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Who Cares About Software Freedom?

Who Cares About Software Freedom?

"If there's one thing I've had rubbed into my face far too often, it's that 'freedom' is often just another word for buggy software," said Slashdot blogger Barbara Hudson. "The CSS 2.1 standard has been around for 15 years, and still no two browsers render CSS 2.1 the same way. At least if you're paying for it, nobody's going to say, 'if you're not happy, you're free to fix it yourself.' That sort of 'freedom' only works well if your time is worth $0."

By Katherine Noyes LinuxInsider ECT News Network
04/12/12 5:00 AM PT

Well it's been a disconcerting kind of week here in the Linux blogosphere, not least because of all the darn construction going on down at the Google+ Grill.

First it was the hammering giving Linux Girl a headache. Then, on Wednesday, she walked in after lunch and could barely recognize the place. What is this interface sorcery, she wants to know?

Then, of course, there was the retirement of Linux Girl's old friend, Maverick Meerkat, in the past few days as well. Alas, dear distro -- we hardly knew ye!

'Gratis Is Good but Libre Is Better'

Anyhoo, construction woes notwithstanding, the real hot topic in the blogosphere of late has focused on matters of a higher plane. Software freedom, that is, and how important it really is.

"Do you care about software freedom, or is it just because it's free?" was the name of the Open Ballot that kicked off the conversation over at TuxRadar, and the discussion has been ongoing ever since.

"Initially the latter, recently the former," wrote Newky in the TuxRadar comments, for example.

Similarly, "I'd say Gratis is good but Libre is better," agreed Silner.

'Where Do You Get This Free Beer?'

And again: "Yes, I do care about software freedom and no, it's not just about free-as-in-beer for me," concurred Linuxrich.

"Where do you get this free beer anyway?" Linuxrich wondered.

The G+ Grill, of course, is one such place, and sometimes Linux Girl is even buying. Once the pounding had stopped, she took advantage of the peace to conduct a small poll of her own.

'It Is a Moral Issue'

"My view is that proprietary software is exploitation, and open source will promote overall well-being to society," Google+ blogger Dietrich Schmitz told Linux Girl over a fresh round of free beer.

"It is a moral issue that must be addressed, or the cost of living will be continually inflated by proprietary methods," Schmitz added.

"It's not about the price, it's about having a knowledge that is free -- free to learn, free to adapt and improve," explained Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol.

'Artificial Scarcity'

Too often, people assume that "'you get what you pay for,'" Ebersol asserted.

"Totally wrong," he opined. "What if people knew they pay extra for an OS that is free in its root? I mean, MacOSX, which is FreeBSD in its roots, and then Apple adds a layer of shiny eye candy and sells it expensively? Now, people's perception is: 'Oh, if it is expensive, it must be good.'"

In short, "the capacity to understand, to study, to make it better, and to share it, share the knowledge and not let artificial scarcity prevail, this is the underlying value of free software," Ebersol concluded.

'I Will Support the Software'

Indeed, "there is nothing in the definition of free software that says it has to be free of charge," agreed Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien. "When we say 'free,' we are talking about freedom: the freedom of the user to use the software, to modify it, to share their modifications, etc., without any legal barrier."

Because free software is not generally sold, however, "I support it by making donations to keep the projects going," O'Brien told Linux Girl. "I give a monthly donation to Miro, and I have donated recently to projects such as kdenlive, kde, and the Debian System Administrator's Manual.

"My rule is that if I depend on the software, I will support the software," he explained. "In return, I get software that comes without EULAs, and whose licenses are written to preserve my rights, not take them away."

'A Way of Contributing Back'

Consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack had a similar outlook.

"I find that when my job is on the line, I need to use the best product possible, and most of the time that's FOSS," Mack told Linux Girl. "I often find FOSS to be more stable, more resource-efficient, and better suited to my needs, but I quite often don't find it free as in beer."

Since Mack's career depends so heavily on Linux, in fact, he keeps a Linux Foundation membership "as a small way of contributing back to the development of the software I need," he told Linux Girl. "$100 USD a year actually ends up being a lot more than I pay for the license for my MS Windows test machine."

'Freedom Has Economic Value'

Chris Travers said he cares about software freedom for many reasons, and economic value is one of them.

"Freedom has economic value, and businesses recognize this," asserted Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

That value comes from two sources, Travers suggested.

"The first is that one is protected from over-deployment and license violations simply by using the software on too many systems," he explained. "The second comes from the way Free Software communities are structured in terms of ways contributions happen and what this means for the end user."

The structures that are in place to handle contributions from individuals are also structures that put end users in touch with developers, he pointed out.

"This leads to the development of better software faster than software houses can do when they use marketing and support departments to bridge this gap," Travers added. "The integrated nature of communities thus is an important benefit."

'Free Is Just Too Expensive'

Slashdot blogger Barbara Hudson -- who goes by "Tom" on the site -- used to care about freedom, she told Linux Girl.

"Now? Not so much," she added, "because if there's one thing I've had rubbed into my face far too often, it's that 'freedom' is often just another word for buggy software."

In Web browsers, for example, "the CSS 2.1 standard has been around for 15 years, and still no two browsers render CSS 2.1 the same way," she explained. "This is a problem for both proprietary and free browsers, but at least if you're paying for it, nobody's going to say, 'if you're not happy, you're free to fix it yourself.'

"That sort of 'freedom' only works well if your time is worth $0," Hudson added. "At some point, people figure out that free is just too expensive."

'Cost Is the Overriding Consideration'

Similarly, "software freedom does not really matter to me," agreed Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

"Cost versus functionality is the overriding consideration," Lim explained. "I am more concerned about buying software that is cross-platform so I never get trapped having to buy from a single vendor."

Indeed, whether or not the software "just works" is what really matters, Slashdot blogger hairyfeet agreed.

'The Majority Really Don't Care'

"The whole 'free as in freedom or beer' argument is like arguing over seating arrangements as the boat sinks," hairyfeet explained. "It totally misses the point!

"There is a REASON why Apple is the largest company in America, there is a reason why MSFT owns the desktop -- it's because both have for the most part focused on good UI design and an 'it just works' mindset," he added.

"If you want to have a software be FOSS after you've accomplished the 'it just works' part? Good, great, wonderful," he added. "But you can't pass something that works sub par for very many people and expect them to take it JUST because it is 'free as in freedom,' because the vast majority really don't care."

The Fifth Freedom

Not everyone saw it that way, however.

Software freedom is important, blogger Robert Pogson asserted.

"RMS's enunciation of the four freedoms is key to good IT," Pogson added. "It just does not make sense to surrender freedom and to pay others for taking freedom away."

That said, 'price' is the fifth freedom, Pogson suggested.

"One should not have to pay more for software than the software costs to produce," he explained. "It certainly makes no sense to pay someone to distribute software who puts roadblocks up to make distribution more difficult."

'A Toll at the Bridge'

With FOSS and GNU/Linux, "it should be possible for a billion people to acquire IT who would not otherwise have been able to afford it in the next year or two," Pogson added. "Folks like M$ don't care about that. All they care about is collecting a toll at the bridge."

Besides bridging the Digital Divide, "the low price of FLOSS also permits programmers and small businesses around the world to participate in the digital economy for a minimal investment of precious cash," he pointed out.

"The world is full of smart, hard-working people who, because they did not live in Redmond, were prevented from developing new appropriate technology for their communities and helping their neighbors acquire IT," Pogson concluded. "There should not be a monopoly on the freedom to use IT, either by price or by opportunity denied."


Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


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