Freedom for the short-term or the long-term?

As a Ubuntu Forums veteran, I’ve seen many disgruntled potential migrants return to Windows from Ubuntu because they wanted things to “just work.” They would say things like “I don’t really care about software freedom. I just want to be able to play video files and do what I need to do. The computer is just a tool.”

Just as in debates about feminism, there needs in software freedom discussions to be a distinction between short-term freedoms and long-term freedoms. If you use a proprietary operating system like Windows and use proprietary formats like .doc and .wmv, you will have a lot of short-term freedom. Buy any device from a consumer-oriented electronics store, and it will be Windows-compatible. Visit any website with Internet Explorer, and it will probably work. Watch any video online, and it will probably play. You can buy from the iTunes store. You can use Netflix’s Watch Now! Any commercial software will be available for purchase for your computer. It seems as if you can do anything. Isn’t that freedom? Yes, it is—it’s short-term freedom.

My wife isn’t really into the whole software freedom thing, and she uses a proprietary operating system (Mac OS X) and lots of proprietary software (Adobe CS3, Safari), but she recognized the other day the importance of long-term software freedom and open standards when she tried to watch a video at on her Mac. It couldn’t be done. It was an embedded Windows Media Player video, and she tried downloading some helper software, but that didn’t work either. Eventually she gave up, frustrated. Why would they make it Windows-only? That’s stupid. Why couldn’t they make it Quicktime?

Well, in that moment (just as when we both found out Netflix wouldn’t support either of our operating systems with its streaming video feature), she knew what it was like to be a Linux user. You don’t get any support. But why should you have to switch to Windows just to play a video? Is that really freedom? If I’m free, shouldn’t I be free to choose what operating system I want to run? My wife loves Mac OS X and would never want to switch back to Windows. She considers running Mac a software freedom, even if it means sacrificing the short-term freedom of watching a video. I love Ubuntu and would never want to switch to Windows, either. I’ve made many sacrifices of short-term freedom as well.

What proprietary formats (yes, Quicktime is one of them, too, as I explained to my wife) do is tell you “You have the freedom to do what you want… as long as you play by our rules.” That’s not long-term freedom. That’s bait and switch.

Take, for example, someone else I know who loves her Mac Mini but feels compelled to get a Windows computer for her new job, because they use Windows-only software, and she’s worried about .docx files not working on Mac. When you get dictated to what operating system you have to run and what computer you have to get, that is also not freedom. And this .docx business is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. It’s not even backward-compatible. If you have Microsoft Office 2003, you can’t handle .docx without some helper program to convert the file.

Open standards are good, and some short-term sacrifices along the way have to be made in order to get them adopted. In 2003, very few people were using Firefox, and there were many sites that didn’t work with Firefox, because there was very little incentive to follow W3C standards since “everyone” used Internet Explorer. Now, there are very few sites that don’t work with Firefox, since smart businesses realize they will lose potential customers if their sites work with only Internet Explorer. And increased Firefox compatibility has benefited Safari and Opera indirectly as well. Now people have a lot more long-term freedom on the web in terms of web browser choice.

You could argue, of course, that open standards and formats are not the same as open source, and that is true. Frankly, I’d be down with that. If people wanted to use proprietary software to create .odt word processing files and .ogg music and video files, I think even open source software users would benefit, and there would be very little software restriction.

If we are to get to that point of long-term software freedom, there have to be some people (like those early Firefox users) willing to make a few short-term software freedom sacrifices in order to have open source software and open formats more widely adopted. That’s why I like what Mark Shuttleworth and the Ubuntu community are doing with Ubuntu. It’s one of the few distributions that is treading a thin line on the free/proprietary line. It wants to be as free as possible while also recognizing that people are still very much reliant on proprietary software. Other Linux distributions tend to be overzealously long-term freedom-oriented or overzealously short-term freedom-oriented.

Yes, the computer is a tool, but if someone dictates which tool you use for a task, is that really freedom?

Further reading
Ubuntu’s Shuttleworth blames ISO for OOXML’s win


  1. You’re completely right and I totally agree with you on this one. But you’ve probably read the legendary article titled “Windows is not Linux” and there’s a section where it says that Linux was created by people to satisfy their individual needs, and they didn’t care for others. Hey, I remember that I was unable to play even .ogg files on Linux back in 2000. Back then, you would need to install loads of software and spend hours and hours in the terminal to make it play .ogg files, not to mention .wma or .mp3.
    Nowadays, however, I can play all of those files with very little or no intervention on my side, because people saw a need to play those files on Linux. My point is, if more and more people keep using open formats, eventually all big corporations will give up on their proprietary ones and just switch to open formats. I know that sounds impossible now, but in the long term, that makes sense, even if that won’t turn out to be true in the next 100 years.
    Oh, well, now you’ve inspired me to write a post about this on my blog :D

  2. at my office, we once received a visit from a very angry Richard Stallman because we published a book with a cd-rom of GPL software but didn’t print the entire GPL in the back of the book (we did put it on the CD). no real point to this, i just love that it happened.

    i believe in software freedom, but i am aware that the argument is difficult to make to the average user. it is my hope that the increased use of DRM and the resulting nested incompatibilities that creates will slowly drive people to recognize the superiority of open formats.

  3. Why not dual-boot? Or virtualize? Hard-drive space is cheap, like $1/GB, you can have the best of both worlds. Long term freedom of basing your computer off an open-source OS, and short term freedom of booting a proprietary one once in a while to play proprietary files. Almost every computer company in the world includes a proprietary OS with their products, why not use it? I agree with Petar above, given to how tough proprietary codecs used to be to get on linux, in comparison with where they are now, I think the same progress toward interoperability will happen in the future.

    Oh, and for your wife’s TBS video, VLC ( ) can play windows media, runs on windows/mac/*nix, and I think firefox can even embed VLC to play videos (check the preferences). If all else fails, you can set it to save the file to your computer, and play it with VLC there.

    That does suck about OOXML though, and I agree, .docx is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. .doc works perfectly fine, and you can even enable saving it as default in 2k7.

  4. I think the fact that we have been running Ubuntu since April 2007 and solely running it since June this year and haven’t been unable to open or view anything we wanted to, says a lot for how far along this path we have come.

    In fact this past spring, when we still had one PC running Windows XP, there were times when we had to use our Ubuntu PC to open some obscure files sent to us because Windows couldn’t do it. The Gnome text editor, gEdit can open almost any format document that uses text!

  5. I’m starting to think about new radically free distribution (or a Linux website) called MarxOS. It might be enough to disturb some users :-)

  6. As for .docx, 3.0 can read and write it, and I believe it’s at least a release candidate now.

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