A blog for the enterprise open source community
Is software freedom a necessity or a distraction when it comes to consumer devices?Matthew Aslett, January 20, 2010 @ 5:17 am ET
There has been a fair bit of hand-ringing recently about free and open source software’s impact on mobile phones and other consumer devices. Lysandra Ohrstrom of the SFLC last week celebrated the increased use of FOSS on devices available at the Consumer Electronics Show, but lamented the fact that often the user does not get to “share, tinker, and adapt the devices”. Meanwhile Bradley M Kuhn recently warned that “we are in a very precarious time with regard to the freedom of mobile devices” while Glyn Moody questioned whether it is healthy that most Android applications are closed-source.
They all make strong, cogent arguments about the positive benefits of software freedom with regards to mobile phones and other consumer devices but which, to my mind, overlook one important factor: most consumers don’t care about software freedom.
Before we go on I should state that I am not questioning whether consumers *should* care about software freedom. There are plenty of good arguments why they should. I am also not suggesting that device manufacturers shouldn’t be required to meet their obligations related to the use of FOSS licenses. What concerns me is that the focus on the right/ability to “share, tinker, and adapt the devices” distracts attention from issues related to open formats, access to services and the freedom to move data between devices.
If we take a look at the benefits of FOSS to end users in the enterprise sector we routinely see lower cost, increased flexibility and reduced vendor lock-in as the primary benefits. The first of those is already being delivered to consumer users, indirectly, via the use of FOSS by device manufacturers to lower development costs. The latter two are less relevant when it comes to consumer devices. Or at least, software freedom is less relevant compared to data freedom when it comes to consumer devices which are, at the end of the day, appliances.
Faced with a variety of potential devices to purchase, I would argue that most consumers do not worry about what license the software is distributed with, or about their rights to modify that device. They worry about whether it works as advertised. If it doesn’t the last thing most consumers want to do is modify it themselves, because that is not what you pay for when you buy a consumer device – you pay for a device that, to borrow a phrase, “just works”.
Of course FOSS advocates clearly do care about those issues, and they care about their right to modify their consumer devices and have a wide choice of FOSS applications to deploy on them. That is their right and I am not criticizing anyone for exercising it. I do wonder whether the focus on software licensing and promoting software freedom to consumer users distracts attention from issues such as data freedom, however.
Ohrstrom also talks about issues related to access to content in formats that enable it to run on any device and be moved between devices. These are important issues – the previously identified issues related to flexibility and freedom from vendor lock-in – but they relate to the use of open formats, and the freedom to move data between devices. Those are quite distinct from the license used for the software on the device on which that content runs. Having a device that runs a free software platform does not guarantee either, even with the right to make modifications.
Update – thanks to Josh Chalifour and his comment for providing me with a better conclusion than I could muster – which is that while the right to tinker is vital to those who believe in software freedom, the issue doesn’t have immediately obvious impacts on regular consumers, and is in my view potentially distracting. The concept of data freedom, and access to content regardless of the device, are more likely to resonate with consumer users, and may in turn get them thinking about software freedom.
Comments (14) Categories: Software