Mainstream media favors price at expense of freedom, fairness

The New York Times’ review of Dell machines featuring the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution is a recent illustration of the problems one faces confusing price and freedom, then deciding that freedom (the more important of the two) isn’t worth talking about.

But why would anyone want to use Linux, an open-source operating system, to run a PC? “For a lot of people,” said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, “Linux is a political idea — an idea of freedom. They don’t want to be tied to Microsoft or Apple. They want choice. To them it’s a greater cause.”

That’s not the most compelling reason for consumers. There is the price: Linux is free, or nearly so.

The same could be said of a copy of Microsoft Windows or MacOS X that comes with a computer (the cost of either when purchased with hardware is quite low). An illicit copy of the software costs no money at all, and Microsoft and Apple will probably do nothing to you if you get a copy from someone illicitly. Both companies agree with the implied message of this article that popularity is king, so why stifle people who are helping others become dependent on their favorite proprietor? The only way you can respond to this is if you learn to value software freedom for its own sake.

When all you see is price, you throw away something more valuable. Proprietors know this and are eager to get you into their thrall. Talk about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

To explain to people what freedom means (and how “choice” is a profound misreading of freedom–after all, Microsoft and Apple give you “choice” all by themselves, pick your master!) you have to be willing to say the things the Times apparently isn’t willing to say. You have to be willing to mention that bringing users into the free software community without teaching them about freedom isn’t helping the cause of freedom as much as teaching them about freedom because these new users have no reason to reject proprietary software. If all one values is price, then there is no reason to reject low-priced proprietary alternatives. When a proprietary alternative functions in a better way than the free program, users need a reason to actively choose their freedom. The free software movement provides that reason—social solidarity and helping oneself, one’s neighbors, and one’s community—and the open source movement doesn’t.

And there is a lot more than just an operating system. Ubuntu, like some other Linux distributions, comes with a lot of free software, including OpenOffice, an alternative to the Microsoft Office suite with a full-featured word processor, spreadsheet, database and presentation program. It also comes with the popular Firefox Web browser as well as an e-mail program, an instant messaging program, a graphic image editor, music player and a photo manager.

In the past, claims like this only drive the proprietors to bundle more proprietary programs. This is how people negotiate better prices for proprietary software, handily illustrating my point above. This is also how Apple and Microsoft get people to use their programs which don’t support open standards (witness Apple and Microsoft’s office suites which don’t read or write OpenDocument files. Both support Microsoft’s “OpenXML” which is not an open standard).

One challenge for Linux users is finding media players that work with encrypted music and DVDs. Ubuntu comes with a movie player, but it is not automatically configured to play copy-protected commercial DVDs. To watch a movie, the Linux user must install necessary codecs, or decoders. One way to do that is to first download a program called Automatix from www.getautomatix.com.

This is bad advice on a technical level as well; Automatix will install a bunch of proprietary programs (which is bad enough to reject it outright) and modify system files such that it is difficult to upgrade one’s system further (one of the reasons why Ubuntu recommends against installing Automatix).

Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux […]

If you want to give Linux kernel hackers a share of the credit (as they surely deserve) but not all the credit (as is also fair), read what the Free Software Foundation has been talking about in its articles on the “GNU/Linux” name. Torvalds did not write an entire operating system. Torvalds wrote the initial versions of a small portion of an operating system called a “kernel”. A kernel makes it possible to harmoniously share the resources of a computer. Harmonious resource allocation is a critical task, to be sure, but not the entirety of an OS. Furthermore, one runs the risk of associating the system’s existence with his philosophy whilst giving absolutely no credit or mind to GNU or the reason so many other programs also in the system exist–respecting the user’s software freedom so they can build and defend a community of cooperation.

After using the operating system for writing, Web surfing, graphic editing, movie watching and a few other tasks, it is easy to conclude that Linux can be an alternative to the major operating systems. But since common tasks like watching a movie or syncing an iPod require hunting for and installing extra software, Linux is best for technically savvy users or for people whose needs are so basic that they will never need anything other than the bundled software.

Watching a movie from another region requires “hunting” on every operating system, due to digital restrictions management (DRM) which go unmentioned in this article. Some of my younger (ostensibly more likely to have heard of DRM) clients bump into this limitation often; it’s far more common amongst the allegedly digitally literate than people realize.

And Ubuntu’s add/remove software program makes it super easy to type in “ipod” or “dvd” and install iPod syncing software or VideoLAN Client which plays DVDs with remarkably little hassle.

Turning on a computer is a political act. It’s time we stop believing the myth that computers are only tools, apolitical instruments with which we help make our lives better. This tends to lead us to believe that price is a chief means of discerning one program from another and dissuades us from asking more important questions like how can we maintain control our lives and help one another without becoming dependent on a proprietor. Relevant social and ethical questions are pushed aside if we let the market have its way with us.

1 thought on “Mainstream media favors price at expense of freedom, fairness

  1. The gratis availability of free software initially attracted me to free software. Learning about the rhetoric of social solidarity and liberty of free software is what kept me here.

    Computers are only tools, but since *we* possess *our own the computer*, *we* should have full rights to control it. Source code to software is required for this. We should also have the right to be good neighbours by having the liberty to share the resource of computer software with neighbours.

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