GNU/Linux World Domination for the Wrong Reasons

Tuesday Mar 11th 2008 by Bruce Byfield
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Seeing GNU/Linux shift from the fringe to the mainstream is exciting, yet in the rebellious glee of watching the paradigms shifting, acceptance can come at too high a cost.

Whenever I hear people discussing GNU/Linux's prospects for becoming more popular, I'm reminded of a comment by Tommy Douglas, the social democrat who became a hero for introducing universal health care into Canada. If he could press a button and gain a million voters who did not understand his policies, he said, then he would not press that button. He meant that he was not in politics simply to be elected, but to gain supporters for his ideals -- and that he was determined not to lose sight of his long term goals while pursing short term ones.

The comment resonates for me because, increasingly, in the rush for market share, many people seem to lose sight of the fact that the goal of GNU/Linux and free software is not popularity in itself, but the wide acceptance of a set of ideals.

At its most basic, free software is about helping users gain control of their computers so that they can participate unhindered in the digital conversations of the networks and the Internet. It's about installing software freely, rather than being dictated to by the manufacturer. It's about using your computer the way that you want, instead of ceding control to lock-down devices installed by software vendors without permission on your machine.

You could call its goal consumer activism if you like, but a more accurate description would be an extension of freedom of expression, and maybe even of association, the basic rights that modern industrial societies are supposed to be built on.

However, these are rarely the goals you hear when bloggers and columnists talk about how GNU/Linux could become more popular. According to them (and their list has not greatly changed between 2002 and 2008), what the operating system needs is more commercial applications, better hardware support, enhanced interoperability with Windows, and more pre-loaded machines. And if they talk about GNU/Linux' improved prospects because of the resistance to Vista, they're likely to use the word "free" in terms of price or total cost of ownership, than of politics or philosophy.

What's mentioned, in short, is a business or technical perspective, one based on convenience rather than ideals. And, in the short term, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that (though I can't help reflecting that interoperability with Windows is one of the excuses for the infamous Microsoft-Novell pact in November 2006).

But, while I appreciate technical excellence as much as anyone, if all you want is a superior alternative to Windows, OS X will do you just as well -- possibly better, some insist. Like GNU/Linux, it's a UNIX-like system, while its usability is second to none. If your priority is technical performance, the fact that it's proprietary shouldn't matter to you.

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Similarly, if cost-free applications attract you, enough Internet applications are floating around that you never need to pay a cent -- to say nothing of Acrobat and Flash players that are free for the download.

And, in fact, at least as many people are turning to these alternatives as to GNU/Linux in their dis-satisfaction with Windows. Offhand, I can think of at least a dozen local consultants who offer free software server solutions via Drupal or Joomla! yet use OS X on their laptops.

In the same way, you only have to glance at the user forums of major distributions like Fedora or Ubuntu to see that more users are concerned with getting proprietary video drivers installed than with having control of their own computers. After all, the proprietary drivers are available at no cost, just like the ethically free ones, so why not use them, especially when they are technologically more advanced? I've even seen some users castigate Fedora for not providing the proprietary drivers in its repositories.

Never mind that to do so would be against Fedora's policy of including only free software -- with such users, the short term convenience of the technically superior proprietary drivers outweighs the ethos of freedom. Many of the complainers do not even appear to have heard of free software ideals. Nor do they bother listening when those ideals are raised.

Admittedly, some might be using the proprietary drivers as a temporary expedience until improved free ones are released. Still, the general attitude suggests that they have no understanding of the long-term considerations whatsoever. Perhaps they might help swell the number of GNU/Linux users enough to encourage the manufacturers to release free software drivers, but I suspect that their real contribution is only to ensure the manufacturers that they can continue with their usual practices. For all the long-term good such users have done themselves or others, they might as well have stayed on Windows.

The same lack of perspective is seen in other short-term reasons for using GNU/Linux. Anyone with a sense of fair play has to look at Microsoft or any other software monopoly with askance. Yet while hating or regulating monopolies can lead to short term successes, in the long term, such attitudes or efforts make very little difference. Dethrone one monopoly, and another rushes in to fill the vacuum. Even more importantly, no matter which company has the monopoly, it is still likely to be proprietary.

"The trouble with talking about monopolies," Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation told me a couple of years ago, "Is that it suggests that, if it wasn't a monopoly, if there was competition among proprietary companies, that would be okay with us. But, no, it wouldn't make it okay from our viewpoint."

Brown continues, "We never want to advocate for a short term victory, because that makes people focus on the wrong issues. We've always got to focus on the bigger issue, so if people are going to choose free software, they're going to choose it for the right reasons."

Or, as Richard Stallman explained to me in 2007, "The goal of the free software movement is to put you in control of the software you use. Then, if you want to make it more powerful, you can work at making it more powerful."

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Threats (Subversive and Otherwise) to GNU/Linux Growth

GNU/Linux Desktop: The Case Against Running Windows Apps

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Interview with Richard Stallman: Four Essential Freedoms

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Forget those priorities, and you might as well not bother setting up a GNU/Linux workstation or laptop. You've lost sight of what's important and different.

As Peter Brown said on behalf of the Free Software Foundation, "At the end of the day, we are not trying to be the most popular organization in the world. A lot of organizations look at a situation and say, 'What's the best way to get ahead? How do we have to compromise our beliefs to achieve something, to become more popular and successful?' But when you have a leader like Richard Stallman, those considerations are just never there. There's none of this short term stuff. Our job is to raise free software as an ethical issue. And we can go forward from there."

Seeing GNU/Linux shift from the fringe to the mainstream is exciting, no question. Being part of that shift is even more so. Yet in the rebellious glee of watching the paradigms shifting, we need to consider that acceptance can sometimes come at too high a cost. True, insisting that the ethics that built the operating system share in its success may delay or even halt that same success. Yet if those ethics don't survive, then the success will not be worth having.

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