Sunday, January 3, 2010

Switching to Free Software (Sometimes)

It's no secret that I'm an Apple fanboy. I bought the iPhone when it was brand new and silly expensive; still sporting that first-generation now. The last two computers I bought were Macs, a final-generation and now defunct iBook and an iMac. We have three iPods in the house. Hell, I lined up for Leopard. That's right: I stood in line for an operating system.

But lately I've been playing with Linux (dual-booting on the iMac) and other free and open source software. See, as much as I love Mac build quality and user interface design, there's still a nagging problem, and it's not one limited to Macs: most of the software simply isn't mine.

Proprietary software (including DRMed media like music and movies) isn't owned by you at all, it is licensed to you, with terms and conditions. Technically, when you spend money on proprietary software you're buying a license to use something someone else owns.

Imagine if you went to the hardware store to buy a hammer. The guy behind the counter rings you up. "This hammer is licensed to you and may be used on five projects. You may not loan it to anybody, nor may you disassemble it. If you violate the terms if this license, we'll sue you for $25,000."

Unlike any other form of sale in the world, software companies decided that even when you buy stuff from them, they still own it. They call it "intellectual property," but unlike actual property it can't be transferred. Every form of publishing that converts to digital distribution seems to get this same bright idea. First music, then movies, now books and even fonts! They all tell the buyer: "Give us money for our product, but then only use it how we say you can."

There are alternatives. The term "free software" means free as in speech, not free as in beer. Free software can be bought and sold, but once it's yours it's yours, to do with as you please, down to the source code itself. A lot of high-quality free software is free as in beer, too, from whole operating systems (like the flavors of GNU/Linux) to word processors and web browsers.

Nobody would claim most free software is always as polished and friendly as Mac software, and Apple still makes some of the best-built hardware around. But when you get free software it's all yours, and that's worth more than all the eye-candy in the world.

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