GNU/Linux World Domination for the Wrong Reasons

Seeing GNU/Linux shift from the fringe to the mainstream is exciting, yet in the rebellious glee of watching the paradigms shifting, acceptance can come at too high a cost.
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Whenever I hear people discussing GNU/Linux's prospects for becoming more popular, I'm reminded of a comment by Tommy Douglas, the social democrat who became a hero for introducing universal health care into Canada. If he could press a button and gain a million voters who did not understand his policies, he said, then he would not press that button. He meant that he was not in politics simply to be elected, but to gain supporters for his ideals -- and that he was determined not to lose sight of his long term goals while pursing short term ones.

The comment resonates for me because, increasingly, in the rush for market share, many people seem to lose sight of the fact that the goal of GNU/Linux and free software is not popularity in itself, but the wide acceptance of a set of ideals.

At its most basic, free software is about helping users gain control of their computers so that they can participate unhindered in the digital conversations of the networks and the Internet. It's about installing software freely, rather than being dictated to by the manufacturer. It's about using your computer the way that you want, instead of ceding control to lock-down devices installed by software vendors without permission on your machine.

You could call its goal consumer activism if you like, but a more accurate description would be an extension of freedom of expression, and maybe even of association, the basic rights that modern industrial societies are supposed to be built on.

However, these are rarely the goals you hear when bloggers and columnists talk about how GNU/Linux could become more popular. According to them (and their list has not greatly changed between 2002 and 2008), what the operating system needs is more commercial applications, better hardware support, enhanced interoperability with Windows, and more pre-loaded machines. And if they talk about GNU/Linux' improved prospects because of the resistance to Vista, they're likely to use the word "free" in terms of price or total cost of ownership, than of politics or philosophy.

What's mentioned, in short, is a business or technical perspective, one based on convenience rather than ideals. And, in the short term, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that (though I can't help reflecting that interoperability with Windows is one of the excuses for the infamous Microsoft-Novell pact in November 2006).

But, while I appreciate technical excellence as much as anyone, if all you want is a superior alternative to Windows, OS X will do you just as well -- possibly better, some insist. Like GNU/Linux, it's a UNIX-like system, while its usability is second to none. If your priority is technical performance, the fact that it's proprietary shouldn't matter to you.

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Similarly, if cost-free applications attract you, enough Internet applications are floating around that you never need to pay a cent -- to say nothing of Acrobat and Flash players that are free for the download.

And, in fact, at least as many people are turning to these alternatives as to GNU/Linux in their dis-satisfaction with Windows. Offhand, I can think of at least a dozen local consultants who offer free software server solutions via Drupal or Joomla! yet use OS X on their laptops.

In the same way, you only have to glance at the user forums of major distributions like Fedora or Ubuntu to see that more users are concerned with getting proprietary video drivers installed than with having control of their own computers. After all, the proprietary drivers are available at no cost, just like the ethically free ones, so why not use them, especially when they are technologically more advanced? I've even seen some users castigate Fedora for not providing the proprietary drivers in its repositories.

Never mind that to do so would be against Fedora's policy of including only free software -- with such users, the short term convenience of the technically superior proprietary drivers outweighs the ethos of freedom. Many of the complainers do not even appear to have heard of free software ideals. Nor do they bother listening when those ideals are raised.

Admittedly, some might be using the proprietary drivers as a temporary expedience until improved free ones are released. Still, the general attitude suggests that they have no understanding of the long-term considerations whatsoever. Perhaps they might help swell the number of GNU/Linux users enough to encourage the manufacturers to release free software drivers, but I suspect that their real contribution is only to ensure the manufacturers that they can continue with their usual practices. For all the long-term good such users have done themselves or others, they might as well have stayed on Windows.

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Tags: Linux, Microsoft, Vista, OS X, GNU/Linux

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