This situation is so prevalent that many users still have no idea that free software exists, much less what its goals are. But, if they are exposed to free software at all, they soon learn that it has a radically different orientation.
Its message is that software is not a commodity, but a medium, comparable to TV or radio waves, that should be available to anyone with the hardware. It suggests that average users should take more control over their computing, and that their relationship with its producers should be altered. It sounds idealistic, and perhaps vague.
Hearing such radically different goals, what else are average users going to do except respond with confusion or rejection? Their first reaction may be that free software is too good to be true. They may disbelieve explanations of how it works, and look for hidden costs or malware.
The last thing they are likely to do is accept it. And why should we expect them to?
Free software is so different from the software they have always used that they have no frame of reference. The fact that free software offers more choice and more control than they have ever had is overwhelmed by their inability to connect it to the rest of their experience with software. Far from rushing to accept its benefits, they are more likely to retreat in confusion and reject free software as either an impossibility or a con.
When I first encountered free software, I considered it an isolated phenomenon. Its connection with other historical trends or movements has only become apparent over time. Even now, I find its importance easy to overlook sometimes, and I suspect that many other people in the community do as well.
That is especially true of those who identify themselves as open source supporters, who value free software mainly for the increased quality that accessible source code allows. They sometimes forget that, as Linus Torvalds once told me, that this convenience for coders is only the means towards user freedom.
But the overlooking of free software's importance has an even greater effect. Those of us in the community are aware of the importance, but we frequently take it for granted. Caught up in every day routine, we forget that what is normal for us can be confusing and threatening to those hearing of it for the first time.
Year by year, free software is succeeding. Looking back over my decade of involvement, I am often amazed by the progress I have seen, both in the software itself and in its acceptance outside the community. All the same, free software might succeed more quickly if those involved in it reminded themselves of its importance more often, and realized how puzzling it can be to newcomers.
ALSO SEE: The Agony of FOSS Branding