How I Learned About Free Software

Jan 2013

I've been using computers my entire life. My earliest memory of them involves a TRS-80 Model III while I was in either the second or third grade. I remember that it had an orange reset button in the upper right corner of the keyboard and that the teacher had told us to never press it. I sometimes joked with my classmates about pressing it but never did. Someone eventually did though.

Afterward, I remember our teacher trying to get the computer to boot again. As I recall the computer was having difficulty reading the floppy disk. I made the suggestion to boot the computer using a different but working disk, then re-insert the problematic disk, and run the program. It worked. As it would turn out this was the start of a journey in my life.

My fourth grade classroom had an Apple IIe. I have a vague memory of playing some rabbit maze game. I continued to use computers as time went on, mostly being various Macintosh models as that's what my schools had. It's no wonder that, after leaving school, I bought my own Macintosh computer running Apple's proprietary operating system. I didn't yet know about free software. I'm a perfect example of why RMS is right and free software in schools is so important.

Enter 1999.

I'd been using the internet for a couple of years and grown unhappy with the email options that I could find. Every email service provider I tried had some problem: They were slow, unreliable, disappeared, were lacking some feature I wanted, etc. After being inspired by reading a magazine article about running a server in your own home I decided that I could do better, took the plunge, and bought a machine to use as a dedicated server.

Since I'd only ever used Apple's proprietary Macintosh Operating System that's what I used for my very first server. It provided email and a very basic website for a few years, despite the server software on the Macintosh being, in one way or another, totally deficient: They were missing features that I wanted and those it did have were very basic.

Around 2001 or so I decided that I wanted something that did everything I wanted. After some time searching I found exactly that. It was expensive, with per-user licensing. It was also proprietary. I still didn't know about free software at this point and evaluated the program only its cost and technical features, eventually deciding that it was worth it.

It ran on an operating system I'd never heard of before, something called GNU/Linux. I installed this on my PowerPC-based Macintosh using a now-defunct distribution and began using this new server software.

At the time I found GNU/Linux to be very foreign. Apple had released version 10 of their Macintosh Operating System around this time, and the developer of this proprietary mail server software said it could run on Mac OS X too, so I switched. I continued using this proprietary mail server running on Mac OS X until 2004.

At some point that year the developer of this proprietary software had changed their policies. Whereas I'd previously been able to download updates for free they were changing to a subscription model and I was cut off unless I continued to pay them a yearly fee.

I didn't like this at all. The software had been expensive enough to begin with and I didn't like the idea of paying them what amounted to a yearly rental fee. While this was about money I realized that it didn't have to be: Holding their customers hostage for money was just one thing that was enabled by proprietary software. They had the power to do anything they wanted, whether I liked it or not. I didn't like that they were able to hold my computer, and ultimately me, hostage for any reason. In this moment I realized the problem with proprietary software. I was determined to find a way out of this. What I was looking for was free software, although I didn't know it yet.

During my searches I found out about something called "open source" and how Apple's Macintosh Operating System somehow had this in it. I quickly got rid of this proprietary email server software and started using programs like Courier, SquirrelMail, etc.

As time went on I became unhappy with some of Apple's upgrade policies where bugs and security problems would go un-fixed and that I could not fix them myself. I realized two things: The first was that while Mac OS X might have some free software at the lower levels, the upper levels were entirely Apple and proprietary. The second was that despite having removed that proprietary email server program, I'd only switched masters and hadn't yet escaped the control that proprietary software enabled over me.

In 2007 I switched to Debian GNU/Linux full-time in order to escape the control made possible by proprietary software. The time I spent using Mac OS X had gotten me used to and familiar with UNIX-like operating systems. I later learned that the Debian Project also distributes proprietary software and have since changed. Having personally experienced being held hostage by the developer of a proprietary program I had an ethical objection to that and didn't want to associate myself with a project that distributed proprietary programs, even though the Debian Project tries to disassociate itself with it. Whether this proprietary software is "part" of the Debian GNU/Linux distribution or not is the wrong question to ask. It's still being distributed, and that's ethically wrong. Now I use the Trisquel GNU/Linux distribution, because the Trisquel Project doesn't do this.

My journey to the land of the free took a few years, and I've made some missteps along with way, but I've learned a lot. I've learned to value my freedom, and by not steering people to projects engaged in unethical activities I'm standing in solidarity with the rest of the free world against others that might try to cast the issue of developing and distributing proprietary software in a different light. I steadfastly refuse to use proprietary software. I can happily say that I'm in control of my own computing, not someone else that has the power to hold me hostage at any time.