From patent claims to license violations, free and open source software has weathered one threat to its existence after another. However, with Chromebooks recently outselling both Apple and Windows computers, I suspect that open source software's chances with consumers are becoming remoter than ever -- and all because of the advantages of open source software in development.
Chromebooks, of course, are laptops that run Chrome OS, whose applications are mostly online. After a slow start five years ago, the sales of Chromebooks has increased steadily in the last two years, until they are now the best-selling laptops. Their popularity is probably due largely to their price, which average 20% cheaper than bottom- line Windows laptops, and at least 70% cheaper than Apple laptops.
Cynics might point out that open source software's share of the retail market is so small as to be non-existent, and that something that is non-existent can hardly be threatened by anything. What Chromebooks threaten, though, is the possibility of open source software ever expanding. In Chromebooks, proprietary software may have found a rival with which open source software cannot compete.
Throughout its history, free open source software has always emphasized political and philosophical freedom. All the same, much of its acceptance has been due to its free cost, which makes overlooking its weaknesses easier and has steadily driven down the prices of OS X and Windows during the last two decades.
Now, however, Chromebooks offer the same advantage. Better yet, from the manufacturer's view, although their software may be usable for free, and their services for very little, Chromebooks do not require licenses that restrict the writers' and distributors' control. Unlike free software, Chromebooks and their cloud services mean business as usual. They are something manufacturers can understand.
If consumers even bothered to locate a laptop pre-loaded with open source software, it would probably not be cheaper than a Chromebook. Most of the time, computers pre-loaded with free software are priced similarly to Windows computers, most likely because their manufacturers operate on such a small scale that they are not in any position to offer lower prices.
Besides, Chromebook services are ones that many consumers already use, such as Google Docs or Dropbox. By contrast, free software can only offer equivalencies. Sometimes, they are equivalencies superior to anything that Windows or the cloud can offer, but what matters is that they are unfamiliar. Instead of exploring the possibility of something better, most consumers are going to buy what they know, and what seems like a bargain.
The trouble is that it is a short-sighted bargain, as Richard Stallman has pointed out for years. Chromebooks -- and, increasingly, tablets and phones -- are convenient, in that they remove the need to worry about configuring or updating software. Google even claims to take care of anti-virus and malware scanning for the purchasers of Chromebooks.
However, despite the ridicule that Stallman's observations have regularly received, they remain true: A Chromebook is a computer that you do not control. You can only trust that the services you use respect your privacy; you can never know from direct observation. In fact, even the service providers cannot guarantee against accidents or malicious employers.
The average consumers, though, know nothing about this tradeoff of convenience for security. For that matter, they probably know nothing about security. All they know is that they can save sixty dollars on their child's computer for the new school year. The consequences, if any, will probably appear months after the purchase. Even then, the loss of data or privacy will be presented in such a way that cloud services are never blamed, and free software alternatives are never mentioned.
What is ironic about this situation is that online services and Google, the company that invented Chromebooks, are built largely on free software. Even the basic idea of the Chromebook is essentially an updated version of the thin client, a technology that free software perfected. Just as importantly, using free software means that Chromebooks were developed more quickly than they would have been if they were written from scratch.
In all these senses, in facing the competition from Chromebooks, free software is basically being challenged by itself.
In one form or another, free software is likely to survive the challenge from Chromebook and cloud services. However, not only is desktop free software likely to be curtailed, but also its efforts in the last decade to champion user's rights. For all their convenience, cloud services actually offer users even less control than traditional proprietary software.
If cloud services win out, free software may be left as a means of production -- something valued by developers, but even less known than now. That result might be better than all-proprietary development, but, considering free software's potential, it would still be a disappointment.
The danger is that, in Chromebooks, free software may have encountered a rival with which it cannot compete. The already distant, openly mocked year of the Linux desktop, already a remote possibility, might very well have become remoter than ever, and all thanks to Chromebooks.
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