More Pragmatic Questions about F/OSS on Proprietary Platforms

by chromatic

Thanks to everyone who commented on The Dubious Benefits of Porting F/OSS to Windows. There are a lot of good points in the comments.

For example, Simon Hibbs responded that more users of a piece of software increased the value of that software. This is important for programs that follow open standards, such as Mozilla Firefox, or OpenOffice.org and Abiword. In one sense, I see the value of open standards and unfettered access to data as more important than the four software freedoms. If I had to choose one over the other, I'd choose open standards... but I think that's a false dilemma.

Yet I still wonder. How many people have switched to free platforms after realizing that they already used or could switch to completely free software that did what they needed?

I've seen plenty of people switch from a free OS to a proprietary system which includes some free parts (let's call it "Mac Something Something"... or how about "Something OS X" to protect the innocent), justifying that choice by saying "It can run all of the applications I love from Linux or *BSD, and look it's shiny!"

I'm not sure that that case really helps the goal of spreading free software.

Again, I realize that not everyone shares that goal with me, and it's fine. I'm also not saying that porting free software to proprietary platforms is bad, or wrong, or makes you an evil person. I'm sympathetic to the idea that plenty of people develop on non-free platforms and deploy to free platforms. In my last full-time development job, I would have gone crazy if not for Cygwin. (I ended up using its X server to connect to our GNU/Linux test machine just so I could use decent development tools.)

Yet still I wonder... is there concrete evidence that people do switch to free platforms after using primarily free software? Is there concrete evidence that open standards gain significant acceptance due to the presence of free software or software that otherwise promotes those standards effectively? (I'd like more than one case; it's possible that Mozilla is an outlier.)

(I haven't brought up the case of writing free software that supports only a proprietary standard, but that's a different post altogether.)


6 Comments

Matthew Sporleder
2007-07-18 06:52:40
If mozilla were my benchmark I'd switch -to- windows because firefox runs so well on windows and has always been a little shaky on *nix. ;) (in my opinion/your milage may vary)


Go XULRunner :)

Matthew Keene
2007-07-18 18:09:55
I think that what should be being promoted is freedom of choice. If people choose to use free software on a non-free platform - for whatever reason - then that's a good thing for many reasons, most importantly that they have that choice to make.


It seems to me that this debate is almost making a false dichotomy - saying that people should not be able to 'cherry pick' from the free software catalog and that if they want one piece of it then they need to accept it all (and I guess what we're really talking about here is choice of operating system). Each part of the free software stack should be able to compete with the non-free equivalents on its own merits without resorting to the type of lock in that corporate software is so rightly criticised for in order to piggy back one component on the advantages of another.

Anshul
2007-07-18 19:25:24
Yet still I wonder... is there concrete evidence that people do switch to free platforms after using primarily free software?


I don't know of concrete evidence, since that would have to be in the form of valid statistical studies. But let's say such a study was done and it turns out most people do not switch to free platforms after using free software on non-free platforms. That in itself is no argument that developers should stop caring about non-free platforms. It could perfectly well be that familiarity with free software is a necessary but insufficient condition for switching. Maybe people will switch when Linux gets "shiny" enough, or when mainstream vendors start supporting it (think Dell, which has made a beginning) - but familiarity with software is important too.


It is well known that familiarity does bias human beings - font designers or UI designers for example, are well aware that the average person on the street will report that he/she "prefers" a design that they have worked with before, even if it is technically inferior.


Your goal of "spreading free software" is actually being met because of the tremendous usage of Firefox, OpenOffice, JabRef, GIMP, Pidgin/Adium and others. I'm sure you'd agree that these have resulted in a lot more awareness, at least, of free software, and that has got to be the first step to any mass migration to F/OSS that may happen. Sure, some people have the goal of people using "exclusively" free software (not something I agree with) - but I'm sure even they should realize that the process can be incremental.


Is there concrete evidence that open standards gain significant acceptance due to the presence of free software or software that otherwise promotes those standards effectively?


Well, you've got the giant in the space - MS Office - to create an open standard, and they're still being taken to task over ODF support. Would that ever have happened without OpenOffice? Sure, the argument in this case is a theoretical one (open data) but without software that implemented it, would the idea have been as impactful?

Mohammed Berdai
2007-07-19 05:11:39
One thing for sure is happening these days, it's an ever growing interests in F/OSS. As far as I can tell there is no single factor but many: Web 2, Virtualization and Open Standards. Security and stability don't push people to change platform, they expect systems to crash and get hacked !


However, I was surprised by quiet a few people asking me to help them migrate to GNU/Linux because they want something that works, not controlled by monopolies and something free as in free speech. :-)


The bottom line is the interest in FOSS is increasing, but migration takes a little more time.


As far as I am concerned, all my IT skills are being rebuilt around FOSS. Let's see if I am wrong this time :-p

Roy Schestowitz
2007-07-19 05:38:30
Try to find reciprocity. As in, if Linux devs port to Windows, Windows developers should use tools that enable them to easily port.
Kevin Ollivier
2007-07-26 13:11:45

I've seen plenty of people switch from a free OS to a proprietary system which includes some free parts (let's call it "Mac Something Something"... or how about "Something OS X" to protect the innocent), justifying that choice by saying "It can run all of the applications I love from Linux or *BSD, and look it's shiny!"


I'm not sure that that case really helps the goal of spreading free software.


I don't use a Linux distro for a very simple reason - for all the extolling people have done about Linux distros, I've found they have many rough edges, I've found package managers to be a pain (vs. installers or drag-and-drop), I've found developing for them to be harder than other platforms, I've found that they all get the desktop 'half-right' (but sadly, I can't combine them!) and I've found support really hard to get, sometimes to the point that I had to give up. I could write paragraph upon paragraph about issues I've had. It's not hard at all to find people praising Linux distros, but it just doesn't match with reality for me.


I think the issue is simply that free software applications and the Linux desktop are two different things, and while they are connected by their ideology, as a practical matter, moving to a Linux desktop is completely dependent on the experience provided by that desktop. If you want to move people to a Linux desktop, assuming it runs all the software they need, you have to give them a Linux desktop they'll enjoy working with and that makes their lives easier. That may mean providing binary drivers, it may mean providing non-free browser plugins, it may mean 'dumbing down' certain preferences, etc., and in the past I've found lots of Linux distros very hesitant to embrace ideas such as these. Regardless, many users need them, and if the Linux desktop won't provide them, then users will move to one that does.


Coming back to the applications issue, though, regardless of whether or not cross-platform software leads to adoption of free desktops, the Linux desktop still needs that software or alternatives. So you have to ask, does the current Linux desktop userbase provide a sufficient community to make sure that many specialized 3rd party free apps get sufficiently developed, debugged, and full-featured enough to replace a commercial alternative? If not, then making more software cross-platform is probably the only way to even eventually make free desktops an option for many people.