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It is frustrating for free software folks to see their friends and family disappear into the maw of Facebook's walled garden, seemingly unable to communicate via any other means. Looking around at Linux conferences and seeing lots of Apple laptops is equally frustrating—disheartening even—especially given Apple's draconian policies that seem to be hell-bent on creating, and enforcing, its own garden. And let's not forget that Apple is currently pursuing a patent attack that could do quite a bit of damage to Linux and free software. When looking at those things, it's important to remember that the struggle for freedom is rarely convenient. There are entrenched interests—and enormous sums of money—arrayed against software freedom, but that hasn't halted the movement's progress.
While it's clear that Apple, Facebook, Google, and others have made compelling platforms for users, it's equally clear that they have also ignored, or actively thwarted, user freedom. They have their reasons for doing so, not least the profit motive, but those with long memories have seen this kind of thing before. After all, 20 years ago one would have been hard-pressed to find a usable free operating system. The reasons were much the same then as they are now: money and power.
That particular obstacle has been overcome, with a lot of hard work by a lot of people, so it's a little early to be overly concerned that Apple (or Facebook or ...) is somehow siphoning off the energy of the free software movement. There are lots of Windows laptops at Linux conferences as well, but one would guess the percentage has drastically decreased over the years and only a small part of that has ended up in Apple's lap (or with an Apple in their lap).
Companies like Apple and Microsoft have huge advantages that are extremely difficult for free software to overcome, yet we still make progress. Anyone who has been a part of the community as a developer or user for 10 or 15 years—or even less—should be astonished at the advances made. But in order to do that, some folks will have to take the less convenient path, whether that means foregoing the latest user interface enhancements from Apple, or missing out on the über-cool (and trendy!) social networking widgets and games from Facebook. So far, fortunately, we haven't really lacked for people willing to make those choices.
It is probably quite obvious to most LWN readers, but it still bears repeating: the freedom to use hardware, software, and data as we desire—rather than as the purveyors want us to use them—sometimes comes with a price. Inconvenience, fewer capabilities, and sometimes being ostracized are some of the possible costs. But, as we have seen, the payoff is huge and the cost can be amortized over not only years, but also over a large number of users and developers.
The alternative, while perhaps convenient, is, in the end, bleak. It is no surprise that various mega-corporations are constantly trying to distract us with "shiny", because if they can just get past these pesky freedoms that some clamor about, they can get on with the profit-making tasks at hand. If they can redefine users as strictly "consumers of content", with that content controlled by the corporations and their allies, they can push more and more restrictions (a la the DMCA and the ACTA treaty) and further perpetuate their control.
By walling themselves off from the rest of the computing world, while enticing as many as possible to move inside their walls, Apple and Facebook (and others, those two are just today's high-profile offenders) are doing those users a grave disservice, at least in the long run. The battle for software freedom—really, any freedom—is a war of ideas, and ideals. Software freedom may be the pragmatic choice given a long enough view, but it often runs counter to the conventional thinking, which is why education needs to be a big part of the effort.
In the conflict between free and closed systems, there are many fronts. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has generally been in the forefront of the battle to help people understand software freedom and why it's important. Other organizations and projects, including things like the Linux kernel and the FSF's own GNU project, have taken on other parts of the struggle. There is plenty of room in our movement for different approaches. Just as we don't require a single choice for editor, desktop environment, or distribution, diversity in how we work towards software freedom is important and useful.
Like my colleague, Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier, I am not always impressed with the campaigns that the FSF comes up with. I don't, however, see them as any kind of impediment to achieving the free software goals that we all likely share. Some of the phrases that have come from the FSF's campaigns (DRM == "digital restrictions management" and the lesser-known but still perfectly descriptive "defective by design" for example) have been exactly what was needed to help in the education process. Sometimes, negative campaigns have their place; what alternative to DRM should the FSF be pushing? In that case, "Gno" seems like the right answer.
None of that is to say that providing alternatives is not also important. Projects to make the Linux desktop more "usable" and user-friendly exist. There are various nascent efforts to create freedom and privacy-respecting alternatives to Facebook as well. These things will take time, but we will get there. Just look back a decade or two.
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