From Freeloader to Free Software Advocate

Posted by dcparris on May 15, 2006 7:11 AM EDT; By DC Parris
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  LXer Feature: 15-May-06

When I first discovered GNU/Linux, all I knew was that I could have an operating system, office suite, and use the Internet - all for the cost of a book. I thought that everyone should know about this "Linux" stuff. I Initially found all this "free as in freedom, not free beer" stuff confusing. Eventually, though, I came to see how Free Software philosophy impacted my computing experience.

In the beginning...

...I was a freeloader. My first PC came with DOS 6.22 & Windows 3.11, a couple of games, a typing tutor, and not much else. The basic software included was sophisticated enough to help me accomplish my goals. I was trying to use a computer to improve my life, but the software that could have helped me overcome my financial limitations was, itself, a financial obstacle. I learned to get by with freeware, shareware, and just about any kind of ware I could afford on my limited budget.

My family had done what they could by helping with my computer purchase. Over time I was able to get legitimately licensed copies of Windows and Office from a friend who had gone to work for Microsoft. The problem with depending on family and friends at Microsoft, though, is that I was, well, dependent. Bootlegging copies of the typical non-free program is more hassle than it's worth, even if you never get caught. I needed something better than freeware and shareware.

When I discovered GNU/Linux, the only thing I really understood was that I was getting an operating system with more capabilities than Windows 98, a full-fledged office suite, a choice of web browsers and, literally, hundreds of other programs that I could use. I didn't understand the "free as in freedom" bit. I was looking at the costs. Windows XP and Office 2000 cost over $500 together, off-the-shelf. A complete GNU/Linux system cost between $30-$80. Even though I had gotten both through my friend at Microsoft, I understood full well that I would be able to break my dependence on him using GNU/Linux. This freeloading Microsoft junkie was beginning to see the light.

When I got my second computer in 2000, I had been learning about Red Hat Linux 5.1. I also tried Mandrake Linux before settling with SUSE Linux. Even though I was using Windows 98 primarily, I introduced a few people to Red Hat Linux through classes I taught at church. Later, I tried to convince a local church to use Mandrake Linux. By the time we launched our house-church ministry in 2002, I was comfortable enough to choose SUSE Linux 8.0 as the primary OS for the ministry. When we received a donation of several computers, we replaced the old Windows NT 4.0 systems using a single copy of SUSE Linux 8.0. Even so, the cost of software licenses is only one piece of the puzzle.

The Hardware Challenges

One of the key factors that led me to ditch the Microsoft platform was hardware problems. For some reason, installing my Hewlitt-Packard USB printer on Windows 98 while revamping my system failed. The routine completed without a hint of error, but the system could not find the printer. Following the un-install steps suggested by the troubleshooting guide failed to cast out the demon driver. Calling on the tech gods at HP and Microsoft proved to be an exercise in vanity.

After over a week of trying in vain to solve the printer driver issue, I simply re-installed the operating system. I discovered that GNU/Linux was much less vulnerable to such problems. There was no mysterious registry in which a printer driver could hide so completely as to baffle the developers that created it. By itself, however, this would not have driven me to the GNU/Linux platform, much less to the FOSS community.

One of the key issues that drove me to GNU/Linux and FOSS involved my CD burner. My burner came with some "lite" version of CD burning software. The software vendor apparently included a time bomb that prevented me from re-installing the program after a certain date. Thus, when I chose to upgrade my system to Windows XP using the "full" edition (rather than an upgrade), I discovered that I could no longer install my CD burner software. The software vendor, by virtue of their time bomb, was preventing me from using the hardware I owned. Only because I had made a full system backup that included a functioning installation of the CD burning software was I able to continue using it - and then only under Windows 98.

With fear and trepidation, I eventually figured out how to burn CDs under GNU/Linux. It was at this point that I began using Windows less and less. When I finally chose to migrate from SUSE Linux 8.0 to 9.2, I left the Windows world - with all of its costly software and hardware issues behind me. Even though the FOSS community definitely endures the scorn of some hardware vendors, users can generally expect at least basic functionality from most hardware. I have yet to run into a situation where I was locked out of my hardware because I was not willing to pay upwards of $80 to use something I already had a right to use.

Discovering Freedom

Naturally, the ability to run multiple computers in our ministry, with no worries about licensing issues, made me want to shout "Hallelujah!" I thought more people should know about this stuff. So I set out to write "Penguin in the Pew" to let others know the benefits of FOSS. It was then that I ran into all the confusion about "Free" and "Open Source". My initial efforts at understanding FOSS led to confusion in the first edition of my book, "Penguin in the Pew". It was through my reading the GNU philosophy pages, Richard Stallman's essays, his biography, and my e-mail encounters with him that I discovered the whole reason he wrote the GNU tools was so we could have a completely free system.

The discovery that freedom was the goal behind Stallman's GNU Project was my technological "Damascus Road" experience. It came slowly, but I began to realize that my previous frustrations were solved, not by money, but by freedom. It is true the software was available at no cost. Still, I had paid money for my copies of GNU/Linux. The freedom to modify the source code and share the program were what had empowered me. And I have used my new-found freedom wisely, giving back through CHADDB, providing documentation and tutorials, and even sharing with others the software I use.

Clicking the "I Agree" button like it was a Pez candy toy has a price I won't pay again. Not being able use the device I own taught me an important lesson. If a software vendor's license restricts my ability to manage my computer and peripheral devices, I won't buy or use it. Requiring me to allow you to snoop around on my computer, especially without a warrant obtained on legal grounds, is an unwarranted intrusion of my privacy, and ultimately, my freedom. While all of us are free to tolerate and submit to such restrictions, none of us should. Every person who gives up their own freedom makes it easier for others to do the same.

When I think about the principle of sharing, I would rather find other ways of making money than by prohibiting others from sharing. Telling someone they should not share their software runs counter to everything I believe. After all, part of my life's calling is to encourage people to share their food, clothing, even their hard-earned money. So to tell them they cannot share their software seems backwards and hypocritical. While people have not stopped sharing everything, we have, in fact, become a more self-centered society. At least my Pa and Richard Stallman will agree on that much.

Can't we find a way to distribute software without resorting to royalties? Some people actually act as if allowing sharing robs the developers of their money. But wouldn't you agree that, if money can be made without prohibiting sharing, we ought to seek that higher road? At the very least, I think it is a worthwhile goal to seek out other ways of profiting from our investment. I have no means by which to force you to take the higher road. I can only point out that there is a higher road, and suggest that you might consider taking it.

» Read more about: Story Type: Editorial, LXer Features; Groups: Community, GNU

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
advocacy phubert 0 1,382 May 16, 2006 8:00 AM
The funny thing is this... dinotrac 3 2,399 May 16, 2006 7:03 AM
Excellent article wind0wsr3fund 17 1,669 May 16, 2006 5:22 AM
Great story jabby 0 1,673 May 16, 2006 5:09 AM

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