As a follow-up to an older post of mine (“Open Source for Non-Programmers”), I wanted to post a little bit about arbitrary limitations in software.
Thank God even Apple is now leaving behind DRM in its iTunes Music Store (Amazon has been doing so for quite a while with its MP3 store). While the music pirates were still out there pirating, my well-intentioned and law-abiding Windows- and Mac-using friends were constantly frustrated that this computer wasn’t authorized or this song wouldn’t play on that device. DRM was an artificial restriction on how many computers or devices could play a purchased song, and it wasn’t stopping music piracy. It was hurting the people who were trying to play by the rules.
Now the tech news is reporting that Microsoft (in attempt to phase out Windows XP) will release a crippled version of Windows 7 on netbooks that allows you to run only three applications at a time. So if you’re running Firefox, Thunderbird, and Pidgin already, and then you want to open up OpenOffice to write an essay for class, you have to close Firefox first (or Thunderbird or Pidgin). Will DropBox count as an app? Will ScreenPrint32? Will other tray apps? Who knows? This is a nuisance and nothing else. It is a cheap ploy to take advantage of users’ Windows addictions and coerce them into upgrading to the full version of Windows 7.
Of course, as with what happened in the case of DRM, this limitation will be an annoyance to Microsoft’s loyal customers, and it will do nothing to stop pirates. Some Windows customers will buy a netbook with crippled Windows 7 and get frustrated and just install an old copy of Windows XP on it. Others will pirate the full version of Windows 7 and install that without paying for an upgrade. And still others will get frustrated with Windows altogether and go to Android or Ubuntu Linux. (Relatively few people will actually pay for an upgrade.)
When enough people flock to Linux on netbooks, Microsoft will be forced to pull Windows XP off the shelf yet again to stave off the competition.
Linux distros have their limitations, but they aren’t arbitrarily imposed on you by the Linux developers. The limitations all come from proprietary software and hardware vendors. Know why your Broadcom wireless card won’t work on Linux? Broadcom won’t port a driver to Linux or release the driver specs to Linux developers can incorporate it into the Linux kernel. Know why there’s no Adobe Creative Suite for Linux? Adobe doesn’t think there’s enough demand for it to warrant making a port, so it won’t make one for Linux.
Want to know why you can’t run more than three apps at a time in Windows 7 on netbooks? Microsoft won’t let you unless you pay for an upgrade. That’s right. You can’t blame it on some outside vendor. Microsoft, the maker of Windows 7, is saying “We don’t care about the end user or a good user experience. We want to offer you a crippled product in the hopes you’ll pay for the full product.” This is like a car salesperson offering you a discounted car with no front wheel. To get the fourth wheel you have to pay extra. Some discount.
Software freedom isn’t just about hackers wearing out their eyes staring at screens and typing into terminals. It isn’t just about programming and getting into arguments about which text editor is better than the other. Software freedom affects end users too. Because Linux offers freedom (not just free cost), if a distro ever tried to limit you to running only three apps at a time, another distro would just take that limit right off. Or someone would create a script to break that limitation.
There are short-term freedoms and long-term freedoms. The short-term freedom to run Windows-only programs will lead to the curtailing of long-term freedoms to not be limited by what Microsoft says you can and can’t do with the software you’ve purchased.