Odd title? Not at all. At least not by my reasoning.
Free Software as a concept is the invention of Richard Matthew Stallman, programmer, philosopher, and activist. Free has nothing to do with price, instead it stands for ‘FREEDOM’ or ‘LIBERTY’, meaning that the end-user should be free to use the software, modify the software, and pass on their modifications. There is no reason why free software cannot be sold, as long as the four freedoms are respected. Those freedoms are:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
While many people consider Open Source to be equivalent to Free Software, it isn’t. Open Source is a software design methodology, which is claimed to produce better software, while Free Software is a philosophical equivalent to the Freedom of Speech clause found in many countries constitutions.
There are strong philosophical reasons to use only Free Software, however there are practical reasons as well. Microsoft, who holds a 95% share of the personal computer operating system market with various versions of its Microsoft Windows product, has had a series of high profile bugs and bad design decisions mar it’s reputation. For example its ActiveX control technology was so badly designed that just visiting a hostile website would allow that website to install malware onto a users computer without their knowledge in the background (see Drive-by Download).
Many users have been driven to use alternative operating systems such as Gnu-Linux out of sheer frustration. In fact I was one of those who dumped Windows due to it’s poor performance, moving first to Ubuntu, than to other distributions as I learned more about Unix based operating systems. Unfortunately my personal favourite, the Moon OS project, appears to no longer be active.
In fact Microsoft, while it may hold a huge share of the personal computer operating system market, has failed miserably to gain market share in other operating system markets. In Mobile Phones Microsoft has seen it’s market share dwindle into insignificance under competition from RIM, Apple, and Android. In Tablet PCs Microsoft’s market share lead was destroyed in one weekend by the release of Apple’s IPad, which is rumoured to have sold between 600,000 and 700,000 units in its opening weekend, making it’s launch the most successful consumer electronics launch ever.
One of the alternate operating systems that people have been driven to try is Mac OSX. Apple hasn’t done a much better job than Microsoft from a quality control standpoint. For example the most recent update for Snow Leopard was over 600 megabytes, far larger than most operating systems. But while Apple has had problems, Apple’s strong commitment to certain design principles have made OSX far more stable than Windows.
And that stability, which is based on the same Unix design principles that GNU-Linux uses, is a danger to the expansion of the use of Free Software. If you are abandoning Windows because of it’s continual problems, and OSX just works, why try GNU-Linux?
One of the issues is that what was common fifteen years ago, installing an operating system, is no longer a common operation. Many users never have installed an operating system, and do not have the skills to install an operating system. With Mac OSX they don’t have to install it. It comes installed, and usually never needs any maintenance besides downloading and installing updates, which can be set to happen automatically. Apple runs retail operations in many major metropolitan areas, meaning that for a large percentage of the North American population there is an Apple store in driving range (we have five within a half hour drive of my house). Currently it is almost impossible to buy GNU-Linux pre-installed on a computer, except for a few netbooks. While it is possible to buy computers with GNU-Linux pre-installed on-line, that’s not the same as being able to walk into a store, and take it for a test drive.
For the average user, the philosophical reasons may not be as strong as the need to have a computer that just works. In fact the vast majority of users don’t even know that there’s a philosophical reason to use Free Software. And then there’s those of us who have specific needs that Free Software doesn’t yet meet. For an example I run a basement recording studio, and at present the best software for my needs is only available on OSX (seriously – a lot of this stuff is not available for Windows either). So while I run GNU-Linux on my server, my workstation runs OSX.
Of course the problem may go away. At present the only reason that Apple is reasonably competent is that Apple President Steve Jobs is a perfectionist. I personally think that his Buddhist background may be a strong part of his ability to get Apple to perform at a reasonable level, but my own religious background might be causing me to overestimate the impact of belief. Apple was a disaster before Steve Jobs rejoined the company, producing a lackluster line of computers and blowing a market share lead that at one time looked insurmountable. My personal opinion is that Apple will become a disaster again after he retires. Only a very few people have the vision that he, and Richard Stallman have evidenced. The chance that Jobs’ successor will be able to perform at the same level is remote. Consider Microsoft – a company who’s only vision appears to be quarterly profits, and which consistently delivers products that under perform, are over priced, and who’s brand is quickly becoming a total and utter joke.
Still while Jobs remains in control of Apple, the company will be a danger to the Free Software movement, much as the United States is a danger to the cause of individual freedom (the United States talks a good show, but consistently under performs as per this article from FindLaw).
That’s my view.
Tuesday April 6,2010