An argument for Free Software

A friend of mine asked me this question:

Do you believe that open-source software (and operating systems) will be adopted on a large scale by the mass of average computer users, and if so how long do you think it might take?

My response is below. I know I’m preaching to the converted here, but I’d still like to know what you think. And maybe it will be useful to some of you when you end up having similar conversations with your friends and family.

In a nutshell – I think that Free Software is the only reasonable choice anyone could make, and that Linux (or something like it) would already have taken over if we were actually given a choice. But despite Microsoft’s evil, anticompetitive business practices, I believe Linux (or Free Software in some form) will replace Windows on the average person’s computer within ten years. There’s three big reasons that I believe this is inevitable: the technology is better, it’s the socially responsible thing to do, and – come on. It’s free.

I won’t sugarcoat it: if you’ve tried to use Linux in the past, you might question whether the technology is actually any better. I’d say the current state of the Linux desktop is something like Windows 2000, which is to say: fine for 90% of the world. But here’s the thing: it’s evolving much, much faster than Windows did, or ever could, because the Free Software development model is just plain better. It’s so obvious! If anyone can read the source, bugs can be traced and fixed by anyone with the appropriate skills. Since all the documentation and tools are also Free, the appropriate skills can be learned by almost anyone with some time and effort. Software developed this way will inevitably be more reliable and improve much faster than stuff developed by small, closed groups working in secret.

This isn’t just theory – the concept has been proven time and time again. In fact it’s the foundation of the dang Internet. The only reason the Internet exists is that everyone is using the same freely available, agreed-upon standards. Want to know how a web server works? Here is the reference for HTTP. And so on. The Internet is already run almost entirely on Free Software.

The desktop, on the other hand, is being held hostage by a vastly rich global corporation with an illegal monopoly on the market. Apple has proven that a home user can be not only satisfied, but delighted by a computer based on an Open Source, Unix-like OS – if you have the cash for their hardware. The rest of the world is stuck with whatever comes on their computer, which is nearly always Windows.

So why do computer makers sell Windows? Simple economics would seem to point to an inevitable triumph by Free Software: ‘free’ is always cheaper than whatever Microsoft charges for Windows. Interestingly a couple of Harvard Business School researchers did some formal modeling of the situation, and their model predicts that, because of Microsoft’s “first mover” advantage (i.e. illegal monopoly control of the market), simply having better software at a cost of $0.00 is not enough for Linux to completely replace Windows. You’d also need to have another factor, such as strategic buyers (e.g. entire corporate or government entities) switching to Linux.

This has already started happening, all over the world.

So yes, for those two reasons, I believe the triumph of Free Software is inevitable. But the most compelling thing to me – the reason I work for Red Hat – is the social and political implications. Nobody prefers closed-source software, in the same way nobody wants DRM. Would you buy a car that had the hood welded shut? That would only drive on Ford-approved roads? That could only be serviced at official Ford dealerships? Would you allow those dealerships to charge $40,000 for (or flat-out refuse) an oil change if your car was older than 2002, demanding that you buy a new car instead? Oh, and the new car comes with a special Ford stereo, which will only play special RIAA-approved CDs. Dear God no. Nobody wants this.

In sharp contrast, everyone in the world who’s got a copy of Fedora can do whatever they want with it, without restrictions, forever. Make and distribute music, write stories, do business, whatever. If something’s broken, you can fix it, or find someone who is sufficiently capable and have them do it. Even better, every improvement is shared with every other user in the rest of the world, for free, forever. Nothing is patented, there are no hidden traps – no company can ever start demanding money for any part of it. Places like the FAA and Orbitz pay Red Hat to make Linux stable for them. Red Hat pays people like me to work on making Linux better, and anyone with a computer, anywhere in the world, can benefit from my work, for free. Millions of kids worldwide will soon be doing just that.

Free Software grows without bounds and without restrictions and can never be shut down or go out of business. It’s just so obviously and powerfully the Right Thing to do for the benefit of whole damn world.

And did I mention it’s free?


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