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The Real Future of Linux and FOSS (Is Not Shiny Toys)

Baby Birds and Sheep

  • December 28, 2010
  • By Carla Schroder
There is a word that is to me as a pebble in a shoe, as fingernails on a blackboard, and that is the word consumer. Consumer is a perfectly good word that has become incurably tainted. One dictionary definition is "a person who acquires goods and services for his or her own personal needs". Farther down on the same Dictionary.com page it says "one that utilizes economic goods; specifically : an individual who purchases goods for personal use as distinguished from commercial use". And so we have Consumer Reports, consumer protection laws, Consumer's Union, and other organizations devoted to protecting consumer's rights and interests.

There is another, older definition of consumer: "one who squanders or wastes," "one who uses up goods or articles". That is more in tune with the modern definition, which to me is "Unquestioning passive receptacle of overpriced, low-quality, low-value goods and services". They call us consumers of entertainment, of software, of hard goods, and of services. They're trying to monetize intellectual property, and retain control of our stuff that we buy, and make us pay for the same thing every time we touch it.

I do not like this word consumer. I prefer customer. The definition of customer is much more interesting than consumer: "1. a person who purchases goods or services from another; buyer; patron. 2. Informal. a person one has to deal with: a tough customer; a cool customer."

A customer is courted, a consumer is herded. A customer must be won over, a consumer is told what to do. A customer negotiates and bargains, a consumer accepts whatever is dumped on them.

What does this have to do with Linux

What does this have to do with Linux and FOSS? Everything. FOSS users have strong rights. We can do whatever we want with FOSS code for personal use. Actually that is true of everything, since trying to place limits on personal use of anything requires unwarranted invasions into our private business. But that is exactly what is happening.

We can open up FOSS code, tear it apart, mix and match, and install it all over the place. You know, just like normal possessions. In my life I have repaired and customized vehicles, modified furniture, modified my homes, messed with appliance guts, made lawnmowers into go-karts, made super-powered electric razors that buzzed really loud and went really fast until they fried out, and done strange and wondrous things to bicycle parts (art!). That is normal.

What is abnormal is this new regime of tracking our movements and retaining control of our devices. They try to blur the lines-- oh you don't really own that, you license it. Oh and um, safety! Yes, that's it, there are safety reasons for not letting you use your own stuff the way you want to. Bullcrap. Whoever owns a things pays for it and is responsible for it. Somehow these modern titans of tech have succeeded in getting consumers to pay for their goods without getting ownership. The vendors retain control and have no responsibility. What a sweet deal! If it weren't so loathesome I would want in on that.

Don't Buy It!

It's obvious that a regulatory cure is never going to happen (at least not in the US.) That's a broad, blunt tool for precision work anyway. The best cure is don't buy into it. Make vendors woo you. Make them earn your business. Don't pay for the privilege of being abused. This will probably require the sacrifice of not purchasing some shiny toys, and investing some time in writing to company CEOs to explain to them how they lost your business. Believe me, these things matter-- they make a difference.

Especially don't buy Windows, because Microsoft is just as dirty tricksy as ever. They have to be, because they wouldn't survive a month in a genuinely competitive market. I don't care if you save a few dollars buying a pretty Windows notebook and then replacing it with Linux. That's an ephemeral, very short-term savings. Microsoft still gets paid and you have rewarded the vendor for selling Windows. They have zero incentive to offer alternatives when we do that. Support real Linux vendors who don't play games.

The future of Linux and FOSS is the same as its past, in activism. Take part, contribute, take a firm unwavering stand. Individual actions matter. Linux isn't about talented people feeding freeloaders, it's about giving power and choices back to ordinary people. If we don't take it we will lose it.

P.S.-- I anticipate that someone will raise the usual objection that "Most people don't care about freedom and open code!" So what? I do. They don't get to take away my choices.

Carla Schroder is the author of the Linux Cookbook and the Linux Networking Cookbook (O'Reilly Media), the upcoming "Book of Audacity" (NoStarch Press), a lifelong book lover, and the managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.

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