9 Characteristics of Free Software Users: Page 2

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3) Free software users expect to work the way they choose

Switching from Windows to GNU/Linux, the first thing that users are likely to notice is how many customization options are available just for the look and the operation of the desktop. If anything, they are likely to feel that too many options are available. Often, they cannot imagine ever wanting half the options.

These options are a direct result of the sense of control that free software encourages in its users. Not only do they expect to use menus, toolbars or keyboard shortcuts as their preference dictates, but they expect to control the color, widgets and even placement of desktop features easily and efficiently. If they cross the other way, going from GNU/Linux to Windows, they are apt to feel restricted, that they are being forced to do things the way that the developers want them to do, rather than consulting only their own preferences.

4) Free software users want control of their own systems

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For a free software user, one of the most irksome aspects of Windows XP or Vista is that you are constantly being nagged by pop-ups. The system itself notifies you about available upgrades, possible security risks, and the current state of your system. And it's not unusual for your manufacturer's software to have its own messages as well as Java and several other programs. Meanwhile, the operating system and one or two other basic pieces of software are phoning home, and lockdown technologies are policing your computing. Sometimes, it seems like your work is being interrupted every 30 seconds or so.

Desktops in free software operating systems are starting to have notifications, but, so far, they are for the entire system. Even more importantly, they can be turned off. Experienced GNU/Linux or FreeBSD users know that routine system events belong in log files, where they can be read at leisure.

As for lockdown or surveillance technologies, forget it. Many free software users are suspicious of comparatively benign automatic survey tools like the Debian Popularity Contest or Smolt, let alone something that takes control from their hands.

5) Free software users explore

I was able to solve two of the Windows problems I faced over the holidays in a matter of moments. One was simply a case of plugging the monitor into the dedicated video card instead of the onboard on the mother board. The other was solved by using a file manager instead of the dedicated tools that came with the new hardware. Asked why they didn't look around for solutions, those I was helping hemmed and hawed, but eventually they more or less admitted that they were afraid to try.

To me, these reactions epitomize the learned helplessness that proprietary software usually encourages. With only a limited number of tools visible from the desktop -- many buried several dialogs down -- and most of those tools giving no indication of how they achieve their results -- the average Windows user has little incentive to learn how to administer their systems.

However, on free software systems, exploration is easy. Most configuration, for instance, is done using plain text files that you can view from your file manager. And since exploration leads to quick and effective results, the users of free operating systems are encouraged to explore and soon grow to expect the ability to do so. Place them on a Windows system, and they'll probably complain that they are isolated from the system as effectively as if they were trying to type wearing mittens.

6) Free software users expect to help themselves

Free software users have no objection to help files. If anything, they love them. To the traditional Unix man pages, they have info pages at the command line, and online help on the desktop. But they are far less likely than proprietary users to expect formal technical support. Instead, what they expect are the means to help themselves -- not only help files, but easily accessible configuration files (preferable in human-readable plain text), and mail forums and IRC channels where they can consult each other. A Do-it-yourself philosophy runs deep in almost every free software user. The longer they have been using it, the deeper it runs.

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