I use free software and a free operating system (Linux) because they give me freedom. I was beginning to take this for granted. Freedom is something that, if you’ve had it for a while, you sort of forget it’s there. Only when you loose it do you really begin to take notice. And whenever I use a computer with Windows on it, I feel like I’m being told what to do. I know how to interact with computers very efficiently. I taught myself to program in C and C++ when I was a teenager. I’ve used several operating systems and feel the least free in Windows. Freedom comes in two kinds: freedom from and freedom to. My annoyances with Windows and the programs that leech onto its inherent vulnerabilities and design flaws deal with both types of freedom and will be understood by anyone who has recently used a computer that has Windows on it (and is managed by your average computer user).
Whenever I have to help someone with their Windows-based computer I get barraged by pop-ups when I’m not even browsing the Internet. I am free from these things under free software (I’m aware that there are pop-up blockers for Internet Explorer and that some ISPs are beginning to offer pop-up blockers as part of their service, but all free software browsers have this as an option without having to download extra 3rd-party components). KaZaA or Bonzai Buddy are silently running on millions of Windows user’s computers, poping up window after window, while the users have no idea that where they are coming from or how to get rid of them. These ads are everywhere from Instant Messanger to Windows itself (in the case of XP). Why does Windows feel like it can have a conversation with me in those little bubbles when I’m trying to get some work done? Didn’t these people pay at least for their computer and probably for the software on it? One of my basic understandings of computers is that they are tools and that the person using one is in charge of it. The paradigm is shifting and we are becoming, in general, more and more passive computer users. This is why I feel like I’m watching television when I’m using someone else’s computer nowadays.
One of the huge criticisms of using free software is that you have to micromanage your settings for every program. But you have to do the same thing in Windows. And the price of not paying attention to every little detail in Windows is instability and pop-ups coming at you from every which way. Under free software it might not work until it is configured correctly, but once it is configured, it’ll keep working because there aren’t Bonzai Buddies, email viruses, and KaZaAs out there that can potentially change your settings for you. Another trait of free software that is both good and bad is the fact that it doesn’t have a centralized registry like the Windows Registry where programs can change your computer’s settings. The downside to this lack of centralization is that it’s hard for programs to discover and interact with each other. If you choose a good Linux distribution (such as Debian, my distribution of choice) you can get something that will make it easy for you to manage your settings and not have an annoying computing environment.
Free software provides you with the freedom to change anything about your software that annoys you. You don’t even need to be able to program as settings are incorporated that can be activated through graphical menus and dialogs. Some say that this has led to feature creep in free software, that is, because people can incorporate whatever feature they find useful, an overwhelming number of options find their way into programs and that makes it hard for the user to find settings that they want to change. While this does appear to be true of some free software there is an effort to reform the number of options presented and provide a consistent interface across free software applications. One can find major applications of each kind that are easy to use and consistent.
Of course, there is free software that runs on Windows, and this is a great way for the average computer user to get a dose of freedom, but I fear that the little bubbles in Windows XP are just the beginning. Microsoft recently released Windows XP Media Edition, which turns your computer into a spruced up home entertainment center; further evidence that the paradigm shift is on towards a more controlled and passive computing experience.
I recommend taking the time now, before it’s too late, to learn about other operating systems, and choose one that is free in the sense of freedom and formatting your harddrive before they start shipping computers that have processors that don’t allow the operating system to be changed on them.
Take control of your computer back! The computer is the tool, not you!