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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 TBS.com 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 TBS.com 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