7 Themes of Catalyst

by Don Christie

OS//OS Talk – 7 Themes of Catalyst

I gave a talk at the second Open Source Open Society conference in Wellington recently. I was asked to talk about how Catalyst had grown and evolved over the last 20 years and was allocated seven minutes for my talk. For a 20 year old company that's quite a lot to cover in a short time, especially as it is my favourite topic.

So, I decided to do this by touching on seven themes that describe our company and give an essence of who we are and what drives us. This seemed to resonate with the audience and the general thrust of the conference, so I am grateful to have had the opportunity to present.

Here are my preparation notes:

1. Catalyst

Catalyst in 2016 is in its 20th year of operation. We are a company that makes free and open source software (free software from now) work beautifully for our clients. People are good enough to pay us for this work and to develop even more free software. Catalyst employees have contributed to over 170 projects, often as a result of work carried out for our clients, with their permission.

With 250 staff and with offices in Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne and Brighton (UK) we are the largest free software company in Australasia.

Recently we have built a public cloud in New Zealand, entirely based on free software and set up to compete with the likes of AWS and Azure. We will be opening our third region late in 2016. This is an achievement we are all very proud of and builds on capabilities across the company.

2. Purpose before profit

All organisations need a purpose. There really isn't much point in existing just to print money. We have a central bank to do that. It's a clear common purpose that gets us out of bed in the morning.

The free software ethos and mindset is in our bones. Our company promotes the free software mindset and way of operating in the widest possible sense.

We believe these collective values drive how we use technology and can lead to a reduction in imbalances in society.

Profit is important. Not least, because it demonstrates that our approach is a legitimate way of doing business and not a fringe activity.

3. The power of technology is asymmetric, free software can fix this

We talk a lot about the growing divide between rich and poor. But what we don't talk enough about is the gaping chasm in power between suppliers of technology platforms and consumers. In the 21st century it is impossible to participate in our communities without using technology. However, many providers of technology force us to participate in a way that most people would rather not.

They control our private information, they dictate what we are allowed to see and do and force us to adopt patterns of behaviour the aggregate flows of revenue to fewer and fewer corporations.

Not just that, but the pace of change is so fast that the technically less literate, often older people, are not able to keep up and therefore they are more and more excluded from the world that many of us take for granted.

Governments have near unfettered access to our personal lives in a way that totalitarian regimes of the past could only dream of.

Free software (especially strong copyleft licensing regimes) attempts to address this balance by placing the right to control technology and how it is used firmly back in the hands of users. The role for technologists in this regime is to help and serve our communities so that they are able to benefit from this right.

4. Sharing is a good thing

It's just like your mother used to say, sharing is good. Around the time we leave primary school we start getting brainwashed into believing the opposite. Sharing becomes “cheating” and later, stealing, a heinous criminal activity.

Software “End user licence agreements” - EULAs can literally take days to read but mostly they cover the different ways sharing is wrong and punishable.

But our society doesn't function like that. We need to share. Not only because we all “stand on the shoulders of giants” but because every day we require support and knowledge from those around us and more broadly, around the world.

Free software, creative commons and open data all recognise the importance of being able to share.

5. Permissionless innovation

Catalyst has coined the by-line “freedom to innovate” to express this concept.

Free software has created this extraordinary opportunity for innovation to take place, building on the works of others without requiring anyone's permission to do so.

To use and further develop free software you don't need:

  • Contracts
  • Lawyers
  • Heads of agreement
  • Memorandums of understanding.

Koha, the GPL licensed library management system was developed in 1999 for Horowhenua Library Trust in Levin, New Zealand. The code was released for anyone to use. The Koha development team received their first patch from a large car manufacturer in Detroit who had decided to use the software to catalogue their thousands of manuals. The took the code from the Internet repository, changed it, ran it and contributed some changes back to the core product. All without third party involvement. Now, of course, Koha is used in thousands of libraries across the globe, translated into dozens of languages and is the most feature rich Library Management System in the world. The great part, it is still free.

6. Don't be passive

Positive change is not something that happens by accident. We have to make choices and sometimes those choices are not convenient. They require us to learn or to go an extra step. But, in Catalyst's experience,making harder choices always pays off.

Adopt these changes for yourself:

Switch to Firefox as your default browser on all devices. Firefox is the only mainstream free and open source browser. It keeps the others honest. It's very good.

If you are a developer, develop for Firefox first. Your websites will be more standards compliant and more likely to work across all other browsers. If you use IE or Chrome first you are likely to run into compatibility problems.

Try Ubuntu or Linux Mint on your desktop. These are beautiful fully featured and far less confusing to users as the proprietary equivalents.

Use LibreOffice rather than MicrosoftOffice. It uses open document formats by defaults as a bonus.

If you are releasing free and open source software, chose a licence that respects and perpetuates the rights of users. The copyleft, GPL, licence family is a great start.

If you are not prepared to do any of the above...consider this, why are you here?

7. Freedom always wins in the end

It is a condition of human kind. History tells us that no matter how dark the days become we humans are always struggling for freedom.

In my shortish lifetime alone I have seen the rolling back of Communist inspired totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the legalisation and legitimisation of homosexual relationships. Despite occasional setbacks, democracy is the default state for most of the world's countries. This is an issue that transcends normal party politics. As far as I can tell, all political parties have their authoritarian tendencies and most have more freedom loving wings. The latter groups need to be encouraged and supported.

Technology that has freedom baked in also wins. People forget that there were proprietary, non-free versions of the Internet – such as Compuserve. But the Internet, that was based on ideals and protocols and software that was open and free won, and keeps winning. Linux is now used on more devices than any other operating system. Free and open source software drives most new startups as well as the biggest technology companies in the world.

People like to be on the winning team and when history comes to judge you, be remembered for being on the side of freedom.