How to convince people (was: K5: 'Is Richard Stallman's Fight For "GNU/Linux" Suicide?')

Frank Heckenbach frank at
Fri May 25 03:25:09 UTC 2001

Kristian A. Rink wrote:

> And Frank Heckenbach <frank at> gave word to the following thoughts:
> >You might argue that it's not worth trying to make people change
> >their "definitions", but then remember that most people associate
> >"free software" with "freeware", i.e. usually with free beer, no
> >source, no support software, and we'll also have to make them change
> >this "definition" since we don't want to talk about "open source".
> I agree whole-heartedly on that... Bad thing I see is that, right now,
> right here, obviously one of the main arguments to make people move over to
> use GNU/Linux that is used in press and media sometimes is the fact that
> it's pretty inexpensive to, for example, get a fully operational server
> working while relying on GNU/Linux software. That's where most of the
> computer-related press and even (which even more disappoints me) an
> annoyingly big part of the Linux (not GNU) followers I had the chance to
> talk to, lately, in the end yet get back to the fact of seeing GNU/Linux
> the "free as in free beer" way. This is horrifying to me, seems there's a
> lot of work left for us to even get quite a lot of the Linux folks to fully
> and whole-heartedly support not just open-source but *free* software.

I think that's an important issue and here's a good place to discuss
it. It has probably often been discussed elsewhere, and those who
have pariticipated in such discussions can probably provide some
useful information here. I don't have the perfect answer, I'll just
try to give some thoughts.

I think it's important here to (try to) see things from the
(potential) users' point of view. Of course, this view differs
widely between hobby users, users that use a computer to do parts of
their job (text processing etc.) and those whose job is about
computer (sys admins etc.).

So, when we consider the "average hobby user", what are the most
obvious advantages of free software? Apparently price and stability
(which has long been the major advantage of GNU/Linux in public
opinion) are high on the list.

As we know, these are only by-products of freedom. But how can we
make the four freedoms understandable to hobby users? The easiest
one is probably the freedom to distribute copies -- which
practically for most people is in fact a price issue. Most computer
users will never get in touch with software containing secrets or
such which has limited distribution for such reasons, so while they
cannot (legally) copy their proprietary software for a friend, they
can go to the shop and buy him a copy. And if they get a new
computer or build a network and want to copy their programs on each
machine (legally), again it's only a matter of price.

Another thing that could be mentioned here is obsolescence of
programs. I don't know how many users are really affected by it, but
it might be a few. If a proprietary program has not just its
development discontinued, but also the older versions don't run
anymore (e.g. because they're not compatible to the new "OS" version
or some new hardware, or because they were not y2k safe or
anything), and users are forced to get used to a different program,
that's often not a nice experience. Even worse if substantial
amounts of data have been created with the old programs which cannot
(or only lossy) be transferred to the new program.

For free software we can point out that a program won't disappear
because the original maker has no interest in fixing a small bug --
someone else will do it. The fact that data formats and protocols
are usually very compatible between different free programs and
standard conformant, is more an effect of freedom, or rather
openness (like stability and price) -- though this doesn't make it a
bad thing and doesn't mean we shouldn't point it out as well.

Another freedom is the freedom to use the program for any purpose.
This is probably harder to explain to the many people who have never
read the licenses they're supposed to have agreed to, and therefore
don't even know what they may not do with their proprietary
software. And if we tell them about it, this may make us look
negative because (in their eyes) we see problems which are just
hypothetical to them.

But it seems like the proprietary companies are coming to help us
here. ;-)

- The DVD region codes and other limitations might be the clearest
  case of use restriction as seen by the average customer. Other
  efforts of the audio/video industry go in the same direction.
  While that's not directly about software, parallels are easy to

- I've read that the next version of windoze will require mandatory
  user registration, either by phone (which will be quite an
  inconvenience to many people, I think), or over the net (which
  transfers unknown amounts of information about the user's system,

- If something like UCITA ever becomes law in Europe (though I hope
  it won't) which allows companies to remotely remove "illegal"
  programs (even if there's only a suspicion, AFAIK) and effectively
  gives them more power over your computer than the police has (who
  needs a statement from a judge to raid your home and confiscate
  things), I think this will make quite a few people rather upset
  (unless they're totally dumbed down by then, and the proprietary
  companies are doing good work on this front)-:.

There are probably many more cases of effectively (to the end user
who doesn't read licenses) restricted usage. Maybe the release of
the next windoze will be a good time to start some pro-freedom
compaigns as a contrast ...

The other two freedoms (study the program; make improvements and
distribute them) overlap with your next point:

> Anyhow, second thing which I am quite often experiencing here is the fact
> to try to provide people not yet related to GNU/Linux and the GNU idea
> itself with information about where is the difference between "freeware"
> and "free software". I mean, how to explain this sort of "freedom" to
> someone who's not even aware of what "source code" actually is? I'd really
> need some argumentation help, in this point. :)

Yes, that's difficult. Let's face it, most computer users will never
learn C (or any other equally or more complex language) to a degree
so they can even roughly understand the source code of a typical
program (what's that? ;-).

Here's just some ideas:

- They can make "trivial" changes, e.g. correct some misspelled
  messages, replace them with a text they like more, change a menu
  order, a key binding etc. -- Some programs allow such
  configuration at runtime, but not in all (I think even most)
  cases. Searching for a text string in the source code and changing
  it is probably not too difficult for any user, and telling them
  that they can actually do this is surely (positively) surprising
  to them.

- They can ask someone else to do changes for them. Most users won't
  hire a professional programmer for cost reasons (at least not
  today; maybe in the future when requests can be pooled to get each
  one a lower price, and when effective micro-payment systems
  exist). But they can ask a programming friend in exchange for a
  favour, or ask in newsgroups etc. I think most people know what
  the chances are to get, say, M$ to implement a feature they want,
  so we can make a constrast here.

- When they get a change (by the ways described in the previous
  paragraphs or just by searching on the web) as a source diff, they
  can be somewhat more secure that it isn't malicious. Of course, a
  good cracker can easily hide a trojan from the eyes of a normal
  user, but chances for this are still smaller in a small source
  diff than when loading a new executable from the web (and in the
  worst case, access to the source makes it easier to recognize and
  fight the trojan).

- Portability. Most windoze users are probably firmly used to the
  idea that programs are written for one specific system. By telling
  them that (most) free programs are not written for Linux (or any
  other single system), but run on "basically any system" (perhaps
  even on windoze with cygwin or mingw) we can make the point that
  freedom also means choice (i.e., not only the choice between
  several free programs, but also that the choice of OS and other
  unrelated programs is not affected by an application program).
  (BTW, that's another good reason to emphasize GNU more than Linux

  There's also CPU portability. While most users probably won't ever
  use a Sparc, MIPS or Alpha workstation, the change to 64 bit CPUs
  will come, and we can demonstrate that we don't have to rely on
  inefficient 32 bit emulations to run our old programs (or 16 bit
  emulations on a 32 bit processor, for that matter ;-), or to wait
  for the authors to rewrite their programs for the new processor,
  we can just the existing programs using the full power of the

  (Yes, this is a little idealized -- I know that in practice there
  are some 64 bit problems, and autoconf is not a magic cure. But
  for "end users", that's not relevant here, I think, because before
  they get to try it, such problems will have been fixed by others.
  And the main point, that it's relatively easy to fix such a bug,
  as compared to rewriting the program for another system, remains


Frank Heckenbach, frank at
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