For average users, free software represents the opportunity to take control of their computing. Paradoxically, because no one owns free software, everyone has owners' rights in it. Instead of receiving a license to use software in a limited way, they can redistribute and modify it as they choose without any need for activation or concern about the legality of their actions.
Moreover, free software has introduced freedom of choice. Where Internet Explorer once monopolized the Web browser, Firefox now has a healthy and growing market share. Where MS Office was the only choice (or perhaps WordPerfect, if you could find it), OpenOffice.org has provided an alternative. Similarly, in the struggle against so-called Digital Rights Management, free software advocates have emerged as protectors of consumer rights.
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For other users, free software has made the difference between having a computer and not having one. Being concerned with other things than profit, free software has become the choice for both poor citizens and cash-strapped governments and academic institutions. In developing nations, it is the only way that a technological infrastructure can be constructed. For minority language users, it is the only way to participate in modern technology in their own languages, instead of being forced to learn English. For endangered languages defenders, it is a way to preserve and restore pride and interest. And for people with disabilities, applications like the Orca screen reader offer access to computers without spending thousands of dollars.
Wherever you look, free software is addressing the interaction between society and technology. Moreover, it does not do so in a charity carefully calculated to result in the maximum of publicity, but quietly and with an emphasis on human dignity in which anyone involved should take satisfaction.
To anyone active in the free software community, this list of accomplishment may seem commonplace. But perhaps that is the trouble. When you deal with something everyday, you easily take it for granted, no matter how important it may be. For this reason, it's worth reminding ourselves now and then just how impressive the community's accomplishments actually are.
All of us -- even well-known figures like Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman -- only play small roles in this list of accomplishments. Yet, if you have even the slightest role, you can take pride in having assisted with something well-worth doing.
Personally, I'd like to see more of that pride and less badmouthing of Microsoft. In the end, I suspect that such pride will be more satisfying to you, and more attractive to others than a banal and outworn expression of hate.--Article Correction:
This article was corrected from its original version. In the first version, the author referred to the beginnings of free software in the early 1990s. What he meant to write was "When the mainstream first started hearing about free software in the early 1990s." This sentence on the first page has been updated.
The correction was made at the request of Richard Stallman, who wrote a letter to the editor:
I agree fully with the point of your article that focusing on hatred for Microsoft is missing the point (see http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/microsoft.html), but the article errs regarding when the Free Software Movement began. I announced in 1983 the plan to develop the free operating system GNU, and the development started in 1984. The GNU/Linux system, which became available in 1992, represented almost a decade of work for the free software movement.