Free Software Faith for the Long Term

I’ve been an advocate for Free and Open Source Software for a long, long time. When I first got into it, it felt right, just, progressive. I struggle with how to communicate that feeling of freedom to others, to make them understand how important Free Software is.

When we talk of Free Software dialectic conflicts, there are two big fronts; the first is the idea that Proprietary software is a /better/ way to make software. Developers get paid, investors make money, huge profits can be poured into research and development. This is your Microsofts and Apples. Let’s ignore that idea today.

The second battle is practicalism. This idea says that it doesn’t matter how the software was made, just that it needs to work. Let’s explore why this idea is an important conflict. Practical solutions often favour the short term and the local. That is, they are solutions which usually a single person will make a decision about what software to use and the criteria most important is the cost (money, time, effort) to get it working in the here and now.

The conflict comes about because often Free Software is a more expensive proposition in the here and now. It’s more expensive because it takes more time to set up, or it’s tools are not tested as much, or not designed as well, or the more insidious reason: the wider world does not support Free Software causing the Free Software solution to be on the loosing end of a powerful network effect.

But proprietary software often has hidden costs. After the initial purchase costs, these are often either societal or long term costs. Societal and long term are the direct opposite of a practical decision. Thus they are not considered, or not valued highly when making the decision.

There is one parallel which I hate to make. Religion. Here is another societal and long term cultural device. Most religions ask participants to give up the bad behaviours in the here and now and be a little more patient for the better life or better after life. I’m horribly simplifying here so please forgive me. But religions mostly work on faith and their evangelicalism pressures people to consider the societal and long term. This is why I think Free Software advocates are so often compared to religious fundermentalists. It’s a cheap shot; it does not follow that faith in Free Software is faith against evidence. That’s just a bad argument.

But it’s worth considering that Free Software is a hard sell precisely because it’s a societal good that requires powerful network effects on it’s side in order to be fully effective. Having a self-sacrificing religion of one is foolish, but a society of good intentions can be a powerful force. We in the Free Software world often have to invest more, pay more and spend more time to make the Free Software world we want to see, and to see it happen for ourselves and our friends and families. But this will only be the case so long as the network effects are against us and I don’t believe they always will be.

Now consider Ubuntu. Here’s platform that tried to move some of the power away from practicamism by making Ubuntu easy to install, easy to use, a joy to behold. Things that are genuinely empowering to Free Software. As it built itself up, the negative network effects started to weaken and Ubuntu users enjoyed for a time, a level of support from the wider world that had not been experienced before.

But that naturally led to the in-fighting. It’s typical for the front runner to be targeted by all the also-ran distributions. The FSF targeted Ubuntu’s practicalist concessions (even though they were fairly minimal), Other distributions ripped Ubuntu and their community apart, trying to block Ubuntu’s success. I’m not saying they meant to do it, or that it was a conspiracy. But that these other communities did not see Ubuntu’s success as their own success and naturally tried to undermine it as humans are likely to do.

So for very human reasons, we’re here with no real champion for Free Software in the practical arena. Ubuntu has fallen for its own hype and is not able to being the Free Software faith with it, even if it was successful. The societal and long term benefits of Free software remain largely unknown to the majority of the world and we wait patiently for a successor that can try again to change the world.

What do you think? Comment below.