Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Windows

Software freedom does affect the end user

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.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Ubuntu Windows

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