What is the risk of using proprietary software for people who prefer not to?
Jonas Öberg has recently blogged about Using Proprietary Software for Freedom. He argues that it can be acceptable to use proprietary software to further free and open source software ambitions if that is indeed the purpose. Jonas' blog suggests that each time proprietary software is used, the relative risk and reward should be considered and there may be situations where the reward is big enough and the risk low enough that proprietary software can be used.
A question of leadership
Many of the free software users and developers I've spoken to express frustration about how difficult it is to communicate to their family and friends about the risks of proprietary software. A typical example is explaining to family members why you would never install Skype.
Imagine a doctor who gives a talk to school children about the dangers of smoking and is then spotted having a fag at the bus stop. After a month, if you ask the children what they remember about that doctor, is it more likely to be what he said or what he did?
When contemplating Jonas' words, it is important to consider this leadership factor as a significant risk every time proprietary software or services are used. Getting busted with just one piece of proprietary software undermines your own credibility and posture now and well into the future.
Research has shown that when communicating with people, what they see and how you communicate is ninety three percent of the impression you make. What you actually say to them is only seven percent. When giving a talk at a conference or a demo to a client, or communicating with family members in our everyday lives, using a proprietary application or a product or service that is obviously proprietary like an iPhone or Facebook will have far more impact than the words you say.
It is not only a question of what you are seen doing in public: somebody who lives happily and comfortably without using proprietary software sounds a lot more credible than somebody who tries to explain freedom without living it.
The many faces of proprietary software
One of the first things to consider is that even for those developers who have a completely free operating system, there may well be some proprietary code lurking in their BIOS or other parts of their hardware. Their mobile phone, their car, their oven and even their alarm clock are all likely to contain some proprietary code too. The risks associated with these technologies may well be quite minimal, at least until that alarm clock becomes part of the Internet of Things and can be hacked by the bored teenager next door. Accessing most web sites these days inevitably involves some interaction with proprietary software, even if it is not running on your own computer.
There is no need to give up
Some people may consider this state of affairs and simply give up, using whatever appears to be the easiest solution for each problem at hand without thinking too much about whether it is proprietary or not.
I don't think Jonas' blog intended to sanction this level of complacency. Every time you come across a piece of software, it is worth considering whether a free alternative exists and whether the software is really needed at all.
An orderly migration to free software
In our professional context, most software developers come across proprietary software every day in the networks operated by our employers and their clients. Sometimes we have the opportunity to influence the future of these systems. There are many cases where telling the client to go cold-turkey on their proprietary software would simply lead to the client choosing to get advice from somebody else. The free software engineer who looks at the situation strategically may find that it is possible to continue using the proprietary software as part of a staged migration, gradually helping the user to reduce their exposure over a period of months or even a few years. This may be one of the scenarios where Jonas is sanctioning the use of proprietary software.
On a technical level, it may be possible to show the client that we are concerned about the dangers but that we also want to ensure the continuity of their business. We may propose a solution that involves sandboxing the proprietary software in a virtual machine or a DMZ to prevent it from compromising other systems or "calling home" to the vendor.
As well as technical concerns about a sudden migration, promoters of free software frequently encounter political issues as well. For example, the IT manager in a company may be five years from retirement and is not concerned about his employer's long term ability to extricate itself from a web of Microsoft licenses after he or she has the freedom to go fishing every day. The free software professional may need to invest significant time winning the trust of senior management before he is able to work around a belligerant IT manager like this.
No deal is better than a bad deal
People in the UK have probably encountered the expression "No deal is better than a bad deal" many times already in the last few weeks. Please excuse me for borrowing it. If there is no free software alternative to a particular piece of proprietary software, maybe it is better to simply do without it. Facebook is a great example of this principle: life without social media is great and rather than trying to find or create a free alternative, why not just do something in the real world, like riding motorcycles, reading books or getting a cat or dog?
Burning bridges behind you
For those who are keen to be the visionaries and leaders in a world where free software is the dominant paradigm, would you really feel satisfied if you got there on the back of proprietary solutions? Or are you concerned that taking such shortcuts is only going to put that vision further out of reach?
Each time you solve a problem with free software, whether it is small or large, in your personal life or in your business, the process you went through strengthens you to solve bigger problems the same way. Each time you solve a problem using a proprietary solution, not only do you miss out on that process of discovery but you also risk conditioning yourself to be dependent in future.
For those who hope to build a successful startup company or be part of one, how would you feel if you reach your goal and then the rug is pulled out underneath you when a proprietary software vendor or cloud service you depend on changes the rules?
Personally, in my own life, I prefer to avoid and weed out proprietary solutions wherever I can and force myself to either make free solutions work or do without them. Using proprietary software and services is living your life like a rat in a maze, where the oligarchs in Silicon Valley can move the walls around as they see fit.