Tech Pundits Surrender: The Retreat from Free Software and Open Standards

Tuesday Jul 5th 2011 by Bruce Byfield
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Tech pundits galore are claiming that proprietary software choices are all that users will ever need. Really?

I blame summer burnout – or at least that’s my own rationale. But, whatever the reason, suddenly pundits – and seemingly everyone around me – are rushing to declare that free software and open standards don't matter.

Such ideals are fine for those with spare time, they say, but they are busy, practical people. They just want to get the job done, with tools that require the least effort on their part. If that means using proprietary hardware and software, who cares?

The question has a certain amount of validity. Even among freedom advocates, few are willing to go so far as Richard Stallman and not use a web browser, a cell phone, or Microsoft Office formats because of their beliefs.

At times, the expediency of the moment makes compromise tempting. And, in an increasingly diminishing number of cases, no free software or open standard alternative exists for what you need to do.

Moreover, among computer users in general, free software and open standards are not even recognizable words. Asked to choose between convenience and principles, the average computer user will choose convenience every time. In fact, the convenience of the moment trumps just about anything else -- for example, I know several Windows users whose systems are continually being cracked who can't be bothered with a password, let alone permissions.

All the same, such views seem deeply misguided. They present false dichotomies, often based on an unrealistic definition of quality. All they really do is support the existing state of affairs between manufacturers and end-users, and delay the innovations that free software and open source are in the process of delivering.

Giving Up on Change

The sorts of views I'm talking about are rarely well-argued. Almost always, they are barely supported expressions of opinion.

Usually, the expression takes two forms. In the first form, the writers position themselves as pragmatists. For example, in "Proprietary Is Not a Four Letter Word," Mike Fratto argues that open standards are all very well, but, "if vendors are improving protocols beyond what is defined by standards, is that bad? Of course not. Like my audience, you probably want products that work and work well."

Similarly in "Open Or Proprietary, It's Whether It Works Or Not That Counts," Alan Shimel writes that, all else being equal, he would prefer open standard hardware, but, "Good or bad is in the eye of the beholder and the mirror used to make that judgment is whether or not the product does the job."

In the second form, the writers emphasize convenience. Continuing a line of discussion that he has been developing for a couple of years, Jason Perlow in "Why I've been throwing open standards under the bus," asks rhetorically, "is it worth giving up 'Openness' for convenience, ease-of-use, lower maintenance and access to larger application ecosystems?" then adds, "I want to be a consumer. I don't feel like playing system integrator in my spare time."

An even more extreme position is taken by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes in "Why I don't really care about 'Open' that much any more." Unhackable hardware, Kingsley-Hughes argues, exists to protect people from their own stupidity, and most people don't want to change the factory defaults anyway. He concludes, "So next time I talk about 'closed' hardware and software and you feel the need to tell me that I should be advocating open standards, just remember I don't care."

Some of these comments are made in a calm, reasonable-sounding tone of voice, as though only the deluded could disagree. Others are made defiantly, as though braced for criticism (and so they should be, since if the speakers really feel that way, they should stop writing professionally about free software and open standards). Few, if any, bother to explore the implications of the position being expressed.

In Defense of Free and Open

Whenever I encounter these sorts of opinions, I hear the uncanny echo of countless articles about why a Window user can't use Linux. Just as the Window user is likely to claim that Linux only runs from the command line, or that all software is installed via tar balls, so supporters of proprietary tools tend to talk as though the choice is between sophisticated proprietary tools and primitive free and open ones.

Like the Windows-user's claims, this implication is at least a decade out of date. While exceptions might exist, today quality and free and open are by no means mutually exclusive -- something of which the pundits, at least, should be well aware.

At any rate, while no one would argue against quality in the abstract, in practice the criteria for quality can be highly subjective. Is it functionality? Long-term robustness? Customization? Ease of use? And how do these criteria compare? Objective answers rarely exist. That's why, frequently, when proprietary and free and open tools are compared, quality is only a synonym for a familiar choice of names for features or a familiar layout of items on a menu or a toolbar.

An equally false dichotomy is assumed when people say that, because they have no interest in hacking hardware or software, they prefer to buy ready-made solutions. Just because you can't modify your equipment or software doesn't mean that you can't benefit from someone else from doing so. If that were so, then free software would still consist of a few hundred programmers. It wouldn't be used by millions who couldn't write a Hello, World program if their lives depended on it.

What is important is the communal pooling of modifications that free software and open standards allow -- something that you automatically give up when you buy proprietary.

There is something, too, that is so outdated as to be naive in Perlow's wish to be a "consumer," or Kingsley-Hughes' idea that manufacturers know best. If manufacturers could be trusted to have our best interests at heart, then free software and open standards would never have gotten started in the first place. A great deal of what motivates the free and open communities is the frustration of being in a passive relationship with manufacturers -- of being expected to accept whatever is offered.

As anyone can easily learn, hardware and software manufacturers --like the music and movie industry -- are working hard to make their merchandise an exception to the usual expectations of ownership in our society. Their user-agreements make clear that you borrow, rather than own the software you install, and that they can make modifications and invade your privacy without bothering to tell you.

Their Digital Rights Management prevents you from exercising common rights of ownership, such as loaning to a friend. When you start thinking in those terms, then the supposed convenience of using proprietary tools can quickly become, in the long-term, massively inconvenient.

For another thing, as the life work of Eric von Hippel has shown, innovation in industry tends to come from end-users rather than manufacturers. Free software and open standards enable that innovation, and are better positioned than a proprietary vendor to take advantage of it. For that reason, while Fratto's comment about taking advantage of a vendor's improvements might seem sensible in an individual case, in general practice, it is not especially likely to occur -- and if it does occur, you can be sure that you will pay for it. If innovation is what you want, then it is far more likely to occur under free software and open standards.

Under these circumstances, why relinquish your control, especially since free and open tools are so close to providing complete alternatives? To say the least, the choice seems short-sighted.

Kill This Meme

All this may seem like a simple transfer of old arguments to new territory. Yet refuting these arguments seems worthwhile because their main effect could be to delay free software and open standards from delivering on their promise.

Even a temporary use of proprietary solutions can cause delays, as witness by the lack of development of full-featured free video drivers or a free Flash replacement. People get used to the compromise, and what was supposed to be temporary has the nasty habit of becoming just the way things are -- and of stopping all progress as a result.

Presumably, those advocating proprietary solutions no longer care (if they ever did). But, at least in theory, their arguments could have the same effect.

No doubt they would say that they are being sensible and considering all possibilities, but their position has several major flaws. It implies invalid assumptions, and returns control to manufacturers when end-users are barely starting to gain some rights.

Even more importantly, what seems sensible in the short term can easily reveal long-term disadvantages. This is one meme that, for everybody's sake, shouldn't be allowed to spread.

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