9 Characteristics of Free Software Users

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Operating systems come with cultures as much as codebases. I was forcibly reminded of this fact over the holidays when several family members and neighbors press-ganged me into troubleshooting their Windows computers. Although none of us had any formal computer training, and I know almost nothing about Windows, I was able to solve problems that baffled the others -- not because of any technical brilliance, but because the free software culture in which I spend my days made me better able to cope.

The origins of these cultures are more or less obvious. Windows and other proprietary software are the products of a commercial software market. In this culture, information flows mainly in one direction -- from the manufacturer -- and companies' obsession with so-called intellectual property and vendor lock-in encourages them to force users into the role of unquestioning consumers.

By contrast, free software culture has two sources. The first is the Unix culture that Eric Raymond describes in The Art of Unix Programming, with its emphasis on excellence. The second is the Free Software Definition's four freedoms.

True, end-users are unlikely to be interested themselves in the freedoms to study or improve the program. But the availability of these freedoms for developers conditions everybody's expectations. Moreover, the freedoms to run and redistribute programs relieve everyone of some of the more unwelcome aspects of proprietary culture. At any rate, together these sources create a more active, more demanding set of users than is found in proprietary software.

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Unsurprisingly, these differences in origins lead to entirely different sets of expectations. Exceptions do occur, of course, and, the more expertise users have, the less pronounced the differences are. Moreover, free software like FireFox and OpenOffice.org are becoming more commonplace on proprietary platforms. And, similarly proprietary culture is seeping into free software as it becomes big business.

Still, for the most part, you can expect free software users to differ from proprietary in a number of fundamental ways. Furthermore, whether you are aware of these differences can have considerable impact in your success when marketing or developing software.

1) Free software users expect open licenses and no activation methods

Proprietary vendors like Adobe and Xara who have experimented with GNU/Linux versions of the software usually conclude that free software users will not buy commercial software. However, as companies such as Mandriva and Red Hat have proved, such conclusions are more of a failure to conceive of alternative business methods than an observation of reality. If nothing else, business users will often buy commercially in order to have the comfort of a traditional relationship with a vendor.

However, given any sort of chance, free software users do reject proprietary licenses or activation methods that restrict their freedom to copy and redistribute software. Some may endure proprietary licenses if comparable functionality is unavailable elsewhere. Others may accept a proprietary license for non-essential software like games. But, at the first sign of an alternative, they will abandon a proprietary product. And many, of course, will not even accept these temporary compromises.

If you want to sell to the free software community, forget about making money on the software and see what services you can develop around the software. Or do you think it's an accident that file-sharing and free culture have roots in the free software community?

2) Free software users expect regular upgrades and patches

Free operating systems are set up for instant gratification. You want a piece of software? Switch to the root account, and in five minutes you have it installed and ready to use without rebooting.

This daily functionality results in the same high expectations for upgrades and patches. In free software, upgrades and patches are not a once yearly event complete with beta versions and release candidates. They are closer to a daily occurrence. Project maintainers take this responsibility so seriously that many have been known to take personal time from work in order to get a bug or security patch out as quickly as possible.

3) Free software users expect to work the way they choose

Switching from Windows to GNU/Linux, the first thing that users are likely to notice is how many customization options are available just for the look and the operation of the desktop. If anything, they are likely to feel that too many options are available. Often, they cannot imagine ever wanting half the options.

These options are a direct result of the sense of control that free software encourages in its users. Not only do they expect to use menus, toolbars or keyboard shortcuts as their preference dictates, but they expect to control the color, widgets and even placement of desktop features easily and efficiently. If they cross the other way, going from GNU/Linux to Windows, they are apt to feel restricted, that they are being forced to do things the way that the developers want them to do, rather than consulting only their own preferences.

4) Free software users want control of their own systems

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For a free software user, one of the most irksome aspects of Windows XP or Vista is that you are constantly being nagged by pop-ups. The system itself notifies you about available upgrades, possible security risks, and the current state of your system. And it's not unusual for your manufacturer's software to have its own messages as well as Java and several other programs. Meanwhile, the operating system and one or two other basic pieces of software are phoning home, and lockdown technologies are policing your computing. Sometimes, it seems like your work is being interrupted every 30 seconds or so.

Desktops in free software operating systems are starting to have notifications, but, so far, they are for the entire system. Even more importantly, they can be turned off. Experienced GNU/Linux or FreeBSD users know that routine system events belong in log files, where they can be read at leisure.

As for lockdown or surveillance technologies, forget it. Many free software users are suspicious of comparatively benign automatic survey tools like the Debian Popularity Contest or Smolt, let alone something that takes control from their hands.

5) Free software users explore

I was able to solve two of the Windows problems I faced over the holidays in a matter of moments. One was simply a case of plugging the monitor into the dedicated video card instead of the onboard on the mother board. The other was solved by using a file manager instead of the dedicated tools that came with the new hardware. Asked why they didn't look around for solutions, those I was helping hemmed and hawed, but eventually they more or less admitted that they were afraid to try.

To me, these reactions epitomize the learned helplessness that proprietary software usually encourages. With only a limited number of tools visible from the desktop -- many buried several dialogs down -- and most of those tools giving no indication of how they achieve their results -- the average Windows user has little incentive to learn how to administer their systems.

However, on free software systems, exploration is easy. Most configuration, for instance, is done using plain text files that you can view from your file manager. And since exploration leads to quick and effective results, the users of free operating systems are encouraged to explore and soon grow to expect the ability to do so. Place them on a Windows system, and they'll probably complain that they are isolated from the system as effectively as if they were trying to type wearing mittens.

6) Free software users expect to help themselves

Free software users have no objection to help files. If anything, they love them. To the traditional Unix man pages, they have info pages at the command line, and online help on the desktop. But they are far less likely than proprietary users to expect formal technical support. Instead, what they expect are the means to help themselves -- not only help files, but easily accessible configuration files (preferable in human-readable plain text), and mail forums and IRC channels where they can consult each other. A Do-it-yourself philosophy runs deep in almost every free software user. The longer they have been using it, the deeper it runs.

7) Free software users don't fear the command line

To Windows users, the command line is a fearful place. And no wonder, considering its awkwardness and limitations; a new one was one of the features promised for Vista and dropped. But the command line is much more friendly in free operating systems than in Windows, and many users soon become comfortable with it.

In almost every case, a typed command has more options and power than its graphical equivalent in free software. Users will gladly use the graphical interface, but, when its limitation is reached, many still happily drop down into the command line. Partly, it's a geek macho thing, but a large part of the habit is sheer practicality. Unless interface designers manage to offer the same functionality as the command line, that's not going to change -- and, frankly, not many are trying to do so.

8) Free software users learn software categories, not programs

Blocked from easily learning about their operating system, consumers of proprietary software operate as if casting magic spells -- ritual recipes that, if used exactly right, will give them the desired results. Added to the fact that proprietary software can be expensive, they tend to become familiar with one office suite, and one web browser and mail reader. As a result, switching software can be traumatic to them.

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By contrast, free software users come to have both the system knowledge and the software selection to experiment. They may settle on one piece of software in each category, but only after experimenting with all the possibilities. Should they need a feature that their choice lacks, they'll find a temporary or permanent replacement, trusting that other features they need will be in both programs. Far more than proprietary users, their loyalty is provisional, and dependent on quality and selection. They lack the financial investment that keeps proprietary users locked-in to a particular vendor, and see no reason to change that.

9) Free software users expect access to developers and other employees

The free software community prides itself on being a meritocracy, where status is the result of accomplishment and contribution. Since status depends on what you have done recently, it is less fixed than in a traditional office. Even where obvious leaders exist, they are more often first among equals than managers with direct control over others. That, in turn, means that community members cannot isolate themselves behind a wall of authority. Community members generally have direct access to project leaders, generally via email and IRC. Nor do most project leaders object to this arrangement.

Even in companies, traces of this flat structure exists. Instead of resisting it, sensible managers will accept it and claim a special place solely because of their position.


How long these characteristics of free software will continue to exist is uncertain. In the last few years, a new category of free operating system users has begun to emerge: those who remain entirely on the desktop. In the rush to become more user-friendly -- which usually means more like Windows -- the chance exists that the free software user culture will become unrecognizable to long-time users in the next few years.

However, that seems unlikely. For the most part, the purely desktop user's sensibilities are not sapping the free software culture so much as being accommodated and isolated as a special case. Unless they are content to stay in their normal routines, within a year or two, desktop users will face some problem that they cannot solve without becoming either more adventurous or more in contact with the mainstream culture. When that happens, they will have taken the first steps away from being passive consumers and towards becoming the owners of their own machines.

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