July 29, 2006

Should FOSS supporters become consumer activists?

Author: Bruce Byfield

Commentary: By definition, members of the free and open source software (FOSS) communities have shown themselves to be more than software and hardware experts. They've also proved themselves people willing to take a stand on behalf of their ethics and the quality of their work. Contrary to the stereotype of the geek, many apply this same commitment to politics and social events. Now, when many companies are hovering around the question of how they should support FOSS, and some are considering implementing restrictive technologies like digital rights management (DRM), maybe it's time for the next logical step. Maybe it's time for FOSS supporters to become consumer advocates. In other words, perhaps they should start officially endorsing or condemning companies and organizations according to how well products and policies fit with FOSS ethics.

Admittedly, FOSS supporters are a minority of computer users. The hardcore supporters are probably about 5% of the total computer users. Even including others who occasionally use FOSS, the total is unlikely to exceed 15%. Yet their influence is greater than their numbers would suggest. Among informed users, they may comprise more than half. Their individual buying clout is greater than the average computer user, since most of them own several computers. Moreover, whether they are the IT manager in a corporation, or the guy who helps neighbors set up their home machines, they have significant influence over other people's buying decisions. For all these reasons, FOSS supporters have a potential strength far greater than most people's. The only question is whether they should use it.

If they do, the time has never been better for taking a stand. At least since the turn of the millennium, the computer industry as a whole has seen what might be called the closing of the frontier. Just as the era of seemingly unlimited expansion by Europeans west across North America gave way to the age of settlers and fences in the nineteenth century, so the apparently endless growth of the computer industry from 1985-2000 has given way to an age of limits. Increasingly, software manufacturers are running out of new features to entice users into upgrades. Hardware vendors are selling replacements to experienced users rather than attracting first-time buyers, because, in the industrialized world, everyone who wants a computer already has one. Traditional strategies such as designing around Microsoft's specifications are starting not to work, partly because of the increasingly fragmented market and partly because Microsoft is struggling with the same problems. The entire industry is reduced to hoping for the next big thing. Sometimes it briefly finds it in the dot-com craze or the iPod. Increasingly, though, it finds only limited markets and lower sales figures and profits.

In this situation, software and hardware companies are looking for every advantage they can get. If a company knows that, by supporting open standards and FOSS, and avoiding anti-competitive, privacy-invading technologies like DRM, it can gain the endorsement of an influential group of consumers and gain a reputation as a good corporate citizen, then chances are that it will give the idea serious consideration. The appeal should be especially strong for companies that are running in second place, such as AMD, whose sales are lagging behind Intel's. Even if the result of the endorsement is only a few percentage points of market share, in this market it will still be worth pursuing. Like ethical mutual funds, FOSS-friendly products might not dominate the market, but they could mean a group of loyal customers.

To some extent, of course, many FOSS supporters are already consumer advocates. Damn a company's practices on Slashdot, and dozens will call for a boycott; praise it, and dozens express support for it. If FOSS supporters want to run the operating systems of their choice, they have to be wise consumers -- otherwise, they can't be sure of the drivers they need. What I am suggesting is a more organized effort, something like the Free Software Foundation's Defective By Design campaign, which in three months has attracted more than 7,000 members who are opposed to digital rights management technologies.

All that is needed is a little more effort along the same lines. An official Web site, perhaps, maintained by an organization -- or several -- that can credibly speak for the community, such as the Open Source Development Labs or the Linux Standard Base? What about endorsements by projects, with rackmount servers with "Recommended by the Apache Foundation" stickers on the case, and home machines with "Supports Debian!" inscribed on them?

Some might argue that FOSS supporters are pragmatists, who know little about activism or expressing their views, and only want to keep their heads down and do their work. But, considering how many routinely work eight or more hours a day on computers -- then come home to spend half as long again on email, coding, and games -- computers are too much a part of our lives not to take control of them. Ignoring the ethics and efficiency with which they run makes no more sense than ignoring your pay scale and benefit package at work -- all of them are part of our working conditions and influence our daily lives. If FOSS supporters have any hope of seeing the sort of world that they claim to want, then maybe it is time to look up from the source code and provide the social leadership that only they can offer.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.


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