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When “Free” in Free Software doesn’t matter

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?The term Free Software can have a double meaning depending on your perspective. For many, like myself and most readers of this blog, Free Software means open source code. For most of the world however, Free Software means something completely different.

Here’s how open-source†evangelists understand the word “Free” in the phrase Free Software:

We think of Free Software as:

software that can be used, studied, and modified without restriction, and which can be copied and redistributed in modified or unmodified form either without restriction, or with minimal restrictions only to ensure that further recipients can also do these things and that manufacturers of consumer-facing hardware allow user modifications to their hardware. Free software is generally available without charge, but can have a fee, such as in the form of charging for CDs or other distribution medium among other ways.

The beer analogy

Most users on the other hand think of Free Software in terms of free beer. Not paying anything but still being able to enjoy it.

You can tell the patron it’s free and that they can have the recipe to make the beer themselves, or even improve on it. But not every bar customer makes beer at their place. It’s nice to have the recipe but they don’t really care, they just want the free drink.

You could convince her not to drink a specific brand of beer because the company that makes the beer won’t give out their recipe, but in all likelihood our patron still won’t care much. She is still getting free (as in no payment) beer.

Maybe only once she’s poisoned†by the beer, might she consider to find a drink made following a specific recipe so she can trust the ingredients. But until then she just doesn’t care, because beer is beer and as long as it does what it’s meant to do, it’s fine by her.

Same goes for software.

Possibly one of the most useful xkcd cartoons | Supported Features,

If you did a snap poll in your local supermarket, how many people use open-source software? How many use†proprietary software?

The answer is obvious in most cases.†Proprietary†software is dominating. And while some people are using Free Software, they sometimes don’t know how free it is or don’t care. A useful example is Firefox: it’s downloaded for no cost, but does the average user understand how free it is? Or did she stop reading at “Download Now?”

Also ask yourself why is she using Firefox? Because it is good software and she got it for no cost and it has a good reputation. In most cases anything else is irrelevant. The definition of good software is something for another article, but generally good, quality software is:

  • Reliable
  • Easy to use
  • Secure
  • Has a good reputation
  • And, to an extent, widely known*

* People are sheep. If you see others doing something or using a certain product, you’re likely to follow. This is why companies use†celebrities†to advertise their products and why Facebook advertisements can be based around recommendations from friends. (How many times have you seen “3 of your friends likes [page].”?)

Given these two options, which one do you think would be more likely?

  • Our user paying for good software or downloading it illegally.


  • Our user using Free Software that is inferior quality to proprietary software.

I bet most will go with option 1 if the price is right. Remember, people are willing to pay for quality products, and sometimes there is no price anyway. In the end our user doesn’t give much thought to the openness†of the software. The best case for her is when it is both good and free.

From a developer’s perspective, regular users don’t care about the code like we do. They care about what they can do with the code and how much they’re paying for it. I use Skype because I think it’s better than XMPP when it comes to voice chat, and it costs me nothing.

Most people see the Free Software concept different to us open source evangelists. Preaching about freedom and open source is only one of many ways to convert people to free software, and no doubt you’ll win over a few more conscious types this way – but in the end to convince the majority it’s all about the quality of the software. Being free as in cost is just a nice benefit.

How can we make our user care about†openness†of software?

Do users really not care about the openness of the products they are using, or are they just unaware that such products exist? If it’s the latter, then what can we do to improve this by introducing them to open source?

There are many ways to tackle this problem, and a lot of methods are already successfully converting people every day to free software and for the right reasons. Word of mouth, Ubuntu LoCo teams and FOSS conferences are a great start.

But the best way to educate people is by first introducing them to a quality product that they love. If they end up loving something, most people want to seek out more information about it. (Example: If you find a new band, and fall in love with them, you might find yourself looking them up on Wikipedia, and then eventually stalking their lead singer).

And the only way you’ll get them hooked is by not scaring them. Remember, to most of the world, technology is an unfamiliar and very new playground, and computers are something to be scared of – mainly because people don’t understand how they work. We fear what we do not know.

If you suddenly replace Windows 7 with stock Arch Linux, no doubt they’ll never want to touch their computer again. Users have to be drip fed, and compromises have to be made.

This is what Ubuntu is trying to do.

In time, if they end up loving the product, they’ll learn that what they’re using is great quality not by magic, but because it’s Free Software.

If Free Software can not satisfy a users’ needs, she will end up using†proprietary software. If the Free Software is going to stand in the way of achieving her goals due to licencing or patent issues, then it’s a deal breaker.

She just wants to watch The King’s Speech on DVD or listen to her MP3 collection – and if that doesn’t work, then the quickest and easiest path back to whatever does work will be taken. ie. She’ll probably just go and buy a Mac.

To summarize:

If the Software in Free Software †isn’t good then the “Free” part of that phrase is rendered irrelevant from the very outset.

This article was written by both Seif Lotfy, longtime FOSS contributor and project leader of Zeitgeist, and Benjamin Humphrey, director of Ohso.