One of the greatest things about running Linux is the freedom it provides. Where the division among the Linux community appears is in how we value this freedom.
For some, the freedom enjoyed by using Linux is the freedom from vendor lock-in or high software costs. Most would call this a practical consideration. Others users would tell you the freedom they enjoy is software freedom. This means embracing Linux distributions that support the Free Software Movement, avoiding proprietary software completely and all things related.
In this article, I’ll walk you through some of the differences between these two freedoms and how they affect Linux usage.
The problem with proprietary
One thing most Linux users have in common is their preference for avoiding proprietary software. For practical enthusiasts like myself, it’s a matter of how I spend my money, the ability to control my software and avoiding vendor lock-in. Granted, I’m not a coder…so my tweaks to my installed software are pretty mild. But there are instances where a minor tweak to an application can mean the difference between it working and it not working.
Then there are Linux enthusiasts who opt to avoid proprietary software because they feel it’s unethical to use it. Usually the main concern here is that using proprietary software takes away or simply obstructs your personal freedom. Users in this corner prefer to use Linux distributions and software that support the Free Software philosophy. While it’s similar to and often directly confused with Open Source concepts, there are differences.
So here’s the issue: Users such as myself tend to put convenience over the ideals of pure software freedom. Don’t get me wrong, folks like me prefer to use software that meets the ideals behind Free Software, but we also are more likely to make concessions in order to accomplish specific tasks.
Both types of Linux enthusiasts prefer using non-proprietary solutions. But Free Software advocates won’t use proprietary at all, where as the practical user will rely on the best tool with the best performance. This means there are instances where the practical user is willing to run a proprietary application or code on their non-proprietary operating system.
In the end, both user types enjoy using what Linux has to offer. But our reasons for doing so tend to vary. Some have argued that this is a matter of ignorance with those who don’t support Free Software. I disagree and believe it’s a matter of practical convenience. Users who prefer practical convenience simply aren’t concerned about the politics of their software.
When you ask most people why they use the operating system they use, it’s usually tied in with practical convenience. Examples of this convenience might include “it’s what I’ve always used” down to “it runs the software I need.” Other folks might take this a step further and explain it’s not so much the software that drives their OS preference, as the familiarity of the OS in question. And finally, there are specialty “niche tasks” or hardware compatibility issues that also provide good reasons for using one OS over another.
This might surprise many of you, but the single biggest reason I run desktop Linux today is due to familiarity. Even though I provide support for Windows and OS X for others, it’s actually quite frustrating to use these operating systems as they’re simply not what my muscle memory is used to. I like to believe this allows me to empathize with Linux newcomers, as I too know how off-putting it can be to step into the realm of the unfamiliar. My point here is this – familiarity has value. And familiarity also powers practical convenience as well.
Now if we compare this to the needs of a Free Software advocate, you’ll find those folks are willing to learn something new and perhaps even more challenging if it translates into them avoiding using non-free software. It’s actually something I’ve always admired about this type of user. Their willingness to take the path less followed to stick to their principles is, in my opinion, admirable.
The price of freedom
One area I don’t envy is the extra work involved in making sure a Free Software advocate is always using Linux distros and hardware that respect their digital freedom according to the standards set forth by the Free Software Foundation. This means the Linux kernel needs to be free from proprietary blobs for driver support and the hardware in question doesn’t require any proprietary code whatsoever. Certainly not impossible, but it’s pretty close.
The absolute best scenario a Free Software advocate can shoot for is hardware that is “freedom-compatible.” There are vendors out there that can meet this need, however most of them are offering hardware that relies on Linux compatible proprietary firmware. Great for the practical user, a show-stopper for the Free Software advocate.
What all of this translates into is that the advocate must be far more vigilant than the practical Linux enthusiast. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing per se, however it’s a consideration if one is planning on jumping onto the Free Software approach to computing. Practical users, by contrast, can use any software or hardware that happens to be Linux compatible without a second thought. I don’t know about you, but in my eyes this seems a bit easier to me.
Defining software freedom
This part is going to get some folks upset as I personally don’t subscribe to the belief that there’s only one flavor of software freedom. From where I stand, I think true freedom is being able to soak in all the available data on a given issue and then come to terms with the approach that best suits that person’s lifestyle.
So for me, I prefer using Linux distributions that provide me with the desktop that meets all of my needs. This includes the use of non-proprietary software and proprietary software. Even though it’s fair to suggest that the proprietary software restricts my personal freedom, I must counter this by pointing out that I had the freedom to use it in the first place. One might even call this freedom of choice.
Perhaps this too, is why I find myself identifying more with the ideals of Open Source Software instead of sticking with the ideals behind the Free Software movement. I prefer to stand with the group that doesn’t spend their time telling me how I’m wrong for using what works best for me. It’s been my experience that the Open Source crowd is merely interested in sharing the merits of software freedom without the passion for Free Software idealism.
I think the concept of Free Software is great. And to those who need to be active in software politics and point out the flaws of using proprietary software to folks, then I think Linux (GNU/Linux) activism is a good fit. Where practical users such as myself tend to change course from Free Software Linux advocates is in our presentation.
When I present Linux on the desktop, I share my passion for its practical merits. And if I’m successful and they enjoy the experience, I allow the user to discover the Free Software perspective on their own. I’ve found most people use Linux on their computers not because they want to embrace software freedom, rather because they simply want the best user experience possible. Perhaps I’m alone in this, it’s hard to say.
What say you? Are you a Free Software Advocate? Perhaps you’re a fan of using proprietary software/code on your desktop Linux distribution? Hit the Comments and share your Linux desktop experiences.