Software Freedom vs. Usability: Must We Lose One To Gain The Other?

Linux purists believe freedom comes at a price – the price of me not being empowered to decide which software I install on my own operating system.
Posted November 15, 2007

Matt Hartley

Matt Hartley

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So what does free software mean to you? Not to be confused with Freeware, which refers to "free" as in free of "cost" to the end user. I’m talking about the kind of software freedom that’s derived from not restricting your users from altering or distributing software developed by you.

For years, this type of software freedom was enough to drive a cult-like following that has, over time, grown into a virtual army of users. From the most hardcore personalities like Richard Stallman, to those who are simply more interested in seeing successful adoption of their vision, like Linus Torvalds, the history of open source software and free software has been turbulent. How do open source and free software differ? Let's start off with visionaries from both camps.

Software Freedom vs. Usability
“The first major event that truly gave Linux adoption for casual users a shot in the arm was the development of the Linux LiveCD."

Stallman's vision of software is one of total freedom, and as little corporate involvement as possible – none is preferred. Torvalds’, by contrast, believes in the best tool for the job. Sometimes this is open source software, sometimes proprietary. You see, open source has largely been believed to exclusively mean the spirit behind the GPL open source license. This is the license behind the Linux kernel.

However, there are plenty of other open source licenses that are not nearly as restrictive. One many of you have not heard of – yet are likely benefiting from – is the BSD license, the open source license that made OS X's use of its BSD operating system a reality. Unlike the GPL, BSD licensing is quite simple and allows for restricted code to be tied in along with that of the code-licensed BSD. Anyone using an Apple product has likely seen evidence of this.

Free software on the other hand, while often confused with open source, does not play well with restricted ideas such as trademarked materials, and has a very strong aversion to anything proprietary, even via third party sources.

Usability: Then and now

Compared to what Linux was in the late 1990's, today's modern distributions offer more usability than ever before. But a lot of people remain unclear as to what actually drove Linux distribution adoption into high gear over the past few years. Was it a sudden desire to follow Stallman's vision of free software? Not even close. It was a number of breakthroughs in usability.

Rather than attempting to nail down exactly which event had the most impact, I am going to toss some of the biggest events in my mind out there for you to discern which had the biggest impact in generating massive growth amongst the world population.

The first major event that truly gave Linux adoption for casual users a shot in the arm was the development of the Linux LiveCD. The first distribution to really "hit the market", though not technically “first” developed, was called Knoppix.

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In 2003, Knoppix had quickly blown the minds of the most steadfast Windows user. To those living in a Windows world, there was something magical about an operating system that you could freely burn to a CD-R, drop that disc into a CD-ROM tray on your PC and then boot into - Live! All this, while not touching the existing Windows installation on the hard drive.

The ability for Windows users to run an OS off a CD was definitely groundbreaking. Yggdrasil may have made the concept a possibility, but it was Klaus Knopper (creator of Knoppix Linux) that changed the world for many Windows users, myself included. It was the "push" to trying something new that many Windows users needed. Perhaps even a gateway to Linux adoption.

At the same time, a number of purists were none too happy about Windows users using Knoppix as a crutch, as they apparently saw it at the time. "Either install the distribution or don't bother using it at all!" I heard this response more than once from certain Linux forums back in early 2004.

Next page: The purists fight back, this time it's personal

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