Everybody has his/her own reason for using Free Software. Unfortunately, my favorite reason seems to be among the most “FUDed” by proprietary software companies. (Behind “Lowering the TCO”) I personally believe the most important aspect of Free Software is the advancement of society.
Proprietary software companies in power today will probably tell you just the opposite. “Society can never advance without proprietary software,” they say. “Nobody would pay developers to write the software if money could not be earned directly from its sale.” I could go into how companies have managed to get rich by doing exactly that, but I won’t. Instead, think of it this way. The cost to develop the software is actually very low. Take a look at any company you want. You will see that the actual programmers make up a very very small percentage of the staff. Most companies don’t release enough data about this kind of thing to actually make that well known. I sure wish I could reveal what percentage of a certain proprietary software company’s staff are developers. (cough Infinite Campus cough) I have, however, been inside the headquarters for a small to medium sized publicly traded proprietary software company. I can assure you that the support team, a group of 4-6 people sitting in a cubical room, was about the same size, if not a little bigger, than the team of developers in the development cubical. The other 85% of the company went to managing everything. I wish I had the exact numbers, but I don’t. I can assure you it made the developers themselves seem irrelevant, which they may have been. I would be willing to bet that the rest of that team could sell you the next version of that flagship piece of software with no technical changes whatsoever. In fact, I could almost guarantee it.
My point is that very little money actually goes to funding development. The money you spend on proprietary software is used, mainly, to try to get you to buy the update in the future. There are plenty of people in the Free Software world that could get you to use and/or donate to a certain project. Just do a Google search on “Best Open Source Applications” and see how many you get. People promote their favorite Free Software applications because they think they are great, and that enough people don’t know about them. To properly understand the quantity of promotion that goes on, do a search under “‘you should use firefox’” (in quotes). At the time of writing, 16,900 results are returned! Even the phrase “‘I hate george bush’” (in quotes) returns less than half the number of results from the former search. Remember, though, that this is only one way of saying you advocate for a single piece of Free Software. (Wording it as “‘I love firefox’” in quotes returns 206,000 results at the time of writing.) The marketing expense that costs proprietary software companies so much money is annihilated. Packaging is gone as well, with prepackaged versions only generating additional income. If the only thing that was paid for was the programming and packaging cost, Microsoft Office would most likely be under $20.
The problem is that companies are sticking to old-world techniques, partially because the government is allowing them to do so. Companies are treating their software as if it is a commodity. They have yet to take advantage of the efficiency that can be achieved now. While using these old methods, society will never advance. Instead of everyone working on developing similar applications, they keep reinventing the wheel. According to Michael Tiemann, Red Hat Vice President, the world loses over $1 trillion ever year due to proprietary software. When you think about it, though, this is not that big of a number. Think of any software industry. They all have two or more big proprietary “overlords” that do essentially the same thing, with several other less powerful proprietary alternatives which are often either more lightweight or add some significant feature. Take the media player market for instance. iTunes/Quicktime, Windows Media Player, and Real Player dominate this market. Other than support for various format and services, these players differ very little. They all just reinvented the wheel.
Had all of the money these media player developers received from their products been used to develop the software, it may be a different story. Instead, though, a huge amount of money goes into the costs associated with competing against one another. On top of those costs, of course, we have the cost of actually programming the nearly identical application.
There is another problem with their theory, though. They call what they are doing “advancing society’s technology” to give their employees a warm fuzzy feeling that they are actually doing something for the benefit of the general public. I suppose it is kind-of sort-of possible to confuse the advancement of technology with developing proprietary software, but the two are so different!
Think of it this way. Lets say we figure out how to send things back in time. We send a modern high powered computer back to the year 1900 (along with a “using computers for dummies” book for the sake of this example). This would, in many ways, be like the proprietary software we have in society today. The people that received the computer would have access to something that does wonderful things. It would not, in any way shape or form however, advance their technology. The people would hail it as a miracle, and be able to do a few useful things with it. No matter what happened, these people would never really figure out how that computer worked. Without the skills and equipment to create it, those people would never be able to actually create another computer like that. When the cheap hard drive died, everyone would be back in the same position they were in before it was invented.
How about we magically solve this problem? Instead of sending just one computer back in time, lets send 1 million of the most high powered desktop computer we have today. Wouldn’t that work? In reality, this may have a negative effect. With such a high quantity of computers available, people would see no need for developing the technology. No early computer would have ever existed, because what would be the point of something like ENIAC, especially with so many higher powered computers available? Without these groundbreaking discoveries, related inventions would have never happened either, because the required technology would have never been developed and fully understood. The communication age would never have taken place. In addition, when the last of those million computers finally died, the world would be left with less than it started with. Do you really think “computing machines” would continue to be developed after so many years of living with their extremely high powered descendants?
Proprietary Software works exactly the same way. When we use proprietary software, our lives are being dictated by a corporation. We are not able to build on what has been created by those companies just because they believe it will make them a little bit of extra money. We are not able to study and understand was has been created for the same reason. What is money worth? Obviously quite a bit to some people. The other less obvious thing that it gives that company is power. With the computer time-travel example above, imagine what would happen if all of those computers were put in a large locked warehouse, and only one person was given the key? It would give that person power. More power than he/she would know what to do with. It would give him/her the amount of power that proprietary software companies have today.
To get to the point, am I advocating for socialism? No. I am saying that proprietary software corporations are idiots. In American history, it was the goal of progressive presidents like Theodore Roosevelt to limit the power of corporations by making it wise for them to serve the public. The same must be done in today’s society. No government has managed to achieve this yet, and I’m not holding out much hope that it will ever happen. Therefore, we must take it upon ourselves to use only Free Software, and convince everybody possible of its importance. Once the general public understands, companies will adapt to society with no government intervention necessary. We already have a gigantic web of software that is, in many cases, better than its proprietary counterparts. It is not enough, though. The mass of proprietary software is bigger. To stand a chance, it’s going to take some elbow grease.
P.S. – Please keep in mind that not all corporations are guilty of the above charges; however, the vast majority are at fault.