How does free software take over the world? What happens now?

I love free software, I owe a lot to the free software communities and I care deeply about them. However, I am a realist and a pragmatist, so I’d like to ask a question that’s been bothering me.

Free Software has proven itself technologically, and proven itself in terms of creating an efficient working environment for developers, however, people never seem to mention the end game.

As far as I can see, free software has proven itself as “useful” from a developer’s point of view, “fun” from a power users, and “morally good” from a free software advocate’s point of view, but for general users, the benefits are less distinct – why would a user, pick free software, over non-free software?

Not why “should” – I’m very capable of explaining of benefits that most developers see (they won’t be tied in, they can fix stuff, pay other people to fix stuff, etc) but I’m actually trying to understand it from a non-technical user’s point of view, what they would actually get out of free software that they’d prefer, and trigger the mass adoption of free software?

As far as I can see it, users is motivated by:

  • What is best for them.
  • What is easiest.
  • What works.

(with various socio-economic decisions involving price, based on the situation.)

Do people envisage that in the future, users will see “free software” as the “ethical choice” – in the same manner people buy fair trade food stuffs, or why some people make lifestyle choices and go vegetarian or vegan?

If you were to imagine a sci-fi future where, free software was “standard” in the general populace, why would that be? Why would they have come to that point? Would they have all understood technology to the point required to understand source code, or would they choose free software for some kind of abstract reason?

I’d suggest that we’ll never see more than about 10% of users really ever choosing to use free software for ‘ethical reasons’ – fair trade branded items are far from being the most popular, and other “ethically” motivated product lives, in this country at least, have also not succeeded in dominating a market.

But “winning” is hardly defined as having 10% of everyone, and whilst ostentatiously, popularity is not the free software movements main goal, and hasn’t been for many years, RMS has recently been focusing more on this area.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts – do leave a comment if you have ideas.

If you can explain a rational and pragmatic scenario, in which free software becomes *preferable* to End Users, I promise, next time we meet, to buy you a beverage of your choice (under £4).

8 Responses to “ How does free software take over the world? What happens now? ”

  1. interesting points tim. what do you think about the aims of free software in the business world, rather than just consumers? please check out my blog post about the name, free software http://grepmonster.wordpress.com/2009/07/21/marketing-free-software-pt-ii-the-name-is-wrong/

    • Well, essentially, really, the business world is just the same as anywhere else.

      The business world gets the pragmatic, “makes the lives of our developers easier” when they have developers, but when essentially they’re all users, they’re still unclear what benefit there is.

      I think the name thing is unimportant – if name was the only problem, then we’d be talking about “how the open source movement had taken over” – but even when you use the term open source, to essentially refer to the same software – the users don’t have different perceptions.

      The actual price people pay for something, is purely an economic thing, based on the situation and the persons circumstances. Even the most non-technical user would happily pay £££££ for a new business solution which puts their ass on the line, because it reassures them, whilst using free applications everyday.

      Depending on the context, price can be a benefit – but only in the places where people were looking to cut costs anyway.

      In short, I don’t think the name is that big of a deal – there’s a larger problem there somewhere.

  2. Quite right, and very recently I paid £79 for a copy of Windows 7 – I buy a new computer quite rarely, once in ten years or so.

    Why did I do that? especially when I know better, and that for all my essential computing I can use free software.

    The last remaining reason is due to Windows games I still enjoy. At a push I might run these under emulation, and break restrictions where necessary. So far I keep Windows as a games platform, everything else free software has taken over and is easier and better.

  3. The thing about free software, has, in my opinion, nothing to do with giving consumers free stuff.
    It is, again in my opinion, perfectly valid to charge for a program or an OS if users wish to pay for Support and easy install features.
    Nor do I see (totally) free games to be a valid business model for gaming companies.

    But what is essential is the continued evolution of software, and if that’s not affordable its going to stagnate.
    Expensive license programs, or even super expensive render solutions will sink any startup venture.

    Any young dreamer who wishes to edit photo’s, video’s or try his or her hand at animation cannot afford to buy the required program.
    If not for pirating and free software so much young talent would go untapped. Pirating is not going to last, they will figure out ways to combat it eventually, leaving us only with free software.

    So there should be a symbiotic relationship between commercial and free sofware.
    Commercial software should provide free tolls for the creation of free software, while at the same time staying affordable, or if not at least have free, compatible alternatives.

    And anyone who tries to command the marked, should be elected out by consumers in favor of better and ethical alternatives.

    But that means those alternatives needs to be viable, which at this moment Linux is not.
    For lack of gaming compatibility and the serious lack of high end programs, for video and photo editing.

    But we are getting there… Blender is good tool for 3D modeling, Unity is now publishing to Linux (only), and Steam is making some good headway for Linux gaming.
    Once these things falls into place I believe we will move toward a market situation where free software gets its rightful place.

    -Exo

  4. Microsoft may become free software’s MVP (when it comes to increasing market share).

    While operating systems are software, to the end user they are practically portals/platforms to access the content they want/need.

    The content may be certain software they want/need, for work, productivity or whatever else, but it may also be some type of media, like games, movies, music, web pages, etc… Some of the content the typical end user wants is pretty OS independent, as the OS serves as a portal/platform upon which other portals are based (ex. browsers for the web, media players for music and movies).

    As it is right now, most users stick with Windows and Macs, either because some content they want isn’t available on other OS’s, or they aren’t that aware of other alternatives.

    But what would if that content was also available on other OS’s? What would happen if the tables were turned, and some content the end user desires became unavailable to them on Windows or Macs?

    This brings me back to my original notion that Microsoft may become Free Software’s MVP.

    With Windows 8, Microsoft is starting to unsettle the content producers. I’m sure you know of Valve’s Linux efforts. If Microsoft continues on this path, more and more producers of the content that Microsoft relies on to keep its edge (it also relies on Windows being preinstalled on most computers, but that’s another issue) will start to provide their content on other platforms, or if Microsoft really messes up and alienates the content producers they might not even produce content for Windows anymore.

    It may seem like a bad (short term) business decision for content producers to stop producing for Windows, but it may make (at least long term) sense in two scenarios.

    1) The content producer of the main/(practically) sole available content of a certain type that is very important to users can do it. If the content is important, users will follow.

    2) Content producers (or big content producers) of the same type of content (ex. Game makers) unite in the decision, thus leaving little/no alternatives for that type of content on Windows.

    This may be slow, it may not ever amount to anything, but there are signs of it starting.

    The main alternative to Windows (and Macs) is Gnu/Linux. While most distrobutions (especially the most popular ones) aren’t completely free (and the software content that might “force” their switch might not be free – (I wouldn’t count games here (Though, game engines are a different topic of discussion when ot comes to this))), they are what will introduce the majority of users to free software.

    — Whoops, look at the time (I’m in Europe ;) ), I guess I could continue tomorrow, though we’ll see about that :P

    P.S. I pretty sure I solely used free as in free speech, not as in free beer, though a free (as in beer) might have slipped in.

  5. Hi there… Very interesting post – thanks!

    I think you almost have the answer to your question within your article… Why might free software become *preferable* to End Users? Because it meets those same criteria you mentioned above, that people use to make decisions:
    * Because it’s best for them,
    * Because it’s easiest,
    * Because it works, or
    * Because it is in line with their ethical choices.

    The biggest thing that is holding free software back from mass adoption is not a question of users’ preferences, it’s market forces.

    If your computer comes with Internet Explorer pre-installed, it’s *easier* to use that.
    If you search for a program that meets your precise needs and a commercial product does the best job of convincing you it will solve your problem, you’ll consider this “ideal” solution over a free-but-not-quite-the-best-for-me alternative.
    If your computer or device guides you to an App Store with an easily downloadable paid app that does what you need, but the free alternative is hard to find or hard to install, you’ll probably be more inclined to use the paid App.

    Ultimately, I think it’s market forces and the power of professional marketing and bundling efforts that keep free software in a minority.

    I do believe though that quality will eventually win out, in a free market. Over time people will drift to the “best” solution – provided they are not restrained from doing so by lock-in, licensing restrictions, and other limitations. And in this case “best” would incorporate everything important to that person – be it convenience, ease of getting it & of using it, value for money, freedom, security, privacy, portability, etc etc

  6. P.S. The font for your comments is really hard to read! I recommend you remove the bold and increase the line spacing.

  7. [...] There have been no new approaches, no reaches out to the public, and no answers to the question of what happens next. Things just [...]

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