A Field Guide to Free Software Supporters

Our intrepid GNU/Linux expert catalogs the leading species in the genus known as Free Software Supporter. Which type are you?
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Hearing the terms "free software" or "open source," you might imagine that they referred to a single school of thought. Even "free and open source software" (FOSS) suggests only two different outlooks: Free software, which values political and philosophical freedom, and open source, whose main interest is enhanced software quality.

Yet all these impressions would be misleading. When you look, there are at least seven different types of FOSS supporters.

To outsiders, these schools of thought are more similar than different. In the same way that many Europeans see few real differences between a New Englander and a Californian, outsiders may see little to distinguish a Softcore Advocate from an Activist.

However, to those inside the FOSS community, the differences are enough to spark endless flame wars. As Richard Stallman told me last March, "When people are free to choose their own views, they're not all going to agree. It's normal in a community that you have people with different views and values"

(To say nothing of different language; in many parts of the community, whether you use "free software" or "open source" can mean the difference between cooperation and hostility.)

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To help you navigate through the community, here is a no-holds-barred summary of the most basic schools of thought within the community:

1) Microsoft Haters

Unlike other types of FOSS supporters, Microsoft Haters are not concerned with ideals, but with opposition to Microsoft. If those I've observed on the Fedora list in recent months are typical, some dislike other types of free software supporters almost as much as they do Microsoft.

Some Microsoft Haters object to Microsoft as a monopoly, or as the epitome of proprietary software companies. Increasingly, too, some object from a consumer activist position to Microsoft's support of lockdown technologies.

However, given that very few of them voice objections to near-monopolists like Adobe or other large proprietary companies like Apple, most Microsoft Haters apparently assume their stance largely as a rebellion. They seem to take their identity from their opposition. And, in extreme cases, could be described as conspiracy theorists, seeing Microsoft cabals in everything.

Many, too, are young and seem to be seeking acceptance from their peers, taking great delight in using terms like "Microsloth" and "Windoze." A noisy group, they probably receive more attention than their actual numbers would justify.

2) Bargain Hunters

Most Bargain Hunters are more interested in the fact that FOSS is available gratis than in any philosophical concerns. They accept free downloads of Adobe Acrobat or Flash just as eagerly as they do a GNU/Linux distribution, and care little for the distinction between "free as in beer" and "free as in freedom." However, since some of them change their views as they learn more about the FOSS, they remain an important source of recruits for the community.

Just as importantly, a sub-group of Bargain Hunters is more idealistically oriented. They are the ones who have realized that cash-strapped developing countries, charities, or academic institutions will have to turn to FOSS if they want to build a technical infrastructure. In their own way, members of this sub-group are as idealistic as the FOSS activists.

3) Open Source Programmers

Open Source Programmers focus on the advantages of FOSS for themselves. Theirs is the essentially academic belief that the free exchange of information benefits everybody, and that working in an atmosphere of openness creates higher quality software. In other words, their support is based chiefly on the fact that FOSS licenses make their work easier. The best known person in this category is Linus Torvalds himself.

Open Source idealists are sometimes denounced as caring little about the rights of other users. However, they would argue that this view is a false dichotomy, and that they operate out of a sense of enlightened self-interest, and ultimately help everyone.

As Torvalds wrote to me last summer, "The short-term result of this attitude,” is that "for a while, that person gains an advantage, because now the tool did what he wanted. And in the longer term, we all gain that knowledge. One small and meaningless advantage at a time, and it just builds up and up. That is where it's at. It's about 'empowering everybody' by letting some enterprising users empower themselves, and then taking advantage of it for everybody else."

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