Freedom vs. Features

This entry is my opinion and certainly doesn’t represent the views of my employer, who couldn’t care less about software freedom. I’ve been in lots of discussions about software freedom. I’ve been loud-mouthed about it at my Linux User Group, I’ve been loud-mouthed about it on LugRadio, I’ve posted about it here. I’ve also recently expressed the view that Ubuntu might not be quite free enough for me. I suspect it might be time to try and lay out my viewpoint in a bit more detail. My viewpoint boils down to: all software should be free. You might agree with that, you might not. This has come up most sharply recently with the much-announced Ubuntu decision to attempt to compete with proprietary alternatives like Windows Vista and Mac OS X by enabling a better graphical interface if you have proprietary video drivers. I don’t agree with that shift, and my view on that point has been challenged as being inconsistent, a block on the future success of Linux, and just plain wrong. One of the phrases I’ve used in the past, particularly on LugRadio, is “no compromise”. I’ve said repeatedly that we shouldn’t give up on freedom to get features, that we shouldn’t be prepared to embrace proprietary, closed-off software even if that rejection comes at some cost. And I’ve said all this while working for a firm who use Windows everywhere and happily taking money off them in my paycheque every month. How is this reasonable? Let’s look at an analogy. I smoke. Have done for years. I also have a six year old daughter. Now, if my daughter asked me if she should smoke, what should I say? Some people would say that I have no right to stand there with a cigarette in my hand and tell her not to do it. Others would be fine with the idea of me advising her against. Very few people would suggest that I should encourage her to do so. If I, then, told her that she shouldn’t smoke, and that it would be bad for her, would that make me part of the holier-than-thou hypocrite brigade? Should she ignore my advice on that basis? Should she ignore any other advice that I give her, like not sticking her fingers in electric sockets, because I’m a holier-than-thou blogger who doesn’t practice what he preaches? When I was a kid I got told that two wrongs don’t make a right. Myself smoking and her not is a better goal, overall, than myself smoking and her smoking too. Obviously, a better end still would be neither of us doing so. However, it would be better to at least start by making her Free of the bad thing, even if I haven’t managed it yet. That someone suggests an idea but doesn’t do it themselves doesn’t make the idea a bad idea. That I smoke doesn’t make my advice to people to not smoke be worthless. Back away from the analogy again, although I imagine you can see how it’s related to the topic. That I want to hold people to a standard of Freedom that I haven’t yet achieved myself isn’t a fault with the idea of being free. It’s a fault with me, that I haven’t got that far yet. If you’d like to help, I’d be interested in your input on how I might make Ubuntu free enough for my needs. If you’re using Linux, right now, it’s a reasonable assumption that software freedom means something to you. There are people, plenty of them, out there who are using it purely because they like it or because it’s the best technical solution for them, but a high proportion of the Linux userbase are part of that userbase at least partially for ethical, as well as technical or financial, reasons. If that’s the case, ask yourself: would you be happy to see Linux have a 50% market share but have the principles of free software, of being able to hack on it all, be partially compromised (there’s that word again) to get that far? Some of the nature of Free software is difficult to choke down at times; that someone can take your work and sell it and not give you any of the money, for example. Or that someone else could take your code and change a few bits and make something better, and get most of the credit. That’s what it’s about, though; that’s what the Debian Free Software Guidelines, and the Open Source Definition, and the Free Software Foundation, that’s what they’re all talking about. If you believe in that, if you want to be in a position where not only can someone sell your work or improve on it, but also where you can sell someone else’s, or where you can improve on another person’s program, you have to support Freedom. If you really wouldn’t mind if your next Linux distribution (or the one after, or the one after that) was only, say, 60% hackable, because the rest of it is proprietary — so we can keep up with the competition, of course, or because we need that hardware — then you should have no qualms about the decision at all, and good luck to you. You’re welcome to feel that way. If you don’t like that idea, though, perhaps you take offence at being lumped into a holier-than-thou zealot category. A phrase you’ll hear, sometimes, is the end justifies the means. Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn’t; you can think of arguments for each side relatively easily, I suspect. Ask yourself, though, what happens if you decide to step away from your principles for a while and then find yourself unable to get back to them later. It’s not a pleasant situation to be in, to hold something dear to your heart and find yourself unable to achieve it because of some bad choices you made in the past. Making those wrong choices might make it impossible to ever get to your goals. Some doors can only be closed once. It’s difficult to know ahead of time whether the choices we’re making are of that type, but you owe it to yourself to consider the possibility. Make your views felt; be rational and reasonable about it, and clearly outline what might happen, so you can’t be dismissed as a zealot or shouted down by people who don’t realise the seriousness of what they’re contemplating. But be part of the conversation.

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