Principles, Software and Freedom

Apologies to anyone that finds this preachy or holier-than-thou. I don’t consider myself immune to this criticism: my mobile phone still runs non-free software. I realize that what I describe here is a process for everyone. I’m just trying to make sure nobody gets too comfortable with the status quo.

It’s been interesting to see non-hackers finding inspiration in the free/open source software movement. In particular, I’ve been watching this phenomena for a couple years in the the non-profit and NGO sector. Folks in these groups are often very philosophically aligned with the freedom movement behind free software and there are a number of organizations that are involved in promoting free software and the ideas behind it to NGOs and beyond.

What’s amazing to me is that in many situations, major advocates of free and open source software in these areas — people who are advocating the software because of the freedom and not only for the pragmatic benefits — don’t actually use free software on their desktops or in other places they could.

Sure, everyone uses Firefox. Sure, everyone uses Apache and GNU/Linux for their web servers. Sure, everyone uses Drupal, Mambo, Plone, or another free CMS. But one can’t help but notice that Firefox, Apache, and free CMSs are higher quality, more featureful, and easier to use than the proprietary alternatives.

People arguing for free software from a principled position need to remember that principled positions are sometimes inconvenient. Free software is no exception. It’s frequently different, sometimes incompatible and a bit more work. In some situations (dare I say it?), it’s not as good as the proprietary alternatives.

We all need to remember that living a principled life is not always the easiest path. If you take a principled position against GMO foods or in favor of organic produce, you’ll probably spend more and shop farther from your house. Your favorite fruit may not be in season year-round. If you only buy fair-trade clothing, your garment choices will be cut down in ways that will sometimes be inconvenient.

It’s nice when taking a principled position also means you get to do what is most convenient. But there’s little principle in taking a principled position only when it’s convenient.

Yes. There are problems — often major — with free software: usability, documentation and otherwise. There are also ways to address these problems. Few of them require that you be or become hacker but almost all of them involve using the software first. I don’t have to think hard to recall all of the times I’ve received contributions (e.g., documentation, suggestions, translations, patches, etc.) from people who don’t use my software.

If you don’t think that spreading free software is an ethical act, you can happily ignore me. If you agree that it’s the right thing, think hard about your principles and challenge yourself to take the next step — whatever that is.