Windows 10, GNU and actual “open-ness”?
Business as usual, one could say… All along with the announcement of Microsoft Windows 10 being released, I found an FSF statement on Windows 10 in my inbox, boiling down to what I by now consider the usual statements, like outlining that privacy and personal freedom is important, that it is important to choose software that respects these aspects, and that, from this point of view, convincing your friends to at least try a Software Libre operating system such as GNU/Linux is a good thing. So far, so good. Personally, I have made a decision on that issue quite a while ago, which by now also has turned to be a technical thing: I will keep using GNOME on top of GNU/Linux as my main working vehicle for as long as somewhat possible as not just it is Software Libre but also because it’s closest to my ideas of how a computer should work, look, feel like. Still, I wonder whether the FSF recently could use some adjustments in its strategy…
… because basically: Does Windows really matter that much? There is a bunch of interesting aspects to consider, from my point of view. First and foremost, of course, there is something such as this news bulletin released a few days ago announcing that effectively IBM is about to deploy Apple MacBook hardware internally, which might be all about replacing replacing Windows based hardware with machines running on top of Apples MacOS X operating system platform. All along with this, recently I have seen quite a bunch of people not at all starting into Windows based computing but actually buying and using MacOS X based environments. There might be reasons for that, but from a Software Libre point of view, this doesn’t seem much better.
Same goes for something completely else: For quite a while now, people are predicting a decline in general PC and notebook devices as more and more people are switching to using mobile equipment such as tablets (dominated by Google Android and Apple iOS) and smartphones (with the same major players). Microsoft Windows so far doesn’t really matter in this market. Neither does Software Libre (apart from the fact that Android is at least an open source environment and that there are some ways to run an Android system without too much proprietary software). However, being “in control” of one of these devices to the same extent one is “in control” of a desktop system or a laptop running GNU/Linux still is pretty much an illusion. From that point of view, dealing with Microsoft Windows seems the least important thing to do.
Finally: In 2015, GNU/Linux makes for quite a good desktop system even though a majority still doesn’t care. After all, in my day-to-day work, 90% of my time are spent using an e-mail client and a web browser. For both applications, the operating system running on my machine doesn’t matter that much. These days, an increasing amount of applications people are using are browser-based, hosted solutions that run online, store data on some server, are essentially not “software” the way your fathers old Microsoft Office used to be “software” (a binary package downloaded, installed and made to run on your local machine). In quite some of these environments, people are locked into quite strict TOS agreements that make some of the old software EULAs you had to agree with when installing an application looking rather dim. However, talking browser based services, most of our current ideas of Software Libre might apply but they don’t matter much for end users while talking about privacy, security or freedom because most of the current Software Libre movement seems about freedom of code, code that you can use while being granted with the four freedoms elementary to Software Libre licenses.
That’s nice. But, in example, while talking about social networks, or communication apps: This doesn’t help. At all. Sure, there are Software Libre or open approaches to provide the same functionality and features provided by major services such as Facebook or Twitter. But, even being the software developer I am: When it comes to social networks, I do not want to “roll my own”. I do not want to be required to run a custom server, install a custom piece of software – to end up being in a social network that doesn’t allow me to communicate with the people I want to communicate with, because everyone out there’s using different “walled garden” services. In this case, Software Libre and open licenses are pretty much important, but they don’t solve the problem. The problem in this case is not that, talking Facebook or Twitter, the software running these services is not available as Software Libre. The problem with these services is that they keep users locked in, that they make it astoundingly difficult to communicate with users while not being part of the service. This is nasty, and, reading this article on wired.com yesterday, it seems I’m not the only one increasingly annoyed about this problem (even though the wired.com writer draws a disputable conclusion here).
Solution to these problems is not providing bits to roll your own social network / messaging environment / communication platform; solution to this problem would be providing truly “open” hosted and ready-to-use environment for these purposes which, feature-wise, are on par with the established competitors, provide at least the same user experience (including things such as mobile apps, usability, stability, …) and, overally, are real, working, usable alternative to people who so far use any of the existing services. This is not so much about Software Libre or FOSS licensing – it is by far more about truly open standards, about interoperability and applications, platforms, services being able, willing, motivated, eventually forced (by customer demand) to talk to each other. Especially this kind of customer awareness, these days, is pretty much missing. These days, mostly it seems to break down to using a particular app for something (communication, music, imaging, …) without thinking much about aspects such as privacy or being locked in into a particular business model or technology – personally, in example, so far I fail to understand how to listen to music that is bought only through some sort of streaming provider and which can’t even effectively be downloaded to a device and listened to without being connected to some sort of network and logged into some particular application. In these fields, “Libre” alternatives aren’t just rare, they seem to be completely missing. And maybe raising awareness for this, in 2015, might be way more important than pondering whether or not Windows 10 is a good or bad thing…