Why FOSS Matters to Me (But Maybe Not to You)

Tuesday Nov 10th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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A longtime advocate of free and open source software ponders why others don't share his passion.

The Free Software Foundation is having a video contest on the subject "Why is free software important to you?" It's a timely topic, with Windows 7 just out and with the free software community's bickering so bitter as of late that common goals sometimes seem in danger of being forgotten.

I lack any talent for making videos, but the contest has me thinking: Why is free software important to me? And why isn't it important to most people around me? The two questions are more closely connected than you might at first think.

A change in software and relationships

In some ways, I can explain what my interest in free software is not about more easily than I can explain it is about. My coding is mostly limited to scripts and modifications of existing code, so having the source code is only an indirect benefit to me.

Similarly, covering free software as a writer has few benefits for me. Probably, I would have more markets and larger audiences if I wrote about hardware, Windows, or even OS X.

Nor do I care much that the software is free for the download, because for years I have been able to write off software purchases on my taxes. If anything, using free software is an inconvenience when I calculate my taxes, because it means fewer expenses I can claim.

I cannot even claim any great hatred of Microsoft -- my attitude would be more accurately described as a deep distrust and a desire to have as little to with the corporation as possible.

Still, it is true that Microsoft helped steer me towards free software. I hadn't had my first computer for a month before I began to chafe at the limitations of DOS and replaced it with 4DOS. 4DOS was shareware -- free software being unknown to almost everyone then -- and its additional features cured me once and for all of the notion that the presence or lack of a price tag had any relation to quality.

Pursuing quality also led me to choose OS/2 over Windows 3.0, which taught me to expect customization in my software.

But IBM's abandonment of OS/2 under pressure from Microsoft taught me the even more important lesson that I couldn't count on corporations to protect my interests as a consumer. When I discovered free software, I realized immediately that my interests as a computer user were more likely to be protected by a community. At the very least, the availability of the source code made it less likely that my interests would be abandoned.

Over the last decade, developments in business and technology have only strengthened such convictions. In a sane era, computers and Internet technologies would have been developed with cooperatively developed standards and public regulation, much as TV and radio were in Canada and Europe. But, because computers and the Internet emerged in the era dominated by American conservatism, they were developed largely by corporations.

The result? Compromised quality, planned obsolescence, and almost a complete absence of user control. Windows and OS X users do not even own the software they buy; they simply have a license to use it. According to the terms of those licenses, they do not even have the right to control Microsoft's or Apple's access to their hardware or information.

From a consumer's viewpoint, this situation would be unacceptable with any technology. Who would tolerate similar limitations placed on their car or coffee maker?

But with computers and the Internet, the situation is nothing short of disastrous. Potentially, computers are the greatest technologies for the promotion of education and free speech that have ever existed. And every now and again, proprietary companies make a small gesture of recognition toward this potential with educational software or the cheap sale of their products to developing nations.

Yet, mostly, this potential remains no more than half-realized by proprietary software. Both the price and the lack of consumer control means that access to these technologies remains limited and filtered by the makers of proprietary companies. Through an accident of history, we have allowed profit-oriented companies not just to use these technologies -- which naturally would be perfectly acceptable -- but to control how everyone uses them as well.

What free software does is take some of that control away from corporations and make computer and Internet technologies more accessible to the average user. Because of free software, your ability to communicate or create is no longer limited by the software you can afford. It is not a complete solution, since hardware costs can still be a barrier to some, but it is a major step in the right direction.

Basically, free software is a democratization of restricted technology. You can see that essential spirit in the communities that it creates, in which the norm is volunteerism, sharing, and community decision-making. You can see that spirit, too, in the use of free software to create infrastructure in developing countries, or in the related Open Access Movement's efforts to release academic research from restricted journals so that anyone can use it. In a phrase, free software is one step closer to realizing the ideals that modern society is supposed to be based upon.

You might argue that other causes, such as providing basic food and shelter worldwide, are more important, and I would have to agree with you. All the same, it is a cause I happen to be able to advance in my small way. To me, it remains not only important, but so essential for human rights and academic freedom that I have trouble understanding why it is not already universal.

Outside the frame of reference

All too plainly, though, free software enjoys only limited -- if increasing -- use. Market monopolies, widespread piracy, lack of vendor support, community infighting and hostility to outsiders -- all these and more are often mentioned to explain why more people don't use free software. Probably, all of them are involved, but I suspect that the main reasons are even simpler.

"I don't understand why anyone still uses Windows," I grumbled once to a friend. "Because it comes installed on their computer?" he replied. He probably had a point.

You would think that people who spend eight to fourteen hours each work day in front of their computer would want to have more control over that experience. But inertia should never be under-estimated as a human motivation. If computers already come with an operating system, that is good enough for most people, no matter how often they complain or make jokes about it.

Yet I think that the main reason that more people haven't adapted free software is more basic still. Free software, I suspect, is such a radical departure from what they are used to that many people have trouble conceiving that such a thing can exist.

Free software may have its origins in the academic computing of the 1960s and 1970s. However, for most people, the history of computing begins with the release of the personal computer on to the market place around 1980.

Ever since this period, software has been primarily a commodity. Its control by the manufacturers has been the norm. And, despite occasional grumbling, users are accustomed to losing their normal rights in property just by opening the packaging of commercial software.

This situation is so prevalent that many users still have no idea that free software exists, much less what its goals are. But, if they are exposed to free software at all, they soon learn that it has a radically different orientation.

Its message is that software is not a commodity, but a medium, comparable to TV or radio waves, that should be available to anyone with the hardware. It suggests that average users should take more control over their computing, and that their relationship with its producers should be altered. It sounds idealistic, and perhaps vague.

Hearing such radically different goals, what else are average users going to do except respond with confusion or rejection? Their first reaction may be that free software is too good to be true. They may disbelieve explanations of how it works, and look for hidden costs or malware.

The last thing they are likely to do is accept it. And why should we expect them to?

Free software is so different from the software they have always used that they have no frame of reference. The fact that free software offers more choice and more control than they have ever had is overwhelmed by their inability to connect it to the rest of their experience with software. Far from rushing to accept its benefits, they are more likely to retreat in confusion and reject free software as either an impossibility or a con.

Back to Basics

When I first encountered free software, I considered it an isolated phenomenon. Its connection with other historical trends or movements has only become apparent over time. Even now, I find its importance easy to overlook sometimes, and I suspect that many other people in the community do as well.

That is especially true of those who identify themselves as open source supporters, who value free software mainly for the increased quality that accessible source code allows. They sometimes forget that, as Linus Torvalds once told me, that this convenience for coders is only the means towards user freedom.

But the overlooking of free software's importance has an even greater effect. Those of us in the community are aware of the importance, but we frequently take it for granted. Caught up in every day routine, we forget that what is normal for us can be confusing and threatening to those hearing of it for the first time.

Year by year, free software is succeeding. Looking back over my decade of involvement, I am often amazed by the progress I have seen, both in the software itself and in its acceptance outside the community. All the same, free software might succeed more quickly if those involved in it reminded themselves of its importance more often, and realized how puzzling it can be to newcomers.

ALSO SEE: The Agony of FOSS Branding

AND: Let's Move FOSS to Its Logical Conclusion

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