Not long ago I explained why I prefer to use Fedora, where I listed the focus on free and open source software as primary a reason. A commenter then asked why some people care so strongly about this.
Everyone has their own motivations. The Free Software Foundation’s is an ethical one — that non-free software infringes on a user’s freedoms. But what does that actually mean?
I have my own reasons, which I imagine are straightforward enough for any computer user to grasp. Let’s get to them.
1. Free Software Sticks Around
Software isn’t static. An app can work today and disappear tomorrow. Or it can fundamentally take a different shape, inject ads, or change in some other way. The only real guarantee that an app will be available years from now is if it’s open source. If the source code is available, someone can keep the program alive after it eventually gets abandoned or undergoes drastic changes.
Holding on to an old binary (such as an .exe on Windows) only guarantees that software continues to work on the version of the OS that it’s currently compatible with. It may not function on future versions.
The situation is worse on mobile devices, where companies can pull software from app stores overnight. And don’t get me started on cloud services, which are no longer accessible once the servers shut down.
Much of the software in the Linux repos doesn’t have an active developer, but it’s still available, and that’s a wonderful thing.
2. You Can Truly Own Your Software
On a similar note, I only feel that I own software when it’s free and open source.
For example, I buy proprietary baby bottles, and if the company goes out of business five years from now, those bottles will still work (though getting replacement nipples might be a problem). With software, a company going out of business often means an application goes away.
In such an instance, there isn’t much you can do. Commercial software developers often sell you a license to use software. You may think you’re buying a program, but you’re really purchasing permission.
I don’t want to spend years using an app to perform a task (such as map my family tree) only to have to start over when the software disappears. Even having the option to export my data doesn’t always mean another program exists that can import it properly, if at all.
I rather have the peace of mind that comes from owning the app, even if I have to accept it as-is without having a company to turn to for support. Someone with the technical know-how can keep the program running and make it available to others. And each person is largely free to do whatever they want with their copy.
3. You Extend the Life of Hardware
I used to find new hardware exciting. I read magazines to keep up with the latest consoles and games. Via blogs, I read about new computers and software. I was excited to get my hands on my first e-reader, tablet, smartphone, and smartwatch. I planned out purchases months in advance and spent days or weeks obsessed with my new devices.
But it was only a matter of time before the cycle repeated itself. Laptops wore down. Tablets became outdated. Phones reached end of life. Each new form factor meant another piece of hardware to continuously replace.
Free software offers a way to break this cycle of planned obsolescence. Linux developers don’t care if you replace your current PC with a new one. If anything, it’s the opposite. Linux often works better on older hardware than newer technology.
Microsoft may make another version of Windows that requires expensive PC upgrades. Apple will decide not to support old MacBooks with the latest OS. Phone makers want you to replace your device rather than update it.
But Linux will continue to run on your ten-year-old machine, and it will probably work for ten years more. This lets you replace your computer when you want to, if you want to, not because you don’t have a choice.
4. Income Isn’t a Factor
My parents gave me my first computer when I was in the eighth grade, a used laptop with a dead battery and a dial up modem. I had the freedom to do what I wanted on the machine, but without a job or a credit card (and my parents weren’t comfortable with me using theirs), I couldn’t buy software.
Even if I could, many common commercial programs were too expensive. We used Microsoft Office in school, but I found out buying a copy for home would cost nearly as much as my computer had. I heard of PhotoShop as a great way to edit images, but that wasn’t budget-friendly either.
It was during this time that I discovered free and open source software. I used AbiWord and LibreOffice to write a novel-length story in high school. GIMP was my tool of choice for creating covers and other art. Free software empowered me to express my creativity and develop skills that would benefit me in my adult life.
Knowing how to use a computer has become a necessary skill in today’s world. The opportunity to gain that experience shouldn’t be limited only to the people whose families can afford to pay for expensive commercial software.
5. You Can Trust What’s Going On
Using software requires more trust than most other “products.” When I write with pen and paper, I know there’s only one copy of what I create. The pen and the paper don’t have a connection to the Internet that sends data (identifiable or otherwise) to a company’s server. A paper planner isn’t using my calendar entries to learn about me. My clothes aren’t monitoring my weight and health to sell me ads.
With physical products, I have to trust that the manufacturer didn’t use dangerous materials or unethical business practices, but that’s usually where the risks end. Using proprietary, closed source software requires I trust that the developer isn’t doing anything with my data that I don’t approve. There’s no way to find out for myself.
A deficit of trust keeps some people from upgrading to Windows 10. Rather than let the OS sell itself, Microsoft has resorted to nagging, sneaking, and other forceful tactics. The upgrade then brings in other apps and settings that monitor your usage by default. It’s all about money for Microsoft, but this has resulted in users feeling like they have to protect themselves from their own computers.
Releasing an application’s source code involves an inherent degree of trust. You’re taking code you’ve written and sharing it with others. You’re putting your work out there for other people to inspect and criticize. But given what’s at stake, releasing the source code is also a big sign of respect. Thank you, free software developers, for treating your users with this kindness.
So, Should Software Be Free and Open Source?
The world is increasingly connected, and more of our data lives online.
This brings questions of control, privacy, ownership, and trust that we need to create answers for as we trust more of our lives to devices and remote servers. To me, free and open source software already offer a solution. What about you?