Monthly Archives: September 2011

Logic Continued: The Second Argument

Motive

After my previous article about the logic of the Free Software theory, I realized that there were two components to the argument.

  1. That freedom is better than not-freedom, and
  2. That freedom is more important than other criteria.

I dealt with that in the previous article by disregarding other criteria–I am here now to instead dispel their importance.

The Criteria

I can’t examine every criterion for choosing software. I can, however, demonstrate a theory in the context of several of the more prevalent cases. Here is my attempt at a comprehensive list of the most common reasons for choosing software:

  1. Compatibility with others’ software
  2. Level of available commercial support
  3. Visual appeal
  4. Ease of use

Compatibility

This being the most oft-cited reason, it also happens to be the least facially relevant factor in the decision.

Incompatibility in software is largely a myth, these days. Very few people are actually incapable of opening a particular sort of file that one person sends. The only time something like that would actually happen would be if someone chose to use nonfree software that saved data in formats that were patent-encumbered, or had restrictions built in. This is why people are forced to use Adobe Flash–most Flash videos are not compatible with the GNU replacement, Gnash, because Adobe puts a lot of effort towards changing the format. The community-supported Gnash project can hardly keep up, especially when most free software developers have no use for it because they use more standard solutions like HTML5, or just write desktop apps.

So, interestingly, the compatibility argument only occurs *because* people incorrectly choose nonfree software.

Even if you take the incompatibility of some formats into account, most people would never see those effects. Only graphic designers working with others’ files (e.g. a Photoshop file would likely not open in the GIMP), Flash programmers (who wouldn’t share with anyone who didn’t have Flash anyway), and possibly some commercial software users would ever have any issues. Docuent formats are well-supported in all word processors, as are spreadsheets, as are contact files, as are music and videos and slideshows. There are no restrictions on the format you use when free software is your choice–the compatibility issue is completely incoherent.

Commercial Support

This argument is most often cited by enterprise users, but individuals are sometimes concerned as well. They think that the company that makes the software needs to have a motive to fix it if it breaks–and certainly the free software world doesn’t have that?

Wrong. In fact, because free software companies are unable to, unwilling to, or uninterested in collecting profit on actually selling the software, they are often more motivated to support it, since that is their main source of income.

Even if the software is not made by a company, the user that finds a fault in it might be interested in using the money they saved on the actual product to encourage development of the software (see my article, Freedom and Order) by donating some money to the developer’s continued efforts–of course, you can condition that donation on completion of a task.

Some might argue that said developer(s) might not be available–well, the same situation might occur with nonfree software. In that case, one is far better off with free software, because the original developer does not need to be the one who works on it. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller software shops spread across the country–across the world, even–who would be happy to work for you. You can bet that my currentpast employer would step up to help, given the chance. This argument is as ridiculous as the last.

Visual Appeal

If you actually expect me to defend the Free Software movement against so frivolous an argument as “X nonfree software looks prettier,” you should enjoy your life of imprisonment, and good riddance to you. While you’re at it, consider committing yourself on the condition that you get nice-looking wallpaper in your cell.

Ease of Use

This must be the single most useless argument of them all, but I hear it fairly often. People are concerned that they won’t be able to use free software, because they don’t have the skills. This, too, is not as important as freedom.

The general use-case for nonfree software is as follows: The user turns on the computer. The user opens a web browser. The user browses the web, not using any components of their own software. Eventually, the user opens an email client, which similarly uses very few of the local computer’s resources. The user might decide to write a letter, essay, or story in a document file of some sort, which is then saved in an internationally-standardized and universally-understood format. The user might also do other things which take more time and effort to set up, but since they preclude themselves from even installing software, I’m not sure they’re capable of that.

If the average user is capable of using one sort of computer program, they’re likely capable of using a broad spectrum thereof. The only thing holding that person back is the willingness to try.

Even if that person has no capacity for understanding programming languages, that doesn’t stop them from using normal point-and-click menus. It certainly doesn’t stop them from dragging and dropping. The only things someone would need to learn would be small changes in vocabulary–which is something everyone should do anyway, quoth the FSF.

Conclusion

Hopefully I’ve shown you, by now, that the above reasons are not compelling enough to remove freedoms from yourself or others. Do consider that what you do affects your own freedoms and those of others, even if you don’t recognize it. Thank you.

An Open Letter to Software Manufacturers

Dear software industry,

I speak to you as a software user. I am your customer, in a sense. I consume information (digital and otherwise), and sometimes pay money for it. I occasionally see your ads, and sometimes recommend your products to others.

However, I am not here to applaud your efforts, as I am sure you know.

Adobe, Microsoft, Google, and Apple are my biggest targets. Others should also take heed, even if they only produce small, inconsequential applications.

You are in the wrong line of work.

First, because of the Free Software movement. However much I use that argument, I maintain it to be true–you are intentionally hurting your customers with your products, and when people realize that, they won’t just stop buying into the pain, they will turn on you, and you will be in more pain than they had to suffer. You should, therefore, familiarize yourself with the reasons we’re mad.

Second, because you are selling one-shot products which come with an indefinite promise for services. That’s insane! If you buy a hamburger, they don’t insure that it will taste good. They don’t even insure that it will stay together long enough for you to eat it. Often, though, those services are motivated by an aversion to bad PR–which bad PR is usually already mitigated by the fact that your customers are completely oblivious to anything digital, or they would realize that the first argument was enough to motivate leaving your clientele.

No, rather than selling something once, and moving on to giving away services forever, why not reverse the situation? It’s a far more lucrative way of doing things, so long as your software is worth something. People will continue to use it as they always did, then move on until it breaks (which it probably will–not because of your incompetence, just because of Murphy’s Law), and finally come back to pay you *even more* than they would have paid originally in order to fix it. In the meantime, you can be adding more, cooler features to the product to entice more people to come around. Eventually, you’ll have a lot of products and even more customers–you’ll have to spend most of your time working on clients’ issues, and develop features only as an afterthought. That’s how a business should mature–towards more money, not less. If you have to engineer new features constantly and build hype around new releases just so you can get more money, you’re probably doing things wrong.

This business model, I think, is a little more risky, but a lot more reliable in the long run. It also frees up the software industry to stop thinking that users’ freedoms are a necessary sacrifice at the altar of profits, which will very quickly make the digital world a better place as people are free to share ideas about how to solve certain problems, instead of watching each other solve it in secret and wasting time reinventing the wheel every day.

This is not a petition, but I don’t think I need the force of public opinion for you to take heed to a good idea. Think about the money, if that’s what you need, but this idea will prevent a big fall and instead lift you and your products (along with your customers) to far greater heights.

Thanks for reading.

Logic, Not Religion

Motive for this post

I have, in the past, been accused of having religious tendencies. That is to say, people have viewed me as a zealot, blindly believing in something someone says in order to fill a hole in my understanding. I am here to say that it is not true.

What is religion?

I obviously need to define what I’m not, in order to explain the ways it doesn’t fit me. First, we need to define a religious pursuit as broadly as possible, or at least define the ways in which religion and my interest in living freely might *potentially* be akin.

First, religion must be blind. Faith is, by definition, incapable of being proven. There is no method for proving that religion is true, and there is no method for proving that it is wrong. In this way, it is like any pseudoscience (see e.g. Karl Popper) in that the followers can always escape argument and refutation.

Second, religion is for the greater good. Religion aims to better its followers, not hurt them. The aims of religion must be benevolent in order for it to gain followers. Even in the case of suicidal cults, the leaders of the cult were able to convince people that suicide was in their best interest. Even if men make mistakes, and the religion causes harm, there must be an explanation for why the harm is ultimately benevolent to everyone.

Third, religion must involve some form of practical advice. All religions do this in one form or another, in order to indicate to the people of the time what the “moral” or “right” way is. The Hebrews have kosher, the Muslims have halal, and the Christians have the gospels that teach them about being good people. Buddhism and Taoism have simple stories that teach good morals.

Fourth, a religion needs rituals. While a bit archaic, something about our bodies appreciates simple, repetitive actions that incur good feelings (such as the feeling of being listened to by God), so the religion needs a ritual or two.

Refutability

I attest that the Free Software argument, while not yet refuted, is refutable.

Refutation, in this case, is proving that in at least one case, not using free software is preferable to using free software, disregarding all other factors. If I were ever presented with that example, I would reconsider my position and come back to the Internet with a new theory–but I am sorry to say that I have not met that example.

The reason that others have as yet failed to disprove the Free Software arguments is the lack of objective opinion surrounding this topic. People generally bring with them experiences using nonfree software, free software, and everything in between. They usually do not offer arguments to refute the Free Software arguments, but instead offer arguments of a personal nature–”I need Adobe Flash because it’s an industry standard.” Of course, in an ironic twist, these same people cannot define what makes it “standard”, and so are subscribing to a pseudoscience in the sense that they blindly believe what they just said.

However, I am afraid that the Free Software argument will never be disproven. It has stood through many years of discussion, and no arguments have hurt it so far. I still invite people to try, but it appears to me that being able to do more things will always be better than doing no things at all.

There are people who have attempted to make more company-, industry-, and client-centered arguments, but those people are equally as blind as the others. The problem is not that free software is insufficient for their uses, but instead that the industry/company/client should be making a shift in understanding in order to be more free.

Greater Good

Religion, I have said, must be a good force in the lives of its followers. I contend that Free Software is not always good in the end, and that nobody tries to explain away the bad things.

First, free software is often excluded from schools, companies, and other organizations for being “incompatible” with one thing or another. This can cause people to be unable to use websites, printers, or web services.

Second, no-one explains those things away as benevolent in the end–we aren’t challenged by free software, it just so happens that others in this world don’t like our ideas, and we can’t really stop that. We can explain what needs to change (that those sites need to use more standard practices and not rely on nonfree software), but we can’t explain their actions as ultimately good.

Practical Advice

Religions often give advice not pertaining directly to their system of belief. For example, the Ten Commandments were essentially laws, but did not convey any spiritual meaning.

Free Software, however, is specifically *not* a practical argument, as told by the article The Advantages of Free Software. The FSF actually tells people that Free Software cannot be evaluated on the same level as other arguments, and needs to be treated as a higher priority. That cannot be interpreted as practicality.

Rituals

The final criterion is rituals. Religions need rituals to survive, because it inserts the religion into everyday life. It gives people something to bring them back to the religion every (Sun|Satur|Wednes)day.

The Free Software movement has no such ritual. In fact, there is no church. There are practices that work best (commenting code, following X or Y code style), but there is no set ritual that gives people a warm feeling inside that they can’t understand.

Not Religion

So, if you’ve made it this far, hopefully I’ve convinced you that my interest in freedom is not religious in nature. I have made a rational, informed decision to follow the ideal of freedom because it is a good idea.

If you skipped ahead, I’m sorry to inform you that I don’t construct TL;DRs. My points above cannot be condensed.

Freedom and Order

Prelude

I’m a very strange computer scientist. See, I’m minoring in Government. I tell people that it’s because I find both systems to be orderly. I think to some extent, that is very true. But there is a second reason, and both reasons play equally into today’s topic. The second reason is that both systems allow people to protect and exercise their freedoms.

Think about that for a moment: While government is certainly a form of order, it also allows people to be *dis*orderly, so long as they do it within the bounds of the law.

In that way, I think, government is similar to the digital world. I often find myself frustrated by compilers, by errors in programs, and by limitations of protocols (same-origin policy, I’m looking at you), but despite those limitations to the power of computers, these machines allow an entire class of people to be freer than they would have otherwise.

How the Revolution Happened

So, I’m going to try and bring government to you computer people out there. I’ll do it in a very simple way: A history lesson. Namely, about the birth of America.

America, some might say, was born when the Declaration of Independence was signed and sent out to the world, declaring that we were free, and that we hated England’s king. Then, we fought a war. Some claim America was born when we won that war. Finally, we signed a document that organized a government for the 13 colonies–or, as they were now to be known, the 13 states.

But that document, as many are not aware, was *not* the Constitution. It was called the Articles of Confederation.

The Articles set up a very loose federal government to complement, but not to supercede, those of the states. This system, they argued, would preserve local control over local matters, and leave the federal government to deal with federal issues–things like new states joining the union, war debts, and defense of the states. Really, under the Articles, America wasn’t a country at all, but a set of countries that were allied very closely.

Then, it turned out, that plan didn’t work. There was, for about ten years, a rash of rebellions, riots, and absuses of power in the states. There was very little money in the federal government, so the war debt from the Revolution wasn’t getting paid off. The states were all issuing their own currencies, too, so inflation was out of control and almost no interstate commerce would happen, since everyone had different money.

Finally, a group of men gathered in convention to try and rewrite the Articles. They swore to avoid a new system at all costs, but promised to give the federal government a new set of powers that would preserve the new nation’s integrity, and its coffers.

But, of course, those men didn’t just rewrite the Articles. They threw that document out in favor of a new one, called the Constitution. That document had a far stricter set of rules with regards to how the government was set up, and how everyone was to do their part. It ensured the fair representation of each state in the federal structure, and, under the Bill of Rights, explicitly preserved the freedoms of individuals.

Many historians will be rather cynical about the reasons for all of these happenings. First, they will say, the rich land-owners in the colonies didn’t want to pay taxes to Britain at all–never mind whether or not they were represented–so they stirred up revolution in the new world. Then, those same land-owners were assaulted and robbed by the very democracy they helped to erect, and wanted further protection. They realized that order and taxes were necessary in such a large system as a nation.

How the Revolution Needs to Happen

As we all know, this is a blog about technology, so I will stop chatting about history.

The above story about the Revolution is supremely relevant to the Free Software movement today. In drawing the parallel, I believe the Free Software camp is somewhere between writing the Declaration (which document might be parallel to “Why Software Should Not Have Owners”, an article by Richard Stallman) and writing the Constitution. We have realized the need for freedom, and we are fighting a war to get people to realize it, much less actually fight for it. We have some small attention from the public, and that is a step in the right direction.

However, there is an issue with our movement. We have yet to realize the need for order and taxes.

The software industry, as many nonfree software manufacturers will very quickly tell you, is an extremely large system. Many people rely on that industry for jobs. Simply telling those manufacturers and, by proxy, those people, that we simply won’t pay our taxes is not the way to win a war and launch a revolution. There needs to be some order on the other side for those people to be able to accept what we’re saying. Now, however much I think that requirement is satisfied (by Selling Free Software and other fine articles), there seems to still be some confusion about it. So, there does need to be a shift in rhetoric for all Free Software and Open Source Software advocates (who should first shift from their outdated terminology) from talking about price to talking about freedom.

Why Freedom

Freedom, you see, is largely the reason that people followed the Revolution when it came to town. It’s a cause people can believe in, so long as there hasn’t been a case of terrorism in the past few weeks. It’s something people hold dear, and don’t give up quickly. It’s something that they can fight for, and understand. Most importantly, it’s something that doesn’t attack the profits of big companies.

A large portion of Free Software users and advocates seem to use the “price tag” argument more often than is necessary. I say, if a Free Software user or advocate ever *needs* to resort to that argument, they should not be advocating to that person, because that person is not interested in freedom. Alternatively, that person needs, more than anyone, to hear why freedom is important. So, let’s throw out that argument for good. It doesn’t convince people of anything except to buy the cheapest software for the job. In some cases, that software is not free, and does not respect the users’ rights.

Selling Not Software

So then, we all have to ask how software will be produced. Big companies do fund a lot of software production, this is true–but a lot of their effort is wasted. Take the competing anti-viruses, for example. They have all spent the same amount of time fixing the same amount of problems with their software. If they had respected their users, those problems would have taken up a fraction of the time to fix, and the companies could have moved on to better, more lucrative projects.

And notice that, if we abandon the “price tag” argument, there is nothing stopping the distributors of software from selling the copies. The only problems are the lack of source code, the restrictive licenses, and the army of copyright lawyers ready to threaten customers. CDs and downloads-for-money are still perfectly legal–so long as they include the source code and do not restrict the user from using, modifying, or distributing the code in any way.

Pay the Taxes

In short, the Free Software movement needs to realize that, though the “price tag” argument is a convincing one, it will not win arguments, and it certainly will not win freedom. RMS himself has said that if people were to begin using Free Software, but were not taught about why their freedom was important, they would very quickly abandon that freedom in favor of something else. Let’s listen to that argument, and not encourage people who don’t understand freedom to start fighting for it.

We also need to start realizing that while Free Software may come without a price tag, that doesn’t mean it has to. While copying might give some people a free copy, many people will also choose to buy the software just as they would have otherwise. I would encourage people who create Free Software to start selling it, too.