That may sound strange from someone who claims to be a free software advocate, but I say this in response to the Free Software Foundation’s recent gaffs, including motions to protest by holding up Apple store operatives by asking awkward questions, setting up a site about Windows 7 sins and sending letters to Fortune 500 companies telling them why proprietary software is bad. Then there’s the typical fringe groups of the GNU/Linux community who use terms such as ‘M$’, ‘Micro$uck’, Windoze, etc. – a prime example of this and further amusement is a Tuxradar article pitting Windows 7 against GNU/Linux. You’ll find the comments in that article are more controversial than the post!
But in claiming proprietary software is bad are we selling GNU/Linux and open source software from the right angle? If this is the route the community has chosen, then in my opinion free software as a proposition is never going to get past it’s 1% share. Why? Because we are essentially telling users they’re bad people for choosing one product over another without any objective criticism. This negative path of thinking can only lead to a backlash from those we campaign to convince. After all, the nearest equivalent to what we’re doing is simply telling someone they’re evil for using full-fat rather than semi-skimmed milk – you haven’t objectively stated why this is the case, simply that semi-skimmed is the better option! It’s little wonder we’re attacked so vehemently by Windows and Mac users for being short-sighted and claiming some false ‘moral high-ground’.
If we really want GNU/Linux to hit the masses, for people to use open alternatives such as OpenOffice.org, Scribus and the GIMP in production environments and for the rest of the IT industry to take these products much more seriously we MUST shed this image of a community filled with arrogant, self-righteous computer nerds. I can’t say precisely how we could do this (that’s a whole debate in itself), but we certainly aren’t doing ourselves any favours if we support the kind of antics from the FSF of late.
I believe that on an individual level, when we’re asked about open source solutions by non technical users we need to objectively weigh up the pros and cons of proprietary against open solutions in a particular user’s situation. If the open alternative is genuinely better then it deserves advocacy – and you should spend your time explaining how it will provide a much more effective solution. If it isn’t quite up to scratch then suggest ideas to the relevant communities and help develop their products. It takes many individuals to effect change in a community, so maybe if enough individuals consider this a worthy pursuit perhaps we might help destroy the self-destructive psyche I’ve already described.
So, in summary: I believe that telling people they’re wrong won’t convince them to switch, and neither will telling them that free software will ‘release them’ from the shackles of closed-source software (because it’s the unfortunate reality that non-technical users really don’t care so long as a solution works!). But by showing them how open products could provide a more cost-effective and efficient way of solving a problem they will at least consider the open-source options and we can effect real change. If we as a community can become more objective and less fanatical, then we can finally break out of our small niche and start to sculpt an anti-competitive and anti-consumer industry into a hive of competitive innovation and community collaboration.