DISCLAIMER: The correct term for the software is "free software", and "GNU/Linux" for the GNU operating system with the kernel Linux. I echo some incorrect terms below.
We have to work on a lab report for Physics class. I am trying to build Mandrake RPMs for omniORB, in the process of getting binary Fresco into contrib (only to find later that omniorb is already in contrib). I say I'll be over after this build, wait for the packaging to fail, power down, and head over, GNU notebook over shoulder.
Almost right away, he starts complaining about "Linux". The unenlightened one, I mean. I mean, they all are, pretty much :), but him especially. How it took forever (days and days, I guess) to install on Sean's tricked-out computer behind me. And they'd have to babysit the install. And how every piece of hardware added would mess up something else.
"That's GNU/Linux, not Linux, Linux is just a kernel, not the operating system....." my voice trails off. It doesn't really seem to make a difference anyway. I'm starting up my week-old Debian GNU/Linux installation. The one that already has sound working, even though it's only a week old. It took me 7 months on Mandrake GNU/Linux, not that I cared much. So much for hardware autodetect. Whoops, I don't have KWord installed in Debian yet, no network connection around here, gotta switch back to Mandrake.
(Not that he's stopped ranting all this time, though it only pops up about every minute or so. I have some trouble with fonts; the correct symbols aren't available in KFormula. I discovered how to fix this, so please refrain from offering solutions. And he starts complaining about manuals, how `Linux' comes with like a 1000 page manual (huh?). Ever-helpful Open Sourcer (who only uses Windows) mentions the man pages (yeah, those count). "I bet you could find the answer in Windows Help. `Shame on you for using Linux [sic], but here's the answer.'")
"GNU/Linux is Free Software, and Windows is not! There is no....Windows doesn't even come close in that area! That is a good enough reason to use it." I don't remember exactly what went on here, but I'm sure it had something to do with "free" misinterpretation. Why explain it? "Do you even know what I mean when I say `Free Software'?" Judging by his answer, no. "No, you don't, and if you don't even know what Free Software then how can you claim to know anything about the operating system you call `Linux'?"
Well, either he realizes that he missed something really important when he learned about GNU/Linux (it wouldn't surprise me if he didn't know about GNU at all, BTW), or he's decided that arguing with someone who obviously cares alot more is a waste of breath.
Wait a while.
"So, what do you mean by `Free Software' anyway?"
I offer him the triplet: "copy/modify/distribute", and "study" for good measure. Incredibly, the Open Sourcers kick around sharing for a minute.
But our target amazingly drops all this; "I can't read source code or change it, so I can't do anything with it, so what is the difference between that and what I use now?"
Unproductively, I see in retrospect, I seize on this: "See! This is exactly why the term `open source' is bad. People think it means `you get to see/change the source code'. Big deal! You know, Microsoft uses this in its attacks against Free Software; they say `most people don't really need to see/change the source code, so that is not a benefit'." This is mostly a sidetrack. The open sourcers say "well, you could have someone else change it for you, or pay someone to do it".
I start describing vendor independence, and how proprietary software locks you in, and free software gives you choice, and if maintainers become recalcitrant (a much abused word by me) the community can change them, etc.
More vaguely, Free Software puts you in control of your computer. Complete control. Spyware, etc. They mention how malicious features in Free Software can be removed by the community, but you don't know with proprietary software. We have another little sidetrack, where I make sure that noone's going to upgrade Real or WMP ever again. I forgot the KaZaA thing....
One of them brings up Palladium, mentions how it's a way for owners ("ahem...copyright holders") to control their [sic] stuff. I put it as succinctly as I can: "Palladium is a system with which other people decide what you can and can't do on your computer."
This isn't enough for our shadowed human being, though. He wants a specific example of something that would immediately be different (i.e. better) with Linux [sic]. (The Open Sourcers switched to `GNU/Linux' after several interruptions from me on the importance of this rewording; anyone who says RMS doesn't get anywhere by harping on this is lying to you. Good thing, because I had argued it with one of them several months ago, and he offered no real logical reason why it should be called `Linux'.)
Besides increased stability, power, etc? (Those don't count.) Palladium/LaGrande? That's not his current computer, it's his next computer. (Talk about short-term thinking.)
One of the Open Sourcers mentions that it's really more of a philosophy; that's where the value is. Philosophy != right now? Well, you can share software...he does that now. I guess he doesn't understand that `illegal' is not such a simple option in most cases. Uncomfortable moment passes, as it's hard to argue in the face of that.
It is, though! Well, not so much the philosophy itself, but the kind of community that it breeds. The Free Software community is cooperative. People help out, they volunteer, they don't make things exclusive. OT, I think most of why most Free Software is noncommercial is because people don't care. Forget the noosphere; shut up and look at the community.
But you can't really understand this until you've been there. I mention this, but of course it doesn't help. So here is the analogy I offer him: consider a society under autocratic government versus a democratic society (quite a valid analogy). In principle, their "immediate" differences are nil. Yet there is a marked difference in what people seem to be able to do. It's not specific! But you know it's there, and you aren't willing to give up that vague notion that something is better this way.
I know that's how I feel about being a part of GNU. And whatever that difference is, I'm sure it has something to do with software freedom. I can't put my finger on it exactly, but I'm not going back to the way things were before. It's just too bad that I can't explain it so well, in the hope that those others could join me.
Copyright (C) 2003 Stephen Compall. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.