Why people don't use free software

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 14, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Whenever ideas run short, columnists and bloggers like to pontificate about why free and open source software isn't more successful. Inevitably, they trot out the same old explanations. Microsoft's monopoly, lack of vendor support, community unfriendliness and infighting, and inertia are some of the most popular ones.

Not having anything new to contribute (or any shortage of ideas to run about), I've avoided such discussions until now. Recently, though, my efforts to persuade people to use free software have suggested to me an explanation so simple that it is seldom mentioned -- people just don't understand the concept, or why it should interest them. The whole idea runs so counter to the average user's experience that the concept of free software is simply too much for them to accept.

When the personal computer was introduced thirty years ago, a set of assumptions about software quickly emerged. In the prevailing industry view, software is a commodity, and users are consumers.

Unlike most commodities, however, software is licensed, not bought, and offers users few rights as consumers. Users have little input into features, and, if they can't get the software to work, they usually have trouble getting refunds on the grounds that they might be illegally copying it. In fact, they are told (with dubious legality and after they have opened the box) that by opening the box they have waived their rights to copy, lend, or do most other things that they can do with other consumer items.

This summary may suggest that I have a keen grasp of the obvious. But the obvious is often overlooked simply because it is obvious, so sometimes it is worth repeating. In this case, repeating these standard assumptions emphasizes just how revolutionary free software is.

The truth is, free software overturns all the standard assumptions about the average user's relationship to software. Paradoxically, because free software is distributed with little more than the obligation to make source code available -- an obligation that average users care nothing about -- it restores the usual rights of ownership to users.

If they turn to free software, users can treat software the way they treat a book or a wide screen TV, unbothered by both activation and registration and threat of litigation. They are offered a range of choice that has not existed since the earliest days of the personal computer. If they get involved with a project, they have a chance that their suggestions for improvement are listened to. They can know if the software they are using collects information about them because they can either look for themselves or hire someone to do so.

In other words, the opportunity opens for them to stop being passive and to start being active, even socially-responsible consumers instead.

If you have half a milligram of idealism in you, this change is heady stuff. But if you are a user who has never installed an operating system and take the continued functioning of your computer mostly on faith, it is hard to believe. Probably, it sounds like hype. And to a small degree it is, since this overview ignores the fact that switching to free software requires leaving familiar applications and losing some initial productivity as you learn alternatives.

Yet, even when the caveats are added, the first reaction to such overwhelming change is likely to be disbelief. The first reaction is likely to be that the whole idea is too good to be true, the second that there must be a catch. Explain that there is no catch, and the average computer user is apt to accuse you of lying. After thirty years, they know what their relationship with computers should be. Anything new must be suspect by definition.

What's more, talking about other advantages only compounds the suspicion. Mention the free cost, and people's minds immediately turns to telemarketers who tell them that they have just won a free holiday -- or possibly to the assumption that they are being asked to use inferior alternatives. Mention the relative freedom from viruses and malware, and they will be even more disbelieving, because everyone knows that the price of using a computer is that you occasionally have to have everything reinstalled.

Matters aren't helped by the fact that the community as a whole does a poor job of explaining what is being offered. Neither "open source" nor "free software" suggests any reason for the average user to be interested. Nor do the four software freedoms, since their emphasis is on code, not on the advantages for average users.

But, even when the message is clearly delivered, the problem remains. In the end, free software advocates may feel like the title character in The Life of Brian, advising a crowd to act as individuals that, for all its enthusiasm, only wants an authority to tell them how to be individuals.

Probably, this deadlock can be overcome by gradually introducing the concepts to users, and letting them discover the advantages of free software for themselves. Attempts to reform or abolish software patents may also help to change the average person's assumptions, as well as the establishment of the right to re-sell the software you buy, which seems to have been established in the recent Vernor vs. Autodesk case. Yet, even so, you can never forget that , free software advocates and average users are operating in separate frames of reference, with very little overlap.


  • Open source is good... for some things

    I'm almost done with an associate of Computer and Electronics, networking specialization. Most of the things we do IT-wise, we use Microsoft products, except for a few open source programs and Cisco routers and switches. These are the products that actually have certifications that can be obtained.

    People who think all software should be free for all to use make me want to smack them. It's no different than saying that all hardware should be shared openly and freely. If people WANT to give me a free computer then I'll say "Yes please, thank you" but to think it should all be free would be stupid. Propriety stuff has proven to be way better for the average person. People want a computer to function as a tool to make their lives easier. How can a computer make your life easier if you waste more time fiddling with it than being able to actually accomplish anything with it? They want a computer like they want a car: just take the wheel (or mouse) and go! Sure there is some minor maintenance to perform like filling gas, checking fluids and tire pressure, but if anything goes wrong what are they going to do? Take the car to a shop. They aren't going to go around to a bunch of different people who don't know each other and have varying levels of skill and get help. They don't want a car that comes mostly ready to drive, but not quite... So now, why would they use Linux where they need to do more maintenance, need to invest more time in learning, and also have to use a community (don't make me laugh) for help? That's nice and all, don't get me wrong I love community-based user support for things but MOST people don't. It's just not as simple and they aren't going to bother with it. The time you save buying a Windows computer compared to using Linux (for a person who only knows the most basics of computer use) is very much worth the money you pay. Not worth the amount Apple makes you pay, though, for just very slightly easier use in my opinion.
  • great post

    Thanks a lot for sharing the article on cash. That's a awesome article. I enjoyed the article a lot while reading. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful article.I want to say very thank you for this great informations. now i understand about it. Thank you !
  • Opensource

    I'd like to throw my two bits in for every pirate out there currently running windoze. Seriously guys just toss it aside for a few, make yourself a boot-able thumb drive of Ubuntu or Fedora Core using "Unetbootin" and you'll never go back to Windows.

    Why wouldn't you want a faster, more custom OS in which to work with ?

    Let me tell you a short story , a while back I used to have tons of Win users asking me "Outkaster, can you set me up with a new copy of (name pirated OS or software here) or could you please come help with(insert something that could've been avoided with regular care and maintenance) because my machine is slowing down like crazy / wont work. I used to care.

    Now I simply give em a thumb drive and tell em , "How bout you use something that doesn't break or need a reformat every week because you chose to look at a sketchy porn site or downloaded some retarded game from a P2P client! Sometimes they take em , sometimes they go bother someone else, either way I'm free and clear to go do something else.

    I even had a few successes with neighbors who don't even know what their using (the drives I hand out typically have the latest Ubuntu distro but I've also given out Fedora Core) and they love it. I've was told once Ubuntu was like Windows on crack, while I didn't bother correcting the person I was just glad to see them happy.

    I'm not anti Windows, I just feel sorry for it's users.

    Dear Microsoft, if you want Black Hats to stop cracking your software at least put up reasonable secuity. I watched a NOVICE crack Win 7 in under an hour. BOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Spresd the word any way.

    I recommend Ubuntu (because it is an easy fit for some one switching from windows) and lots of other free software when ever the topic of the high cost of software comes up in conversation. I get the same exact responses that the author has written about. I'm almost thirty years old and I decided to go back to school for a career change and when I bring up open source to people, especially the professors, I get a long lecture on how proprietary software is better for us. And those who shun Windows are no better, the Mac users, think they are leaps and bounds a head in this department, when in reality they are basically in the same boat as the windows users.
    So every semester there is inevitably going to be at least one class that allows us to do a power point (.odp for me) presentation on whatever we want. So every presentation I have given has been about Linux, Ubuntu and open source apps, then at the end of the presentation I hand out copies of Ubuntu. The hardest part is convincing people that putting the disc in there windows machine won't screw up their computer.
    If I can turn even one person towards open source it will be worth it.
  • The first cut is the depest

    From my experience in Africa, people are not ready for change. A few advocates are but the majority consumers are spoilt by their first attempt in the use of Microsoft.
  • RE

    I agree withy the first comment....
    No one even thinks of using a new OS...
    they are just afraid of it.......
    and about parents... they are not technical persons.... I am a computer Engg student... still it becomes a question for me to change things in PC I use.... just bcoz they are afraid that I will make something malfunctioning....... I just simply hate it....
    <a href="http://www.r4-ds-karte.at/">r4</a>
  • Ordinary people are afraid to open their Windows into the unkown

    Hi. I'm from India, and a beginner in Linux. I can't tell you the opposition I faced from my non-technical parents, when I told them that I would install Linux on our family PC. They said, "Why don't you install a pirated copy of Windows XP ? That too is totally free, like this Linux of yours".

    So, the problem is NOT the ignorance that it's free, but a strong reluctance to wean away from something that they've worked on for so many years. A sort of fear and apprehension into the "unknown". So used to windows such people are, that they are not even willing to give something new a try. However, when I showed my parents the xfce desktop and the similarity with Windows, (icons, mouse pointer, folders, etc.) did they stop scolding me.

    Just as it's hard for us well-off people to believe that 2 billion people go without two meals daily; it is also hard for us Linux fans to believe that most ordinary computer users are TOTALLY UNAWARE of Linux. These are people like my parents, or the local shop owner, the librarian, the visual artist and even the doctor. And like the human fields in Matrix, they are reluctant to step outside the cosy world Windows has created for them since the past many years.

    Their Windows forever remain closed !!
  • FOSS use as a political act

    Bruce, I believe you make some good points, but in my view there you are choosing to ignore a key assumption that you are making in your analysis. You are pointing out what the user is better off by using free software, but you are uncritically assuming that this is something the user cares about. Not only that, but you assume that the user cares about that ENOUGH as to compensate for the costs of the transition to free software.

    Obviously, everyone in the FOSS community believes that freedom/openness is something worth not only the costs of transitioning, but also the costs of further problems FOSS use might entail. However, you cannot assume that this is the case for all users, or even for large minorities. When users care about something that is available in the market and that they are not getting from their current software they have switched to some extent to other options (e.g. to Apple as it regards to features such as hipness/design, ease of use, everything working out of the box, etc.) What we FOSS enthusiasts need to understand is that most users do not care about software being free/open source because it does not change their experience in any meaningful way, or at least it does not do enough for them to make the transition. In that sense, using FOSS is analog to buying fair trade products: it is a political act from a certain type of consumer who values certain features of the product that go beyond its immediate enjoyment. Without that political commitment, asking most users to switch to FOSS given all the costs of the transition is not realistic, because FOR THEM the normal use of good free software is not particularly different from that of good proprietary software.

    That does not necessarily mean that FOSS will never reach the masses. It might produce increases in quality or other characteristics that might make it worthwhile for users to start using it. But as things are now, it is unlikely that a mass switching process will happen based on the freedoms/openness of FOSS alone. Of course, nobody prevents us, and in fact I think this is the real challenge, to attempt to turn FOSS from something akin to 'free trade' products to something more like 'organic' products, in the sense that we succeed in making it more evident for users that there is something really good and valuable in FOSS that they should try to get. However, for that to happen we definitely need to change our strategy and learn to know software users better, which in turn requires us to stop thinking that most software users are like and care about the same as us FOSS users.
  • How did this pgm get here & the Command Line...

    As I was reading the comments, my experience resonated with the comment by "atoms.h".

    About a year ago, I felt a need to break away from the prepackaged OS environment. I needed an OS that wasn't so huge. I met someone who is a programmer, and has been doing that job for many years. He suggested Linux, and told me that my feelings will find a home. He told me that I would find a lot of versions of Linux. I sure did, and I continue to discern which fits my style the best...this week.

    So, as "atoms.h" wrote, I am inquisitive about the source, about the "how". And, even if I don't understand what happens when I enter a command at a command line, I feel that I am participating a little. The command line offers me an appreciation for the hard work of the programmers, and how the world was changed because of their dedication.

    Finally, to you programmers, thank you for a job well done, and thank you for continuing to enhance productivity at work and fun when my computer is used as a hobby.
  • Community

    FOSS is all about community. A community is built on sharing, and about caring about the concerns of other members of your community. The problem is that the idea of community in the US has been destroyed by mistrust, legal and financial misdeeds, and active promotion of divisions. In the US, the "social contract" has been shattered, so anything that involves old-fashioned community is bound to be treated with suspicion.
  • You missed one:

    A lot of it is just terrible.
  • true foss

    The truth about open-source software, -and the truth that gets down to the religiosity of FOSS users and the almost knee-jerk automatic rejection of it by some people, is that FOSS is a weapon against this capitalist system. Most FOSS software is written by people like me who are unemployed and bitter. At the heart of it, we are angry at the system that oversocialized us and made us feel inferior and gave us the inclinations to sit alone in the dark with computers in the first place. When we have found employment, we have not been paid fairly and we have not been made to feel valued. We have not been 'laid' physically or economically and our feelings of inadequacy have bound us together against the system which has seemingly profited by our weakness. In the past, we were made to work alone with little or no pay by the system and so now, as a retaliation against that system, we work alone with little or no pay to undermine its foundations. Giving out free software is a big self-immolating 'fuck you' to the same group of people who easily dismissed us and might have profited by including us in their business. Our desperate activity is a type of terrorism.
  • A huge number of people use free software.

    Firefox. Why? Either it's pre-installed or advertising has pulled them.

    Otherwise, when do people really install software? When they find they *need* it.
    Then how do they find the software to satisfy that need? Advertising in some form.

    And with the growth of web-based software, they no longer bother even installing
    anything. They just click the link... (Picnik really pushes this. Seriously, how many
    of us thought on-line image editing ever would be feasible?)

    Generally, people don't care about software. They care about tasks and the end
    product. If we had "app stores" that directed people to tasks rather than lists,
    well... And we've had "app stores" that are just lists for ages; they're called Linux
  • Reasons why people don't use FOSS

    Another problem might be that the average user is not at all interested in how the software he uses came about. And even if it has flaws they tend to keep using it because they figure foss to be even more buggy and complicated.
    Secondly, many users nowadays strongly oppose the idea of the command line. Whereas for many applications it is a fast and powerful tool.
    But to cut a long story short: In my experience - and I'm trying to convince colleagues for years - most people simply don't care, period!
  • Freedomware

    Perhaps you aren't aware of the subject term but I think it more accurately and instinctively describes Free/Open Source/FOSS/FLOSS, etc.

    It would certainly help combat some of the problems you talk about and give people selling/advocating the software a head start. If it takes more than a few seconds to explain a lot of people switch off, it's just human nature.

    See http://freedomwareproject.org/enter/
  • Report the pirates

    I agree. Piracy is a major concern for Foss. I think it our civic duty to report any known pirates to the authorities as often as possible. MS seem hell bent on really stopping it for once. Their latest incarnations of Genuine Advantage even goes so far to label many non pirates as such. Foss needs to start a marketing campaign. Not to market FOSS. But to stamp out piracy. If the true cost of Commercial software was the true cost Joe Sixpack has to pay you can be guaranteed they'd be looking into cheaper alternatives.

    It would be interesting to add up the commercial cost of a regular PC these days if all software was purchased. Literally most of the world would not be able to afford to have one.
  • Pirating is no problem

    Which car manufacturer dares to sell his cars without a fuel-tank? Which computer vendor dares to sell his hardware without pre-installed...., what? A commodity? Or a necessary part, a 'fuel-tank', called operating system. The confusion tmho is the formidable misunderstanding about OS's due to the diffusion created by Microsoft that an Operating System is something like Internet Explorer or Office System. The latter being non-exclusive applications, easily replaceable, were there not the entanglement with a 35 years old and somewhat patched DOS, a real OS. What users don't realize is how vulnerable -in many ways- their data became with that entanglement. That said, Microsoft has considerably contributed to the IT and personal-IT worlds and still does so. Compare with former market leader IBM and its efforts to return into view of common people. Pirating with respect to software is a relative problem. Why would I 'pirate' SuSE where I prefer to use Ubuntu? Why would I 'pirate' MS Office where I work with no 'office' at all? Why should I accept 30 days "free" usage of stuff called a 'free download'? Misleading, then in 30 days I can't test software thoroughly, aside from the fact I have no time to test 24/7 having other, more useful things to do. But what do you do when the fuel-tank of your car has been left out or was poorly installed or with considerable limitations, like no level gauge or sufficient opening for fueling up? That is what I see today when buying my new Acer 5535 model, supplied with a crippled Vista Home "OS". The on-board camera didn't work for lack of software. The vendor incapable of replacing Vista, installing and updating the machine with Linux Ubuntu, Mint or Fedora... When I buy a car I have the choice: gasoline, Diesel, Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG), electricity. When I buy a computer I must accept 'monopolist' Microsoft's products hanging around. That is getting a far greater problem than all hype about those 12% of pirating in the market without wishing to find out WHY it exists.
  • Does the support for the ideals of free software depend upon the adoption rate of free software?

    q: Do you support free software because it's popular?
    a: No
    b: Yes

    a - right?

    What's the question being possed by this article?


  • Sofware quality

    People don't use free software for the same reason that they don't use non free software, it is eitehr that they don't need it, or it is not good enough. Most people can't afford to use it just because it is free, they have work to do that makes them money to pay their rent. Another factor is vender lock in. It is not enough for free software to be good, and work well with their own file formats, it needs to be able to flawlessly import and export common file formats, or free software will be too expensive.

    Free software that is good enough gets used, just look at Firefox, OpenOffice, Apache...
  • the thing

    ppl use proprietary software for free too (pirated) that's the real answer and the big companies allow this cause they want those products to be populars and they run their business with that minority who pais .
    by the way what are we ? super-humans ? gods ? aren't we people ?
  • My Wife - the Advocate

    Instead of buying my wife a new laptop and yet another anti-virus subscription to continue to allow her to type up documents and browse the web with Windows I (finally) convinced her to install Linux. She is not a super-user or anything near a tinkerer. However, just a mere month later she has no complaints about certain keyboard shortcuts being slightly different because she sees the benefits. In fact, she's no an advocate. When something doesn't work right away because of some proprietary or closed source restriction she doesn't blame the OS but (rightly) blames the company producing a product that won't work for her. This is specifically angering for her because she works in a high school that just spent her salary for the next 10 years to buy new computers and OS/app licenses instead of considering F/OSS software.

    I'm no genius myself (I need LOTS of help on the forums) but my "helping hand" offered a bit of reassurance for her journey. One thing is for certain... she'll never go back to Windows because it just makes her angry now.

    My 2 cents. Great article.
  • Being gratis makes people think its cheap

    Whenever I used to introduce Windows using friends to Open Office , FIrefox, Thunderbird, VLC and so on, they would use it, love it and keep asking "So this is totally free, right?", "You mean I never have to pay for this again?" and so on.
    They cant believe something that doesnt cost a penny can be so good.

    My dad wants me to leave the upgrade notices on his KDE4 desktop instead of having it automatically do it because it fascinates him that so much work is constantly done and he keeps saying "I cant believe this is free."

    Free usually means cheap to people so its understandable.

    Then again, Google has a metric buttload of gratis things like Gmail, Google Maps/streetview, Google Earth, Docs and all the others that are free so I think this mentality has changed over the past 4-5 years.
  • Why most people don't use free/open-source software

    The reason many people don't use FOSS is because most people don't even know that it exists in the first place. Look at some well known (outside geek circles) FOSS software: Firefox, Google chrome, and Google Android, they have sizable market-shares and are widely in use. FOSS will become much more common in public if a major web ad campaign is launched or even a series of TV ads.
  • Lack of FOSS knowledge

    My dealings with corporate America is the narrow vision described in this article. So many companies are used to wasting away hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to software licensing, and yet they are so narrow minded that they completely oversee the huge savings and benefits of open source software. We need to educate these individuals and companies and show them what they are missing. Luckily Microsoft is giving good reasons to its users to look around at alternatives, starting with the Vista failure, so that has definitely helped. Hopefully Microsoft will continue to make this happen with more software failures.

    I've migrated everything to GNU/Linux and open source, and I have discovered the savings and can actually use my computer for what it was meant for, to be productive. Too many hours I have wasted over the years trying to maintain bloated Windows.

    <a href="http://members.apex-interne...dowslinux/index.html</a>
  • Software Licenses

    Matt K needs to read the commercial software licenses more closely.

    Most of the commercial licenses have a cap on how much the company that sold the software is responsible for, and that cap is usually set at the cost of the software. So if a $200 piece of software causes $1 million in data loss, the most you could recover from the software company is $200. That doesn't sound like much of a warranty to me.

    To quote the license from Microsoft Windows Vista Business:
    25. LIMITATION ON AND EXCLUSION OF DAMAGES. You can recover from Microsoft and its suppliers only direct damages up to the amount you paid for the software. You cannot recover any other damages, including consequential, lost profits, special, indirect or incidental damages.
    This limitation applies to
    · anything related to the software, services, content (including code) on third party Internet sites, or third party programs; and
    · claims for breach of contract, breach of warranty, guarantee or condition, strict liability, negligence, or other tort to the extent permitted by applicable law.
    It also applies even if
    · repair, replacement or a refund for the software does not fully compensate you for any losses; or
    · Microsoft knew or should have known about the possibility of the damages.

    So anyone relying on the warranty from commercial companies are putting their faith in the wrong place.
  • Free Software is being use...

    I am perplexed as to why people continue to be baffled as to why Free Software has not obliterated the Commercial Software world.

    Firstly, Free Software is in use, more than you think. It is nearly impossible to determine just how much Free Software is being used, because there are no sales figures to make this measurement. Unlike commercial software, they can simply look up the sales sheets and determine how many licenses of their commercial software was sold, and presumely being used.

    Second, the use of Free Software comes without any warranty, what so ever. This means that if the software fails in some degree and trashes the data of a Multi-Million dollar companies Database, for instance, Free Software has no warranty. Where as, commercial software makers can be held liable and therefore sued if their software trashes another companies data.

    Third, Free Software has no sales force trying to haggle and peddle around the software. Free software instead relies on computer savvy people to experience it, use it and spread the word. Such as an IT guy/girl in a business pushing for the use of Free software 'X' to replace the costly commercial software 'X'. This bottom up approach to software deployment ( also known as Procurement in the business world ) works much differently from commercial software, which is relayed to point #2 in that if the software fails, there is no warranty.

    Fourth, Free Software has a lot of choices, most the time lacking documentation, and a lack of a sales pitch for marketing. Choice in the Free Software world is what makes Free Software and other softwares do better, through competition and variety. But, to most people, especially at the Top Executive business ends, making the final decisions, this plethora of choice can be over whelming to them. Us computer guys have to be able to wear their shoes and know what they know. Just as I might have a hard time when determining if my Dr. is giving good medical advice or a pile of crap just to milk my health insurance for money. It is hard to tell, so I just trust in my Dr's opinion.

    Finally, who cares of everyone uses Free Software or not? In fact, the Internet is run on Free Software. NASA and almost all research orgs use Free Software. Just because, the ignorant private commercial world would rather pay for licenses, does not mean Free Software is just sitting idle and not being used. In fact, if an organization is using Free software, they will not advertise that they are, because Free Software tends to be transparent and 'just work'. There is no need to focus on what tools they are using, all they care about is that 'it just works'. As an example, The New York Stock Exchange runs Linux. Do Stock traders think about this everytime they work Wall Street? No. In fact, most of them simple do not care, just as long as the system is transparent and 'just works'.

    Conclusion: If what this article is trying to convey is that Free Software is not being 'profitable enough', in the commercial world. Than they need to rethink what they mean. If you want some examples of Million-Billion dollar companies making use of Free software to run all their business here are just a few.

    ... and tens of thousands more...

  • Piracy

    I completely agree with the above comment. The biggest reason windows has been popular is the availability of pirated CDs at almost no cost. A normal user cannot appreciate anything which is free, on the other hand is delighted on purchasing a pirated CD, thinking of the huge savings he made.
  • Reasons why people don't use FOSS

    I don't disagree a lot with most of the reasons Bruce Byfield gives that many people don't use FOSS, but he leaves out one enormous reason people don't use Free or open Source Software. That reason is the freely available pirated versions of proprietary software.

    Many of us have such a visceral dislike of the underhanded business tactics of firms like Microsoft, we often turn a blind eye to those offering pirated versions of proprietary software. The pirated software could be replaced by free or open source software, but when copies of Office are available for free many people won't bother downloading OpenOffice simply because they're familiar with it already.

    Pirates are as much a problem for FOSS users as for proprietary software suppliers.
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