Code vs. The World

Why I Choose Free Software

I’ve been thinking a lot about free software recently. Even more so than usual. I made the switch from macOS to Linux as my daily driver, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s a switch that I should have made years ago but never got around to until now. I partly blame my hesitation on the lack of a solid Linux laptop that could compete with the MacBook Air, but I think that has now changed1.

I’ve considered why I’m happier on Linux now than I was on macOS. Some of the reasons are technical. For the most part, Linux does a better job than macOS of providing an ecosystem that fits my needs. But the real reason goes far beyond software availability or the technicalities of the operating system. I could be happy enough on any operating system, but I choose Linux2 and I choose free software. Why? Because free software is about freedom.

I believe that users “should have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve” the software that they use. That quote is straight from the GNU Free Software Philosophy page, and it’s something that I strongly believe to be true. Apple’s walled garden is really pretty, and for someone that was (and still is) heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, there are a lot of benefits to staying in the garden. But it feels so much better living beyond those walls.

It is this freedom that makes it so much more satisfying to use free software. I know that my computer is under my control and that it will work for me when I need it to. And if it doesn’t, I can modify it to work the way that I intend it to.

It’s also really nice knowing that privacy and software freedom are very closely related. There is little worrying about if my computer is collecting data on me that I didn’t agree to. How do I know this? Because I have the power to inspect and modify the programs on my computer. And if I don’t have that expertise personally, I can rely on the expertise of thousands of individuals who have done so for me, and who have created a curated list of programs that are freely available through my operating system’s package manager.

We live in the age of information, and in the age of information, information is power. Why give up small bits and pieces of your computing habits to people who will turn around and sell them to the highest bidder? I believe that it is more important now than ever, to retain control of your personal computing environment3.

There are a number of important questions to ask when dealing with the realities of closed source, nonfree software vs. free software4. There are occasions where it just isn’t feasible or possible to use free software. And that’s okay. It’s important to be flexible, and that requires choosing the right tool at the right time. Sometimes the answer isn’t always free software. But that doesn’t mean that the answer will never be free software, or that we shouldn’t work towards making free software the easiest, most logical choice, every single time.

There are tons of issues with free software, open source, and the free software philosophy that merit their own post, but I choose to use free software even when it isn’t easy. I choose to use free software because I believe in choice and I believe in software freedom. Some people don’t like choice. Choice can cause stress. Hell, sometimes I don’t like being able to choose. Having a bunch of different choices can be overwhelming. But I choose free software despite this because I believe in having the power to choose.

Obviously I’m ignoring some of the realities of everyday life here. However, at it’s core, I believe that a world run by free software is a goal worth fighting for in the same way that freedom is worth fighting for. This is freedom for the digital world.

If you are are reading this and haven’t yet considered creating free software or helping out your favorite open source project, I encourage you to try it out some time. Creating free software using nothing but free software is inspiring. Join me on the free software dark side. We have config files. Lots and lots of config files :)

  1. The XPS 13 9360 Developer Edition is a fantastic laptop. It’s small and light, with good battery life and a good display (I chose the 1080p version). However, the RAM is soldered to the motherboard so you’re stuck with the amount you purchase. The only problem I have right now is that the Network Manager in Ubuntu 16.04 is occasionally buggy and needs to be restarted in order to get wifi working again. This is usually pretty rare, and is easy to fix. Other than that I have no complaints. I believe the issue has been fixed in a newer version of Ubuntu. I have yet to try it with Debian, but I would eventually like to switch to Debian stable. 

  2. I should really be saying GNU/Linux. I could probably write a whole post on the issues with the name free software. Fighting about the terms Linux vs. GNU/Linux or open source vs. free software doesn’t help. I have tons and tons of opinions about free software, open source, and development in general that I’ve gained over nearly a decade of using free software, and I’d like to eventually document them all. 

  3. With Microsoft’s new strategy to embrace Linux and extend Linux with efforts such as the Windows Subsystem for Linux, it is important to stay vigilant in order to maintain and protect software freedoms. Many people are saying that this is a new Microsoft. They say this is a Microsoft that has abandoned it’s ways of the past, and for everyone’s sake, I truly hope it is. But we’ve been burned before, and we may get burned again. It is important to remain cautious while embracing positive, mutually beneficial change. 

  4. Here is an interesting software morality question. You can choose between two popular text editors: Visual Studio Code, and Sublime Text. Which is the choice that most closely lines up with a free software philosophy? Do you choose Visual Studio Code, which is MIT licensed, and falls under the definition of free software, but is created by Microsoft, which in the past has called Linux a cancer and has tried to undermine the efforts of the free software movement. Or do you choose Sublime Text, which is closed source and nonfree, but which is written by Jon Skinner, who by all accounts seems like a decent guy that sells his text editor to make a living?