Choice is Messy (Free Software Likes It That Way): Page 2

Posted September 15, 2010

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

(Page 2 of 2)

For instance, it is no accident that some of the strongest complaints when KDE 4.0 was released were that it has fewer options than its predecessors. In most community members' minds, the assumption is that each release will offer more choices, not less, so the work-in-progress that was KDE 4.0 seemed a violation of the natural order.

Even more importantly, I suspect, users expressed their dis-satisfaction with the worst insult they could find. Often, it took the form of saying that KDE had become too much like Windows or OS X -- meaning that choice had arbitrarily snatched from users' hands, and that developers had decided that they were more qualified to decide what was best for users than the users themselves were.

Morrison is right, of course, that in the absence of standardization, distributions have to decide what applications are included in their default installations. However, contrary to his assertion, such a decision does not limit freedom for users.

Not only are alternatives available in each distribution's repositories, but if a user dislikes the defaults in one distribution, they can easily switch to another one. Unlike Microsoft or Apple operating systems, a free software distribution, even if it is sold commercially, places very few limits on choice. Their defaults remain a purely local phenomenon, and do next to nothing to reduce the availability of choice.

In fact, because choice is valued so highly, free software developers go to considerable lengths to assure it. I doubt it is any coincidence that the main emphasis in releases after KDE 4.0 was to restore most of the choices that users were afraid they had lost.

Similarly, when KDE offered a new menu or new layout for System Settings, its developers were careful to give users the option of using the old ones.

A dichotomy between standardization and choice is probably false. They are not natural opposites, and both can be useful. And, in general, free software projects see enough value in standardization that their members frequently talk to contributors to other projects and look for ways to improve interoperability. But such interaction is just a way to increase choice -- for instance, to let users run a GNOME app more easily on the KDE desktop if that is what they want.

Forced to decide between standardization and choice, the average community member, I suspect, will support choice every time. Yes, choice is inefficient -- but it is also a lot more fun than standardization can ever hope to be.

The Impossibility of Implementation

The arguments to reduce choice seem to have logic on their side. However, if the theory were accepted -- which it obviously is not -- the practice would be impossible.

At first, you might think that the choices would be obvious. For instance, OpenOffice.org is the most fully-featured office suite, so you might support it as the new standard. But what if someone else values speed instead? Then AbiWord or KOffice would be the application to support.

The decision can change drastically with the criterion. But if you allow too many different criterion, then standardization is either weakened or becomes self-defeating.

In cases where the differences are smaller, the situation is even worse. What argument could -- or should -- convince developers of GNOME to support KDE, or those of RhythmBox to abandon their efforts in favor of Amarok? Umbrella organizations like the Linux Foundation or the Free Software Foundation coordinate, but they have no power to compel, and no prospect of ever being able to do so, even if they wanted to. Get rival projects together, and the result would be a stalemate.

Undoubtedly, there would be advantages to standardization. But, equally, undoubtedly, it's not going to happen. And if by some unlikely chance it did, then free software would cease to be free software. For better or worse, the messiness of choice is what free software is all about.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Linux downloads, open source tools, KDE 4

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