But with computers and the Internet, the situation is nothing short of disastrous. Potentially, computers are the greatest technologies for the promotion of education and free speech that have ever existed. And every now and again, proprietary companies make a small gesture of recognition toward this potential with educational software or the cheap sale of their products to developing nations.
Yet, mostly, this potential remains no more than half-realized by proprietary software. Both the price and the lack of consumer control means that access to these technologies remains limited and filtered by the makers of proprietary companies. Through an accident of history, we have allowed profit-oriented companies not just to use these technologies -- which naturally would be perfectly acceptable -- but to control how everyone uses them as well.
What free software does is take some of that control away from corporations and make computer and Internet technologies more accessible to the average user. Because of free software, your ability to communicate or create is no longer limited by the software you can afford. It is not a complete solution, since hardware costs can still be a barrier to some, but it is a major step in the right direction.
Basically, free software is a democratization of restricted technology. You can see that essential spirit in the communities that it creates, in which the norm is volunteerism, sharing, and community decision-making. You can see that spirit, too, in the use of free software to create infrastructure in developing countries, or in the related Open Access Movement's efforts to release academic research from restricted journals so that anyone can use it. In a phrase, free software is one step closer to realizing the ideals that modern society is supposed to be based upon.
You might argue that other causes, such as providing basic food and shelter worldwide, are more important, and I would have to agree with you. All the same, it is a cause I happen to be able to advance in my small way. To me, it remains not only important, but so essential for human rights and academic freedom that I have trouble understanding why it is not already universal.
All too plainly, though, free software enjoys only limited -- if increasing -- use. Market monopolies, widespread piracy, lack of vendor support, community infighting and hostility to outsiders -- all these and more are often mentioned to explain why more people don't use free software. Probably, all of them are involved, but I suspect that the main reasons are even simpler.
"I don't understand why anyone still uses Windows," I grumbled once to a friend. "Because it comes installed on their computer?" he replied. He probably had a point.
You would think that people who spend eight to fourteen hours each work day in front of their computer would want to have more control over that experience. But inertia should never be under-estimated as a human motivation. If computers already come with an operating system, that is good enough for most people, no matter how often they complain or make jokes about it.
Yet I think that the main reason that more people haven't adapted free software is more basic still. Free software, I suspect, is such a radical departure from what they are used to that many people have trouble conceiving that such a thing can exist.
Free software may have its origins in the academic computing of the 1960s and 1970s. However, for most people, the history of computing begins with the release of the personal computer on to the market place around 1980.
Ever since this period, software has been primarily a commodity. Its control by the manufacturers has been the norm. And, despite occasional grumbling, users are accustomed to losing their normal rights in property just by opening the packaging of commercial software.