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Drawing the Line

Well, I've come to a conclusion on my personal conflict with supporting a Linux distribution that uses and ships with non-free software. I don't have a problem with it. In fact, quite to the contrary. I think it is wonderful that Ubuntu ships it. And I don't think that Ubuntu stifles innovation, as this article wants to argue. But that's beside the point of this post. Here, I want to publicly announce where I am personally drawing the line between my usage of free and non-free software.

I believe that the professional market will be using non-free software for years to come. Even with the major movements of the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative, and the popularity of such software, it will be years before we begin to see F/OSS in corporations on a major level. So, with that said, I have no problem using non-free software as needed to complete the tasks needed at my employment.

However, I should seek employment that is F/OSS friendly. On my workstation(s), I should be able to seek out the opportunities to use free software whenever possible. This means replacing Microsoft Office with, replacing Internet Explorer with Mozilla Firefox, replacing Outlook with Thunderbird/Evolution and so on. Luckily, I work in such an environment.

This one I struggle with a little bit, because I look at school as not only the opportunity to get an education and graduate, but also to proselyte the good word of free software. The problem lies in the education, however. What happens when I have a professor that wants a document saved in a proprietary format, like Word or Excel? Or what if a professor wants program code that compiles using VisualStudio.NET? If I want the grade, I need to comply. I recognize that.

But I also know that I can help other students and professors see the power and advantage of free software by just being an example. I'm not talking about forcing others to use it, but rather, through my use of saving a document in ODF, for example, I can enlighten others that such options exist.

So at this point, wherever possible on campus, I will use free software, but if I need to use non-free software to get the grade, then so be it.

Lastly, the most complicated and thoroughly thought through decision that I made in this journey. To start, I needed to identify where, if at all, I was using non-free software. Then I needed to evaluate my time in using free alternatives, if possible. To my surprise, I am using non-free software more than free software, and I guarantee that you are too.

For example, your cell phone. Chances are, your cell uses non-free software. As does your graphing calculator, microwave, automobile, television, video game console, PDA, DVD player, digital watch, MP3 player, alarm clock, and just about anything else electronic in your home. Surprised? I was. I had no idea that I was using non-free software so much. Do I care? You bet! It really bothers me on many levels, but is it worth my time to seek out and use free alternatives? In some areas, yes, in most, no. For example, I personally don't know of DVDs that use free software. And being a large movie buff (my collection extends past 300), it's not worth seeking out free alternatives, if they exist.

So what makes my computer any different? Why am I so concerned about 1 appliance in the home, and the others, not so much? The simple fact that my personal data is being stored and transmitted using that device. Everything from email to online banking. Web browsing to music tastes. The amount of data that can identify me using my computer is frankly scary. Even with all the protective and preventative measures that I take to secure it.

So, because my data is what is important, then that should ultimately be the deciding factor on where I should and shouldn't use free software. Once I recognized that, it was easy.

Every device in my home, aside from the personal computer, uses software on the hardware level, or firmware. The software to power the calculations on your HP or TI calculator is an example of firmware. Most firmware does not carry any data that can be identified or traced back to you, such as the firmware in your alarm clock or microwave, for example. So, that is where I made the crucial decision on how and where to use non-free software.

Hardware drivers, software that powers hardware directly, or firmware, can be non-free. To me, this is very clear. It means video, sound, mouse, keyboard, cdrom, printer, etc. drivers. If there is a free solution, of course I will seek it out and weigh in the pros and cons of using it. Fortunately, everything powering the hardware on my computers at home is free software. But, if the call to use non-free software is needed, only on the hardware level, then that is fine. The OS, kernel, and collection of software that does not power or drive hardware MUST be free. I guess I am saying that I am recognizing a balance between proprietary and open software. I advocate the use of free software whenever possible, be it personal, academic or professional.

Finally, I have no problem supporting the Ubuntu distribution, even if non-free software is present. Ubuntu is trying to penetrate the commercial market as a viable and free desktop and server replacement. As such, as mentioned earlier, non-free software will ultimately need to be used. I also support Ubuntu as my personal distribution due to it's active efforts to bring Linux to millions of Africans in schools, centers, and even homes. The sheer amount of cash that Mark Shuttleworth has spent making this happen so African children can have an education is impressive, and note-worthy. Ubuntu is my distro of choice, and always will be.

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