Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Free as in Kittens

I've talked so far about software freedom as in speech and as in beer. Today my topic is the kind of "free" that people view as a burden, the example being "free kittens." This is the meaning of "free" that keeps many regular, reasonable computer users from adopting (or perhaps even trying) free software solutions for everyday needs. Free kittens are free of charge initially, yes, but that doesn't include the monetary costs of vet care, food, or replacing clawed up furniture. The word "free" here also doesn't include intangible costs like time spent training the kitten, cleaning up after her, having her keep you awake at night, and the like (can you tell I speak from experience?). We learn as adults that many so-called "free" things are not really free, since the costs of ownership outweigh the benefits.

A big reason that people pay for software is so they have someone else accountable when things go wrong, which as Mr. Murphy has taught us, they always will. That accountability is obviously worth millions (just ask the recently-retired Bill Gates, age 52). The sense of "getting what you've paid for" also provides much of the basis for Microsoft's infamous "Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt" (FUD) strategy that was revealed in the leaked "Halloween Documents" in the late 1990s. From this perspective, it's easy to say that free software is "not really free," since you can't call anybody when it breaks.

In an earlier post, I addressed how tech support is usually provided in the GNU/Linux/Free/Open Source community. Through online forums and IRC channels, users have great access to support from fellow users - people just like you who use a computer just like you who've had problems just like yours, not someone getting paid pennies to answer a phone and pretend like they care. As anyone who's sat on hold waiting for a tech support person, or sifting through hundreds of "knowledge base" articles that almost-but-not-quite address the problem, knows, "support" in this case is often not very supportive. Since Linux is community-driven, you're bound to find someone to help you with your problem, because we've all been there!

So what's the counter-argument to the charge of free software being "free as in kittens?" First of all, most cat owners will tell you that the kitten stage is worth the effort. I mean, we're all adults here, right (unless you're not :-))? Does anybody who's actually lived real life believe that anything is really free in this sense? Does having the "right" to call tech support 24/7 and sit on hold being told by recordings that your time is valuable really constitute peace of mind? I don't think so, but I'm also kind of a sold-out believer in free/open source software at this point and I know from experience that I can pretty easily find solutions to problems.

The main point to make at the end of the discussion is (to paraphrase Richard Stallman), "think free speech, not free kittens." Free software is not about monetary cost, it's about having the freedom to use and share software for the benefit and enjoyment of all. Have a happy Fourth of July and make sure to download some free-as-in-speech software this weekend! Be brave and build it from source!

***[Fireworks, Star Spangled Banner playing]***

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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