Non-libre, missing out, move along

I would like to recount if I may an experience I had earlier this week. I think it’s an example of the importance of software companies having to eventually accept the free-as-in-speech software business model, and the danger of alienation if they do not. First though, to set the scene...

Some time back the editors of Free Software Magazine, in their infinite wisdom, asked me to produce a newsletter recounting “Free Software Events” each month. The main purpose of the article to highlight any major releases in free software projects that may be significant that have occurred, or to to extol the virtues of any major advocacy, announcement or similar that was uttered, written or published by anyone during the month.

I, a long-toothed programmer who has somehow caught the urge to write prose, readily agreed to do this. Therefore, during each month I scour my favorite sites during office hours, read Slashdot and similar when I should be working and generally enjoy myself on the web all in the name of “research” for this newsletter. When something catches my eye that may be relevant, I then use the wonders of modern technology to record the data in my environment for retrieval and reporting on later—that is, I bung it into a Firefox bookmark folder.

For one of the items I came across this month, I dutifully selected “Bookmark→Bookmark this page” (one day I will get used to just to pressing CTRL-D) to store it away so that I might possibly write about in the newsletter. But, thinking about it now, I probably won’t. The item in question, as well as the inspiration of this entry, is the news of the release of the browser Opera 9. Why the pull? Well—it is not free software—or not “free-as-in-speech” anyway.

Opera seems to have a remarkably loyal and vocal following, and I am not arguing that it is an inferior browser technically. In fact, I am willing to believe that it is superior. It’s just that I will never use it. I neither use nor promote any “closed” (as in non-free/libre) software if I can help it. I use Firefox at the moment, and if I needed a fully ACID2 compliant browser I would probably use Konqueror. I would not do what I would consider as “polluting” my desktop by downloading a non-free browser no matter how good it was.

I do not believe I am the only one with this philosophy. According to Wikipedia’s Browser Share Page Firefox has approximately 10 percent of market share, and Opera has well under 1. The vast majority of each of these would be on MS-Windows machines, so neither browser would be pre-installed. And, I think the statistics show that people value the long term freedoms of free software and the assurances that go with it more than any short term feature or performance edge. After all, the wonders of Opera would be useless if the company went bust or decided to stop development of the browser. If Opera would open its software up I believe the uptake of that browser would be far higher, and also I believe that the increase of popularity would mean that revenue for that company would increase despite the “crown jewels” in the form of the source code being made public. MySQL are hardly going into receivership at the moment, and they release their database under the GPL.

The other effect of Opera being non-free is that I cannot rabbit on about it in my newsletter. Ah-well, I will just have to find other software releases, announcements and events to overshoot my word allocation...


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