Ubuntu: Does Freedom Matter?
Whenever I read the Ubuntu philosophy, I feel warm and fuzzy inside knowing that I’m ostensibly part of a community that champions sharing and transparency. Then the pessimist in my head tells me the only reason I use Ubuntu is because it doesn’t cost money, and I’m cheap. For the four years that I’ve been an Ubuntu user, I’ve grappled with this question: how important is it that Ubuntu is Free, and not just free?
While I’d like to say I switched to Linux because I cared deeply about software freedom, the truth is that I had no idea what open-source meant–or what exactly source code was, for that matter–when I booted my first live CD. Instead, I installed Linux (first Mandriva, then Fedora, now Ubuntu) because I was a college student with a very negative income, and I was tired of paying for software. So I admit it: I gave Linux a try only because I’m a cheapskate.
After becoming more invested in the Linux community and learning more about computers, I eventually gained a genuine appreciation for the free-software movement. Its principles just made a lot of sense, and the fact that “normal” people like me could be fully productive using only open-source software convinced me that there was something deeply problematic with the fact that most of my neighbors signed their souls away to corporate America in order to browse the Internet.
But the commitment to software freedom that slowly grew on me doesn’t obviate the fact that I originally became an Ubuntu user for financial reasons–or that the single surest deal-breaker for me as an Ubuntu user would be for Canonical to start charging for the operating system, even if the source remained open.
Why Freedom Matters
Considering the relative weight of financial motivations, as opposed to philosophical ones, in driving Linux adoption is more than just a rhetorical question, or a chance to probe one’s inner-self. It’s also an issue to which the community’s leaders should pay more attention, in order to understand how to sustain Linux growth into the future (if that’s their goal).
Joe Panettieri wrote recently on this site about measuring Ubuntu’s user base. If there’s one point that Canonical’s leaders should take away from his post, it’s that they need to gather more information. After all, as some French theorist claimed, knowledge is power. If Canonical wants to fulfill Mark Shuttleworth’s commitment to “put Ubuntu and free software on every single consumer PC that ships from a major manufacturer,” it needs to know more about why exactly people are using Ubuntu.
This is an issue that is too often overlooked. The hardcore free-software geeks assume that the only reason anyone would use Linux is because it’s the near-fulfillment of Richard Stallman’s dream (the completion of his actual dream, of course, remains T.B.A.). At the same time, the pragmatists among us forget that for some people, there’s more to life than money, and that Ubuntu’s cost is not its chief attraction for many users. The community tends to become polarized along the money-vs.-philosophy divide, with each side forgetting the other’s existence.
How can Canonical measure the motivations of Ubuntu users? Not easily, perhaps. But one approach that might be effective would be to include questions on this topic in its surveys of Ubuntu Server users. How does the openness of Ubuntu’s code factor into decisions between using Windows, Red Hat, Solaris, Ubuntu or what have you on servers?
The opinions of desktop users are harder to assess, but there are plenty of forums within the Ubuntu community where this issue could be discussed.
Canonical could also try surveying its desktop users, which it has never attempted, to my knowledge. I vaguely recall filling out a short form when I became a Mandriva user explaining why I had made that choice. I’ve always thought it was curious that Canonical seems less interested in gathering concrete information about the nature of the Ubuntu community.
Whatever strategy it adopts, Canonical–and the Ubuntu community as a whole–would do well to think harder about why exactly we choose to use Ubuntu. It will teach us more about ourselves, and just might help bring Ubuntu to more people, too.