Say you’re a bright young kid at Univeristy and you’ve decided that computer science is what you want to do with your life. What should you start doing with yourself to live that dream? One piece of advice you will frequently hear is ‘Get involved with an open source/free software project.’ Should you?

Short answer: yes, with an if. Long answer: no, with a but.

If you want to be working in computer science, you’ll probably be programming. A lot. And in fact, this is probably what you want to do. Like all professional skills, programming takes a large amount of practice before you become truly proficient. The commonly cited figure is 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient in your chosen profession. The sooner you get started on those 10,000 hours, the sooner they’ll be over.

Becoming involved with an open source project is a great way of getting your practice in. You could also practice on your own project of course. But, you’ll get more satisfaction from contributing to an open source project that others use. To become involved though, you’ll need some level of proficiency. So hack around with your own projects; write a game; then start reading the mailing lists of an open source project you use and pick a simple bug from the tracker. There’s lots of advice out there on how to become involved, I’ll leave that up to you.

That’s a pretty good reason to become involved with an open source project. And if that is your reason, head on out there kid, you’ll do great.

That’s the ‘if’. Now for the ‘but’.

Notice above that I referred to getting involved with an open source project? Not the open source community? If you’re a particularly bright kid in your class, then please let me beg you to think deep and long before becoming involved in the community.

Why are computers important? Step outside of your beloved field for a moment and ask yourself, why do you think computers have been an important and interesting invention? Why is writing software for expensive, abstract machines to be used by the middle-class of the first world a noble endeavour? How can better computer science help people? I mean really help people. Not allow them to quickly find a cheaper price on that expensive gadget they don’t need, but do the really important things: cure malaria, educate the third world, connect with strangers, fall in love. Whatever it is you think needs solving.

Personally, I do think computer science has the potential to make the world a better place. And I believe you don’t need to be working in some research lab to achieve that. My definition of making the world a better place is simple: find someone with a problem, solve it, and leave them to find other problems in need of solutions. As an organic, growing, network every individual has the ability to change the world for the better by focusing on this question: where do I see problems that my expertise can help solve?

And here lies my issue with the open source and free software communities: being able to recompile the kernel to your operating system is a problem that only other programmers have. The rest of the world see computers and software as tools to solve their own sets of problems. Anytime a computer or program does not do what they want, a problem goes partially unsolved. And that particular unsolved problem is a problem you’re simply unqualified to solve. You, as a programmer, can only ever indirectly help with those problems.

Lifting our heads outside of our insular worlds of programmers and computer scientists, we can see that the rest of the world has a problem with computers. These supposedly powerful devices, that the first world has invested a huge amount of resources in improving over the last 20 or 30 years just don’t seem to have reached their potential. Instead, rather than constant improvement with the goal of improving the lives of real people, computing has become insular. Insanely insular. Programmers either solve problems only other programmers have, or they simply duplicate the work of other projects, poorly. Very poorly. And this is most obvious in the free software communities. In my opinion, the world does not need another poor implementation of a 38 year old operating system. The world does not need another poor duplicate of photo editing software. The world does not need another poor duplicate of office productivity software.

The world needs the potential of computers applied to new problems. Or, at the least, original solutions to already solved problems. And in my opinion the free software community, in its current incarnation, will never deliver on either of those. The free software community is tackling what they see as a moral and ethical problem: source code wants to be free. Their current solution to this problem is to duplicate every popular piece of software with a suitably free license. So entrance into the free software community requires accepting this, and then duplicating existing commercial software. To me, that sounds like a complete waste of my brain.

And if you’re as bright as I think you are, then it sounds like a complete waste of your brain as well. Please, choose to advance our industry, take it in new and interesting directions. Start your own company, work for a large company. These are not immoral decisions. You will be advancing the sum total of human knowledge, you will be solving real problems of other people. People without the expertise to solve these problems. Expertise you have.

And this is without even getting into the ethics of duplicating someone else’s work.

The free software rhetoric can also damage both computing and free software. Personally, I found the moral aim of the One Laptop Per Child program repugnant. But, their efforts to re-imagine what computers could be was exciting and full of potential. But, eventually all for naught as the program has been tried, found guilty and executed in the court of free software. Why? Because they chose to use a non-free (gasp!) wireless network driver and because they chose to allow Windows to run on the device. The project was found wanting, and abandoned. Why does the choice of underlying operating system matter that much? If the project believes their new approaches were of value, why not try to improve Windows? It’s not as if these computers would be powerful enough to re-compile Windows anyway, even if the code was available.

You’re young, you have brains, you have energy. Please think about it before deciding that the free software community is where you want to devote your energy. Do not write off working for Google, Silverbrook Research, ThoughtWorks, or even Microsoft. There is nobility there, I dare say more than there is to be found in holding back our industry.