GNU/Linux, usability, and freedom


Author: Taran Rampersad

There’s been talk lately about GNU/Linux usability. Let’s not confuse the liberties associated with GNU/Linux with its ease of use.

When someone speaks of freedom, what is he really talking about? Is he talking about whether something is easy for him to use, or is he talking about his right to use it? The correct answer should be apparent, but for many people this concept is confusing. The right to use something makes it usable — to a degree. For example, anyone who can get on the Internet can read (use) whatever they find, perhaps even adapting it to their own needs depending on the licensing of the information.

Yet, as Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, pointed out at the World Summit on Information Society, not everyone can use the Internet. He said that English is the Internet’s lingua franca, and that 70% of its content requires that people be able to understand English.

Everyone is certainly free to use the Internet, but it’s not usable for people who don’t read English. So, the right — the freedom — to use something does not necessarily mean that it’s usable, much less user-friendly.

How does this apply to GNU/Linux? Someone who lives on the command line may not find a GUI usable, and a person who likes a GUI may never want to see a command line. Toss in the people in between, and you have quite a few usability problems. It’s a development nightmare, especially for companies trying to make money by selling to a mass market. You can please some of the people all of the time, or you can please all of the people some of the time. This is a problem for all businesses; there is a minority which businesses neglect in favor of profitability. That’s also democracy in a capitalist sense.

GNU/Linux is an operating system. It may be the present flagship of Free Software, but it shouldn’t be confused with defining Free Software. Therefore, the usability of GNU/Linux is not a matter of philosophy.

One of the beauties of the GNU/Linux operating system is its customizability. It can be made to do so many things, which can be confusing to some users. Distros are created for specific groups of users to make GNU/Linux more usable. Different GUIs are created and supported. And usability is catered to based on need.

Intellectual usability

Now let’s take usability to a different layer of abstraction. Let’s talk about usabilty as an extension of the freedoms associated with Free Software:

(0)The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
(1)The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs.
(2)The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
(3)The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

These freedoms make Free Software usable to everyone. Is a developer who wants to adapt software any less a user than someone who never peers at the source code? Not by these freedoms.

There’s a lot of talk these days about intellectual property, but the real issue — the one that everyone seems to be ignoring or misunderstanding — is intellectual usability. Something is intellectually usable if it has the four freedoms above.

If someone’s intellectual property is not intellectually usable, what’s the point, other than making a quick buck and prosecuting users?

Free Software is intellectually usable, as long as you pass this intellectual usability on to whoever you sell it to or share it with.

It’s the intellectual usability of Free Software that Richard Stallman wrote of in his 20 year review and look forward. Installing proprietary software on a Free Software operating system does not enhance intellectual usability, it therefore does not enhance freedom.

Intellectual usability allows GNU/Linux users to customize things so that their operating system works the way they want it to — so that their operating system is usable. It’s adaptable. The future of GNU/Linux, we should all agree, is in its adaptability. And that adaptability comes from the intellectual usability, and that intellectual usability stems from freedoms.

Liberty is the right to choose. Freedom is the result of the right choice. — Anonymous.


  • Free Software