Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Datamation: 9 Characteristics of Free Software Users

It must be coincidence, but after finishing the post about Richard Stallman’s essay on why open source misses the point of free software I ran into this article by Bruce Byfield: 9 Characteristics of Free Software Users. What are those characteristics?

1) Free software users expect open licenses and no activation methods
2) Free software users expect regular upgrades and patches
3) Free software users expect to work the way they choose
4) Free software users want control of their own systems
5) Free software users explore
6) Free software users expect to help themselves
7) Free software users don’t fear the command line
8) Free software users learn software categories, not programs
9) Free software users expect access to developers and other employees

It’s worth the time to read the rationale behind each characteristic. When thinking about the open letter to the Dutch Cartel Office about the relationship between commercial software vendors and education I found point 8 highly interesting:

Blocked from easily learning about their operating system, consumers of proprietary software operate as if casting magic spells — ritual recipes that, if used exactly right, will give them the desired results. Added to the fact that proprietary software can be expensive, they tend to become familiar with one office suite, and one web browser and mail reader. As a result, switching software can be traumatic to them.
By contrast, free software users come to have both the system knowledge and the software selection to experiment. They may settle on one piece of software in each category, but only after experimenting with all the possibilities. Should they need a feature that their choice lacks, they’ll find a temporary or permanent replacement, trusting that other features they need will be in both programs. Far more than proprietary users, their loyalty is provisional, and dependent on quality and selection. They lack the financial investment that keeps proprietary users locked-in to a particular vendor, and see no reason to change that.

Where Richard Stallman is more negative about the free software movement in the face of the influx of new open source users, Bruce Byfield is more confident in the resilience of the free software culture:

How long these characteristics of free software will continue to exist is uncertain. In the last few years, a new category of free operating system users has begun to emerge: those who remain entirely on the desktop. In the rush to become more user-friendly — which usually means more like Windows — the chance exists that the free software user culture will become unrecognizable to long-time users in the next few years.

However, that seems unlikely. For the most part, the purely desktop user’s sensibilities are not sapping the free software culture so much as being accommodated and isolated as a special case. Unless they are content to stay in their normal routines, within a year or two, desktop users will face some problem that they cannot solve without becoming either more adventurous or more in contact with the mainstream culture. When that happens, they will have taken the first steps away from being passive consumers and towards becoming the owners of their own machines.

And, how do you fit in the characteristics?

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