A Field Guide to Free Software Supporters

Tuesday Jan 22nd 2008 by Bruce Byfield

Our intrepid GNU/Linux expert catalogs the leading species in the genus known as Free Software Supporter. Which type are you?

Hearing the terms "free software" or "open source," you might imagine that they referred to a single school of thought. Even "free and open source software" (FOSS) suggests only two different outlooks: Free software, which values political and philosophical freedom, and open source, whose main interest is enhanced software quality.

Yet all these impressions would be misleading. When you look, there are at least seven different types of FOSS supporters.

To outsiders, these schools of thought are more similar than different. In the same way that many Europeans see few real differences between a New Englander and a Californian, outsiders may see little to distinguish a Softcore Advocate from an Activist.

However, to those inside the FOSS community, the differences are enough to spark endless flame wars. As Richard Stallman told me last March, "When people are free to choose their own views, they're not all going to agree. It's normal in a community that you have people with different views and values"

(To say nothing of different language; in many parts of the community, whether you use "free software" or "open source" can mean the difference between cooperation and hostility.)

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To help you navigate through the community, here is a no-holds-barred summary of the most basic schools of thought within the community:

1) Microsoft Haters

Unlike other types of FOSS supporters, Microsoft Haters are not concerned with ideals, but with opposition to Microsoft. If those I've observed on the Fedora list in recent months are typical, some dislike other types of free software supporters almost as much as they do Microsoft.

Some Microsoft Haters object to Microsoft as a monopoly, or as the epitome of proprietary software companies. Increasingly, too, some object from a consumer activist position to Microsoft's support of lockdown technologies.

However, given that very few of them voice objections to near-monopolists like Adobe or other large proprietary companies like Apple, most Microsoft Haters apparently assume their stance largely as a rebellion. They seem to take their identity from their opposition. And, in extreme cases, could be described as conspiracy theorists, seeing Microsoft cabals in everything.

Many, too, are young and seem to be seeking acceptance from their peers, taking great delight in using terms like "Microsloth" and "Windoze." A noisy group, they probably receive more attention than their actual numbers would justify.

2) Bargain Hunters

Most Bargain Hunters are more interested in the fact that FOSS is available gratis than in any philosophical concerns. They accept free downloads of Adobe Acrobat or Flash just as eagerly as they do a GNU/Linux distribution, and care little for the distinction between "free as in beer" and "free as in freedom." However, since some of them change their views as they learn more about the FOSS, they remain an important source of recruits for the community.

Just as importantly, a sub-group of Bargain Hunters is more idealistically oriented. They are the ones who have realized that cash-strapped developing countries, charities, or academic institutions will have to turn to FOSS if they want to build a technical infrastructure. In their own way, members of this sub-group are as idealistic as the FOSS activists.

3) Open Source Programmers

Open Source Programmers focus on the advantages of FOSS for themselves. Theirs is the essentially academic belief that the free exchange of information benefits everybody, and that working in an atmosphere of openness creates higher quality software. In other words, their support is based chiefly on the fact that FOSS licenses make their work easier. The best known person in this category is Linus Torvalds himself.

Open Source idealists are sometimes denounced as caring little about the rights of other users. However, they would argue that this view is a false dichotomy, and that they operate out of a sense of enlightened self-interest, and ultimately help everyone.

As Torvalds wrote to me last summer, "The short-term result of this attitude,” is that "for a while, that person gains an advantage, because now the tool did what he wanted. And in the longer term, we all gain that knowledge. One small and meaningless advantage at a time, and it just builds up and up. That is where it's at. It's about 'empowering everybody' by letting some enterprising users empower themselves, and then taking advantage of it for everybody else."

4) Softcore Advocates

Softcore Advocates are those who express a preference for free software, but are not willing to face much inconvenience to use it. While they will seriously consider using free software, they will only do so if it is as good as or, preferably, better than proprietary equivalents. If the proprietary equivalent is superior, they will happily use it instead.

This attitude is common in business, because software purchasers in commercial ventures generally have to justify their decisions in economic and practical terms -- and rarely in philosophical ones. Yet it is just as likely to be found in users of stand-alone home systems who insist on nothing but the best. Either way, they represent one of the two largest FOSS camps -- which are also the two camps most likely to be reviled for inconsistency and undermining the community.

5) Mainstream Advocates

The second of the two major FOSS camps is the Mainstream Advocates. Members of this group take the attitude of the Softcore one step further: They will use proprietary software, but only if no equivalent exists. As soon as an equivalent nears usability -- say, when it is in advanced beta -- they will happily stop using the proprietary software in favor of the free equivalent. Some will even adopt free software when it is still buggy or poorer in features that its proprietary counterpart.

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Supporters of this position argue that they are simply trying to find a balance between their beliefs and everyday demands. And, for those who are not in business for themselves, perhaps it is a reasonable position to take, since they are unlikely to have control over what software or file formats they are required to use. However, Hardcore Advocates sometimes denounce them as hypocrites, or at best lukewarm supporters. Their own uneasiness over their position suggests that, deep down, members of this group often accuse themselves of the same failings.

6) Hardcore Advocates

The Hardcore Advocates are the purists. Unlike the Softcore or the Moderates, they strongly oppose the use of proprietary software under any circumstances whatsoever. They are equally opposed to using software that, while free in itself, requires proprietary software to run, such as Java projects before the Java code was released in November 2006. At times, this stance means doing without support for such software as the latest version of Flash, or limping along with low level optical character recognition of the type supported by Kooka or Tesseract.

The Hardcore are willing to put up with such inconveniences because they believe that, in the Internet Age, the availability of free software is a corollary of free speech. After all, if access to computerized information systems requires the purchase of software, then free speech can only be enjoyed by those who can afford to purchase it.

The traditional bastion of the Hardcore has always been the Free Software Foundation. However, it is far from the only one. Some Hardcore groups have been known to adopt an even more radical position than the Free Software Foundation. Debian, for instance, considers some uses of the GNU Free Documentation License non-free, while the Free Software Foundation considers these same uses perfectly free.

The Hardcore position is getting easier to maintain with every passing month, as more and more functionality becomes available under free software. All the same, it can be hard to follow Hardcore principles unless you are a student or a freelancer, or an undemanding user.

Despite this difficulty (or perhaps because of it, since the difficulties of avoiding proprietary software may not be appreciated until you receive pressure to use it), the Hardcore often denounces other types of advocates for not adhering to strict free software principles. They are also the ones most likely to insist on certain language, such as the use of "GNU/Linux" rather than "Linux." In return, they are often called unrealistic and rigid.

7) The Activists

In the last few years, largely because of the increased involvement in social issues by the Free Software Foundation, another FOSS group has begun to emerge. This group is the Activists, who, almost alone among the types described here, try to take their principles outside the community by forging alliances with mainstream environmentalists and other social activists.

This is the position taken by Peter Brown, executive director of the Free Software Foundation, when he says, "Free software should be an obvious civil-society issue. It should be as obvious as recycling cans. It should be something that every parent should be asking when they go into a parent-teacher meeting: is the school using free software? Is my child being taught to use free software? Having control over your computer and knowing that your devices aren’t spying on you, that you have an ethical computer, [these] are all issues for civil society."

Besides venturing outside the world of developers and free software, activists also differ from Hardcore Advocates in their generally greater tolerance for those who fail to adhere to strict free software principles. They are no less dedicated to those principles, but their dedication seems tempered by the real world realization that hectoring people is a poor way to make them become supporters. They see their role as educators, rather than evangelists.

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So far, this camp is relatively small. However, the increased activist position of the Free Software Foundation in the last years is obvious in its number of advocacy campaigns; for example, the anti-DRM Defective By Design campaign; and in the appointment of social activist Benjamin Mako Hill to the board of the Free Software Foundation. Such indications suggest that activism may well be the wave of the future for free software. Already, groups like Free Geek are introducing FOSS to people far outside the traditional community.


I am tempted to put these types on a scale, with Microsoft Haters on the right, and Activists on the left, with the positions growing increasingly idealistic as you move to the left. However, this scale does not really work, except in the three types of Advocates. It would be misleading, for instance, to say that Open Source Programmers are less idealistic than any other type of advocate; they simply have different ideals. The same is also true of Hardcore Advocates and Activists.

In practice, too, human behavior is not nearly consistent enough for pigeon-holing. While many people fall fairly definitely into one of these camps most of the time, many can probably be classified under different types at different times.

For instance, Linus Torvalds, although described here as an Open Source Programmer, could be said to be acting like a Softcore Advocate a few years ago when he insisted on using the proprietary BitKeeper for version control on the Linux kernel (he has since moved to free software). Probably most members of the community have acted like members of all these types from time to time, even though most favor one type of behavior over the others.

Nor are these types necessarily the only ones in FOSS. Rather, they are simply the ones that I've encountered.

Still, despite these qualifications, this field guide does show that there is more variety of opinion and behavior in the FOSS community than is often credited. If you are an outsider being introduced to the community, or a FOSS supporter moving outside your usual circles, you could do far worse for yourself than to identify beforehand the approximate positions of those with whom you are mingling. Otherwise, your interactions could quickly become far more complicated and unpleasant than they need to be.

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