9 Characteristics of Free Software Users: Page 3

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7) Free software users don't fear the command line

To Windows users, the command line is a fearful place. And no wonder, considering its awkwardness and limitations; a new one was one of the features promised for Vista and dropped. But the command line is much more friendly in free operating systems than in Windows, and many users soon become comfortable with it.

In almost every case, a typed command has more options and power than its graphical equivalent in free software. Users will gladly use the graphical interface, but, when its limitation is reached, many still happily drop down into the command line. Partly, it's a geek macho thing, but a large part of the habit is sheer practicality. Unless interface designers manage to offer the same functionality as the command line, that's not going to change -- and, frankly, not many are trying to do so.

8) Free software users learn software categories, not programs

Blocked from easily learning about their operating system, consumers of proprietary software operate as if casting magic spells -- ritual recipes that, if used exactly right, will give them the desired results. Added to the fact that proprietary software can be expensive, they tend to become familiar with one office suite, and one web browser and mail reader. As a result, switching software can be traumatic to them.

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By contrast, free software users come to have both the system knowledge and the software selection to experiment. They may settle on one piece of software in each category, but only after experimenting with all the possibilities. Should they need a feature that their choice lacks, they'll find a temporary or permanent replacement, trusting that other features they need will be in both programs. Far more than proprietary users, their loyalty is provisional, and dependent on quality and selection. They lack the financial investment that keeps proprietary users locked-in to a particular vendor, and see no reason to change that.

9) Free software users expect access to developers and other employees

The free software community prides itself on being a meritocracy, where status is the result of accomplishment and contribution. Since status depends on what you have done recently, it is less fixed than in a traditional office. Even where obvious leaders exist, they are more often first among equals than managers with direct control over others. That, in turn, means that community members cannot isolate themselves behind a wall of authority. Community members generally have direct access to project leaders, generally via email and IRC. Nor do most project leaders object to this arrangement.

Even in companies, traces of this flat structure exists. Instead of resisting it, sensible managers will accept it and claim a special place solely because of their position.


How long these characteristics of free software will continue to exist is uncertain. In the last few years, a new category of free operating system users has begun to emerge: those who remain entirely on the desktop. In the rush to become more user-friendly -- which usually means more like Windows -- the chance exists that the free software user culture will become unrecognizable to long-time users in the next few years.

However, that seems unlikely. For the most part, the purely desktop user's sensibilities are not sapping the free software culture so much as being accommodated and isolated as a special case. Unless they are content to stay in their normal routines, within a year or two, desktop users will face some problem that they cannot solve without becoming either more adventurous or more in contact with the mainstream culture. When that happens, they will have taken the first steps away from being passive consumers and towards becoming the owners of their own machines.

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