat, discrete pyramid. It’s a gooey mish-mash of overlaps.

An organisation is the sum total of the people in it (realistically people who have power, agency, voice that is—board, management, shareholders etc. to varying degrees). When these people change, organisations also change

Any goal to “chase” industry to imbibe the philosophy of FOSS, to make industry see the light, would be naive. That is the very nature of for-profit joint share holding corporations (and the modern economy).

The realistic goal here is far simpler:

  • For profit industries consume FOSS, derive value from FOSS communities and the work of hobbyists. This already happens despite any sort of evangelism and push because it’s common sense. When high quality technology is available freely (both kinds of free), of course orgs are going to use it.
  • They need to give back (in kind, code, money, whatever) because it’s the right thing to do and it’s also common sense, it’s the spirit of FOSS. And it’s more than symbolism. Reciprocation there can have tangible benefits to people and communities who put in their time, effort, and energy.

That is a realistic goal. The push is for that, not some naive idealism which years for industry to “see the light”. The idealism here is about the push itself, that it’s the right thing to do.


The difference between level 2 (collaboration) and 3 (open source) is that the goal in #2 is purely to collaborate. Level #3 is more concerned about commericalisation and sustainability (this is where open core seeps in). The incentives are different in both these cases.

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I agree with you when you say,

I would add the following points:

*To be a “Big Tent” organization that brings different members of the FOSS community together.

  • To increase India’s contribution to the global FOSS commons.

Where I disagree with you is when you say,

I think this is a very binary view. Industry has a profit motive, but industry is run by human beings. Some of these humans are selfish power hungry psychopaths, some are greedy, money minded folks, some are apathetic to what is happening around them, some are keen on giving back to society. It is the last category that we have to tap into. After three decades of being in media and public policy, I can happily say that there are plenty of folks who believe in giving back to society by contributing time and money. You argue that if @knadh goes away from Zerodha, they will stop contributing to FOSS. I think only K can answer that one, but think of the reverse. If K joins another organization, I am sure that he will get that organization to contribute to FOSS. I think that underscores my point on organizations being run by people, and people spanning the entire spectrum from greedy to altruistic.

I think FOSS itself is a fundamental change in society. As Prof. Steven Weber wrote in his book, The Success of Open Source, “Property in open source is configured around the right to share, not the right to exclude.” This is revolutionary because throughout history, we have fought wars because control of property like land, gold, spices, river waters, made some groups richer than others. The FOSS model of Collaboration, Community and the shared ownership of knowledge is different because we make ourselves and the entire community richer by working together. It might take centuries for our genetically hardwired tribal brains to adjust to this new phenomenon called FOSS but there are plenty of folks who believe in contributing to something greater than themselves.

I think our mission should be to work with industry, academia and government to build a deeper appreciation of FOSS, use FOSS for the benefit of Indian society (our work with OASIS and Tech4Good are examples of this), get Indian students to understand the values of FOSS, get the Indian government to implement its own FOSS policies better, defend the community against threats like software patents, and make India a net contributor to the global FOSS commons. These are massive and worthwhile goals in themselves.


@asd Just to be clear, are you suggesting that FOSS United should work on the issues that you have listed above?

No, I’m saying that if you want to get industry to

then you will have to work on those above determinants because:

If you want them to:

like Kailash said, you don’t have to do a thing because exploiting free labour is what they’re extremely good at.

If you want them to

then, you just convince them on how that leads to things like

or other such things that gives them profit.

Thanks. That clarifies your thought process for me.

Referencing my reply in a different thread, is there any interest in providing a hosting umbrella for FOSS projects?

Having a enterprise version of gitlab hosted at FOSS United would allow projects access to enterprise features for free - (gitlab enterprise is free for open source foundations e.g. The foundation would provide hosting and devops services from its budget.

This could be used as an umbrella to host and track projects, events, groups in a single, transparently visible place.


By this do you mean something like This is actually a good idea for people to learn about self hosting, some devops and server related things. But actually not sure about how much budget we might have to raise monthly for a x number of users.

What I’m suggesting first is that FOSS United register as an open source foundation with Gitlab and start running its own instance of Gitlab Ultimate.

Currently, lots of useful features required to grow a community and improve quality require paying per-user which prevents projects from using them. Some useful features hidden behind the paywall for Github and Gitlab:

  • Required pull request reviewers
  • Multiple pull request reviewers
  • Protected branches
  • Code owners
  • Vulnerability scanning
  • Road-mapping and project planning tools

A FOSS United-hosted instance of Gitlab would offer the incubated projects a free, unconstrained, high-quality devops platform allowing them to focus on improving the quality of their project and growing their community. It would also serve to establish a culture of well-managed code bases similar to how larger open-source projects do it, without needing to wait to reach that scale or commercial success.

The education part of running devops for a project (similar to tilde) could be a side-effect of what I’m proposing by having admins who are interested in teaching best practices and increasing competency in the country.

This wouldn’t be very useful and might also discourage foreign contributions as compared to, github or codeberg

That would be a good idea, reminds me of this blogpost by @asd: Privilege to Innovate

This along with tutorials and such could be a good idea to revitalize in order to help underprivileged folks to innovate…

I have experience running a few similar projects and wouldnt mind helping out!