Freedom, software monopolies and free software

Freedom and democracy are threatened by proprietary software in general and by Microsoft in particular. This relation is not immediately obvious. The following article will explain the social and political dimensions of proprietary software and those of the Microsoft software monopoly. The article will show how the free software movement and GNU/Linux will help to overcome the current situation and to re-establish freedom and independence for individuals, companies and countries. Suggestions will be made for actions to undertake for individuals, software developers and IT managers in order to regain their freedom.

Evolution and monopoly

Evolution in technology often assumes the following pattern: a given technical problem, a period of development, multiple competing solutions, dominance of one solution, its monopoly and exploitation, fall of the monopoly and finally liberation of the technology employed. The liberated technology then becomes the new state of the art and constitutes a base for further development. Hence, a new cycle can begin towards higher levels of sophistication.

As far as the technological evolution of software is concerned, this industry currently encounters many monopolies. They are maintained by mechanisms which lock customers into a company's software, depriving the customers of their freedom of choice. This is possible by keeping knowledge expressed in source code and interfaces inaccessible and closed. That type of software is generally referred to as proprietary software, or more correctly lock-in software. The most famous monopolist and proponent of such software is Microsoft.

Microsoft's software monopoly

Microsoft keeps evolution blocked in the monopoly stage and sets many actions to keep this status quo. For example, the company seems to succeed in making computer part manufacturers design their hardware to be compatible exclusively with Microsoft's software. Computer manufacturers ship computers pre-installed with Microsoft's operation system, concealing the operating system price. In addition, Microsoft corrupts countries and governments through financial support, either in cash, or by gifts such as computers for schools, pre-installed with Microsoft's operating system and application software. This is the seed for generations of dependent computer users. It is a shame that the company even succeeds in selling this publicity and tax preemption action as social activity, and even worse: people fall into this trap by believing.

The malicious policy does not stop at the operating system level. File formats employed in Microsoft's software change regularly over time and are kept proprietary. Any Microsoft document can only be read by its proprietary software. This could be compared to offering books for which a special device is needed for reading a device which in turn can only be purchased from a single supplier. Since both the source code of the programs is not available and the format itself is not public, a user won't be able to read old documents when new versions of the proprietary software won't support the old format any more. As a result, thousands of corporate documents will be inaccessible in the future!

All in all, a vicious circle is created which keeps users locked into Microsoft's products. The users are hostages of a cycle imposed by Microsoft: updates of the operating system, upgrades of application software, finally costly hardware upgrades of the computer and its peripherals. Microsoft abuses this monopoly situation through its licensing scheme, which makes one rather think of taxes, or tolls being taken from the users.

The social and political dimension of proprietary software and monopoly

Generalizing from the case of Microsoft, software evolution is apparently stuck in the phase of monopoly and exploitation. Fortunately, now people start to become aware of the political dimensions of proprietary software in general, and a monopoly in operating systems and office software in particular. What are these political dimensions then?

Everybody would agree that resources such as water or power supply, news and telephones, etc must not be in control of a single, global entity. Therefore, in democratic states and countries, political power is distributed: mutual control mechanisms avoid power concentration and its abuse, in particular for essential resources. It is less obvious for most computer users, however, that a computer operating system and its application software constitute essential resources, a neuralgic point in a modern world based on information exchange. Why? A computer operating system and application software are processing private, public and corporate information. This information processing takes place in many places, for instance in banks, health systems, governments, media etc. In proprietary operating systems and software, however, the originator among other things can leave back doors. Through these doors he can control, monitor and influence the information flows without being noticed. Consequently, the one who knows how to control information flow, can control the world.

As an example, if proprietary software is used to calculate the results of elections, the calculations cannot be verified. From here other worst case scenarios can be imagined, think of credit card information, health status files in public or corporate computers, private data on home computers, all being monitored unnoticeably! The information processing cannot be verified due to the closed source nature of the software employed. Thus facing Microsoft's monopoly, all economic independence, or even national defense of free countries becomes ridiculous. In this light, the social and political implication of a proprietary computer operating system and software in general becomes obvious.

From free standards to free software

One should admit that it would be convenient to have a single computer operating system, or a single graphical user interface as well as a single standard for documents. It is convenient to have a standard in many fields, in particular when the subject is exchange of information. In many cases this is what a software user really wants, standards.

When no standard is defined, but proprietary technology is widely used, a so-called de-facto standard evolves. This, however, is not a real standard, but nothing more than a monopoly. A true standard must not be controlled by a single entity. It needs to be established by a set of political or economic entities, it is the result of a consensus, or is a de-facto standard if the originator yields control. In order to be accepted as a standard, a computer operating system or any other uniform software has to fulfill one condition: the technology employed must be free, i.e. it is accessible by everyone, owned by the public and not by a single economic entity. All document formats must be free and under public control, too. Then a user can choose which implementation is most convenient for his purpose.

Going a step further will lead to a new paradigm: free software. The term "free" often leads to a misunderstanding by confusing it with "for free" or "at no cost", like in "free beer". Free software does not claim to result in no costs at all. Free software rather means that freedom is given to the user to run, share, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. This freedom is guaranteed by a license. Consequently, the software source code must be available, accessible and open. Open source is a consequence of the free software paradigm, but not a sufficient condition. Nevertheless, the copyright on the code added to the existing source code is still in action. By adhering to free software, nations, companies and individuals would re-gain their freedom automatically. If companies built their business and software development on free software, technological evolution and economy could be boosted incredibly, because at any moment companies can build their software on previous achievements and development on common components is shared.

Sharing knowledge is already widely used in science with huge success. A simple example comes from mathematics, the well-known rule of Pythagoras: A2 + B2 = C2. This equation is free technology, even though it wasn't more than two thousand years ago. This information is stored in libraries and is public. If somebody needs the application of the formula to a specific problem, a service company can offer a solution. The same should hold for software; it should be considered rather as service and not as product in the classical sense of a material entity. Software as service is an immediate consequence of the free software paradigm and has been well understood by big companies such as IBM, SUN and HP.

The path to free software

To solve the situation with proprietary software, companies could yield control over all their software, make it free software and become service companies, or even hardware manufacturers. Concerning Microsoft, there is even no need for the firm at all. A lot of free software can be found on the Internet for a complete replacement of the Microsoft software portfolio:

The code maturity and completeness of most free software and open source projects has reached a critical mass where considering such solutions becomes interesting from an economics standpoint. For instance, a proprietary office workstation based on MS Windows, MS Outlook and MS Office can meanwhile be entirely replaced by a complete free version, with GNU/Linux, Evolution and OpenOffice, respectively. License fees being paid to Microsoft by companies and public institutions can then be deployed for supporting local economies, for customizing free software to local needs. Calculating the economic balance for a country or company will help to understand this situation. China and Peru understood already: they employ GNU/Linux on a national scale. Free software is easily accessible and financially feasible for developing countries, but also guarantees their information technological independence.

Closing the gap

How can freedom be regained? On the one hand there is the international community of free software with thousands of software packages waiting on the Internet. On the other hand the majority of individuals, system administrators and most IT managers are not knowledgeable in free software. They are used to dealing with proprietary business practice and to pay for system and office software unnecessarily. For this reason a bridge is necessary between the business world and the communities of developers and pioneer users. Several actions can help:

Declare the national commemoration or Independence Day of your country as your personal day of independence from the proprietary burden, as day of freedom for free software! Contribute to making the 21th century to be the one when free software emerged.

Informations on Free Software can be obtained from the Free Software Foundation, information on Linux on www.linux.org.