Some thoughts on “When Free Software Isn’t Better”

Earlier this week I read a new essay by Benjamin Mako Hill called “When Free Software Isn’t Better.” Although I found it incredibly insightful, the reaction to this essay hasn’t been universally positive. The criticism has focused on a perceived attack on the Open Source Initiative. I want to address why I think Mako has taken a stance here that’s not aligned with the OSI, and why I also think it doesn’t constitute an attack.

In fact, what he’s done is articulated how important the goals of the OSI are, and why we need to work towards those goals as a conclusion instead of just assuming them as a starting point.

There are three major benefits most often touted by free and open source software boosters:

  • the “four freedoms” to run, study, distribute, and improve software;
  • the exciting collaborative elements of participating in a free and open source project; and
  • the superior software that comes as a result of that collaboration and many eyes making all bugs shallow.

Mako’s premise is that the collaborative development of the kind described by open source boosters around free or open source software projects is actually very rare, and that the superiority of free software projects is not guaranteed, and he provides evidence to back up those claims. But these are not reasons to abandon freely licensed software. Rather, he takes the opportunity to stress the importance of pursuing freedom, which is ensured even where the other benefits aren’t.

Of course he agrees, and he goes out of his way to clarify, collaborative development and community projects are incredible, popular, and real. The Linux kernel, Ubuntu and Debian distributions—and in the free culture world, projects like Wikipedia—all demonstrate not just freedom but also superiority through community participation. That can and should be an end towards which groups like the Open Source Initiative strive. Mako’s consideration, then, is just that nobody take those qualities for granted.

When active community involvement and better software are taken for granted, their absence is seen as a particular shortcoming of that project. And that situation sells the developers short: the individuals that are doing great work without a lot of community behind them, and the many projects in earlier stages that are functional and useful but lack the polish of proprietary versions deserve support and users, too.

That idea resonates deeply with me as a user of free software. I grappled with a tension between a commitment to free software being better and my hands-on experience with lots of it which, to put it bluntly, isn’t. It was after seeing Mako speak about “antifeatures” at Free Culture X last year, a talk which held the seeds of this essay in it, that I realized the reason I stick with free software when it isn’t better is because it’s free.

There was a time, certainly around the 1998 founding of the Open Source Initiative and especially in the “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” world of enterprise IT, when free software was not an option even when it was better than the proprietary alternative. Now, due in large part to the efforts of the FSF and the OSI, that’s not the case any more.

Today, it’s easy to use free software when it’s better. But there are important and non-obvious reasons to do so even when it’s not.

Published by Parker Higgins

I'm the Director of Special Projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and previously led copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I live and work in Brooklyn, New York. more »

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  1. Thanks for the nice writeup Parker! I appreciate that you seem to have appreciated the article. Your points are very clear and I think you’ve nailed a couple points I agree with completely but didn’t get across very well.

    I hope that, as I present this work more in the future (I’m planning on writing this up into a full-length talk in the next few months) I’ll be able to integrate some of your points and tactics. :) So thanks!

  2. Excellent, Mr. Higgins, excellent.

    And I do feel kind of ashamed to write this from my MBP running OS X, since I’m very well aware of the fact that I could be running my beloved Fedora with KDE. (Why I don’t do it is partially another discussion.)

  3. @mako: Thanks for the great essay. I hope I get a chance to see this as a full talk—as I mention above, the “antifeatures” one had a big impact on my thinking.

    @igor: Don’t feel too guilty about the MBP thing, I guess :). Thanks for talking to me about this last week, too. You and Peter really helped me refine my thoughts here.

  4. It’s an important discussion.

    Although I think, that you’re right about the current state of affairs, I really doubt that one can convince too many people to switch to free software just by conviction. Indeed, I even think, that it’s not a practical approach, if it comes down to thinking about mainstream.

    But: it is a very valid argument, when it comes to the people who can actually make a difference. Technologically FOSS isn’t performing worse then closed. It’s often the lack of a design driven approach, that makes it harder to use a often technologically superior FOSS product. And there are a lot of those who can contribute on creating a better experience for the mass market, who just don’t feel as involved right now. In that sense, I think your argument is perfect. It just needs to be evenly distributed.

  5. @igor I don’t disagree at all with anything you’ve said there. And I think for the most part, free software “wins” a market when it is better. (You and I will accept freedom as an asset that offsets other liabilities to make a piece of software preferable, but many people will not.)

    You’re also correct that what would make most free software better than it is, and better than the alternatives, is good design and usability, and like you say, that’s an area that non-involved people need to get involved with. There’s another essay to be written (or shared) about _why_ software freedom is so important, and it needs to be geared towards people who don’t already know. (People who can design software, hopefully!)

  6. Interestingly enough, there is probably a method to make “freedom” & “open” desirable even for the mainstream market. From todays perspective, people only want to use the most effective and “shiny” products.

    But there was a time when we thought about food differently as well. We didn’t have Whole Food or “Bio” stickers. People didn’t think as much about the consequences of using not healthy food. That changed. Mostly of course after we started seeing the consequences of not carrying, but also after Marketers helped come up with those branding methods that made it appealing and easy to buy healthy food.

    Something very similar can be attempted with FOSS. We’re seeing an unprecedented amount of media attention to closed systems. Apple is getting its fair share of bad press right now. What we lack right now is the branding for “free = better”.

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