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Get Off The Proprietary Merry Go Round

by Kevin Keijzer
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Reprinted with permission

In my opinion, individual freedom is one of the most important things in life. The entire point of a capitalist society is that it revolves around the individuals. Whichever company can comply to the consumers' wishes the most, will be the most successful one. Most people will think of this as very reasonable. You'll only spend money on something of which you believe it will be of good use to you.

When we follow this analogy, one could say that apparently 90% of the computer users find that Microsoft Windows is the best computer operating system out there. But that's where the cookie starts to crumble, because I don't believe that anyone has ever gone to a store to buy a new PC or laptop with Windows®. People just want a new computer, which always happens to have Microsoft Windows pre-installed. Very few consumers are even aware that (better) alternatives are available. Some might perhaps know that Apple uses "something different", but in most cases, that's as far as their knowledge goes.

Microsoft's entire Windows ecosystem is based upon tying their products to others and abusing the ignorance of average consumers. This is also why so many average people know so little about computers, even though they've been around for years now. Microsoft has designed their Windows operating system in such a way that it offers many ambiguities, and that the user will never be quite certain about what exactly happens on their machine. Microsoft's primary reason for doing so, is that there are many "repairmen" out there who would love to make some money off Microsoft's empire as well, after which they can become "most valuable professionals," "certified platinum partners," or other complete and utter nonsense. I can guarantee that many of those "repairmen" charge way too much money for their "repairs." But hey, when all a computer shows is a blue screen with an indecipherable error code, most consumers will just take their machine back to”'the store.” Can you blame them?

Moreover, Microsoft wants to keep their internal systems secret, because offering too much transparency would soon let people find out about everything that is really happening within the Windows operating system. It's a commonly known fact that many backdoors are built in to enable governments to monitor the activities of users, and there are most likely many other hatches of which nobody knows or may know the presence.

The fact that governments, schools, hospitals, police stations, the military, and non-profit organizations all make use of Microsoft products on such a massive scale without considering the dangers, is something I find unimaginable. Whatever commercial companies want to do is their own business, but the fact that those public institutions are willing to do business with a company like Microsoft, is inexcusable to me. Microsoft Windows and proprietary software in general doesn't show a single sign of respect for the freedom and rights of its users. While everyone loves to talk about the importance of things like freedom of speech, barely anyone seems to care about the enormous influence that companies like Microsoft and Apple have on the devices we use the most. Nearly everybody spends hours behind their computer every day, and gratefully uses all the possibilities, but no one even seems to think about the history of the device loved by so many.

Throughout the years, there have been many situations in which Microsoft and Apple have abused their large amounts of money in order to push competitors from the market, by the simple means of bribery. Because especially Microsoft's products are completely based upon oppressive licensing systems, it is rather easy for them to force hardware vendors to make certain decisions, especially since the time that Microsoft Windows had gained such a market position that it had sadly become a selling point.

Around 1999, Bill Gates personally sent an e-mail to other Microsoft employees, in which he stated that they should try to do whatever they could to stop GNU/Linux from working on regular PC's, even if it meant they'd have to force OEM's to do as they said, damage open standards, or patent trivial things. This behavior combined with the fact that due to Microsoft's efforts of keeping people as ignorant as possible about the fact that they even had a choice, rapidly ensured that all the hardware vendors did exactly as commanded by "big boss" Microsoft. Just search the web for the Comes v. Microsoft case if you want to know more about this specific chapter of Microsoft's long and ongoing history of being evil.

Luckily for us, Microsoft is not very good at writing decent software, so the consequences aren't as bad as they had probably hoped. Then again, what we do see is that virtually every hardware vendor exclusively supports Microsoft Windows nowadays. If GNU/Linux users point out that they have a problem with a certain piece of hardware, the vendor's response nearly always is that the users are advised to install Microsoft Windows, because they do not want (or are allowed) to support other operating systems. Even the BIOS, the first piece of firmware that initializes the hardware and bootloader, is usually filled with intentional errors of which only Microsoft developers are told how to avoid them. Because of this, it generally takes Linux kernel developers weeks or even months before they have reached the same results, by which the average user comes to believe that "GNU/Linux is less decent than Microsoft Windows."

For instance, recently a (probably intentional) BIOS bug showed up in many new laptops, causing the battery life of machines running GNU/Linux to be noticeably shorter than the same machines running Microsoft Windows. This was merely because the vendors refused to implement the offending feature in a transparent way, and let only Microsoft know how it worked. And now, under pressure of the Redmond-based company and its "BFF" Intel, a system to replace the BIOS altogether, called UEFI, has been pushed into consumer motherboards, while having built-in features to make booting none-Windows operating systems (nearly) impossible, under the guise of "security."

Apple has been fighting a comparable battle, although not so much on the desktop, because they aren't quite successful there themselves either, and GNU/Linux isn't a direct threat to their iMacs and MacBooks as much as it is to Microsoft Windows. However, a different incarnation of GNU/Linux, Android, is. Whereas Microsoft tries to do whatever they can to "break" GNU/Linux on the desktop, Apple has been filing patent lawsuits about the most trivial things for years now, hoping as many Android devices as possible will be banned from the store shelves. Not very long ago, the Android flagship device of the time, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, was banned in the USA for a few days, because Apple found one tiny piece of Android to be similar to something their iPhone could also do. Even though the offending feature was removed and changed within a few days, Apple has never given up on the battle, and it doesn't look like they ever will. Everywhere in the world, lawsuits are filed against vendors of Android phones and tablets, hoping they can get those products banned as well.

Aside from intentionally ruining fair competition on a hardware-level, Microsoft and Apple also use large parts of their money to make doubtful deals with many different companies, primarily to harm their competitors. A few years ago, Microsoft developed a media player named Silverlight, a completely useless product which they eventually even admitted themselves that it had very little right of existence. Regardless, Microsoft has lobbied quite a long time to make many content providers switch to their poorly received proprietary product, which is essentially an even worse clone of Adobe Flash. They even gave up a board seat to the CEO of the popular video streaming site Netflix if he would get his company to support Silverlight exclusively. And he did.

Apple does not have such a strong case with their software, but they are capable of shoving their gadgets down everyone's throat. For example, I read about a high school in Belgium a while ago, where all students were forced to buy an iPad, because Apple would sponsor them. Even though many students and parents refused and protested, the plan was executed nonetheless, after which many students left the school. Also, many people have probably noticed that a lot of American films and tv shows only feature Apple computers, to make people believe that Apple products are some kind of symbol of wealth.

What many people don't seem to understand, is that buying a product made by Microsoft or Apple, does not make them the owner, regardless of the fact that they went to the store and paid money for it. Even worse: nearly everyone just agrees to very constrictive license terms, usually without even reading them. For instance, everyone who owns an iPhone or iPad apparently has no problems with their location data being logged and sent to Apple, and every company using Microsoft Windows seems to be fine with random checks whether the software they use is legitimate. And I'm not talking about a software tool doing so, but a physical guy coming along for a visit.

Microsoft and Apple do not care the least about their users. The only thing in which they're interested, is making money off them. And if that hurts the users' privacy, so be it. If that hurts the users' security, so be it. If that hurts the users' convenience, so be it. If that hurts the living conditions of Chinese employees, usually only twelve years old, so be it. Why would anyone trust companies like that?

I have always tried to remain neutral regarding the whole iOS versus Android discussion, for one, because I don't believe that tablets and smartphones are that great, but primarily because I believe it takes the attention away from something much more important: Microsoft Windows versus GNU/Linux on the desktop. After all, it's still the computers and laptops that do the most real work. Regardless of how some may feel about it, I do not believe this is ever going to change. There simply are too many limitations to the ARM architecture to ever be a complete replacement for the current generation of x86 machines. MIPS would have had a bigger chance if it had undergone more active, wide-scale development over the last years, which our "friends" at Redmond HQ obviously didn't want to happen. That's why I've always been much more interested in the future of GNU/Linux on the desktop than what exactly happens to Android, which lacks the pieces of software I love the most anyway: GNU.

Painfully, I have to watch how people have been improperly informed for years, over and over again. The things that many people say out loud about computers, of which they really believe that they are true, are generally just completely incorrect. Primarily, the elderly users suffer from that. They didn't grow up with computers, so they obviously know less about them. But when they ask for help, barely anyone is able to really explain them anything. Pretty much every "computer expert" is part of the same enormous group of (generally extremely arrogant) people who grew up during the Microsoft monopoly, and really don't have a clue what they're doing either, because it's Microsoft's primary goal to let its users know as little as possible.

I'm sure this isn't very different compared to other industries, where consumers are also being scammed on a daily basis. Surely, employees of car garages or central heating installers will supply false information to keep customers ignorant just as much. But computers are different because everyone acts like this. It's not just the "professionals," but also the users among each other. Friends and relatives brag about things that work completely different than they think they do, for instance. After being in such situations for many years now, I've come to the point where I simply cannot stand it any longer. For some reason, everyone seems to think it is somehow "shameful" to admit you don't know so much about a certain subject. Everyone always wants to come across as some kind of genius, and barely anyone is willing to listen anymore. Because when you listen to someone else, you admit you don't know it yourself. Or something like that, I guess.

There are so many people who swear at their computer every day, and really have no to little clue on how to operate it, but as soon as you tell them there are alternatives out there that can be far less problematic, most people refuse to try it because it would mean they can no longer boast about the few things they do know about Microsoft Windows, or because they would have to ask for help every now and then in the beginning. It also feels like the generally accepted description of someone who "knows a lot about computers" is someone who is good at making spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel, but as soon as the side of the case has to be removed, they are nowhere to be found.

There simply are many valid reasons to prefer free software over the established empires of Microsoft and Apple, much more than I can ever describe, while even leaving the technical side completely out of the scope. Surely, it is true that GNU/Linux is much faster and more stable and secure than Apple Mac OS and especially Microsoft Windows are, and the fact that it can be used completely free of charge is something that many people find the most appealing part, but to me, frankly, those factors aren't that important.

GNU/Linux fully respects the user's freedom. Users running it have full control of their computers, rather than the other way around. Whenever Microsoft feels like pushing an update that removes your ability to do something, no-one is stopping them. Even if you have paid for a valid license and the function used to be there, they are always in charge of what happens. When Apple doesn't want a certain application to run on their devices, they'll simply remove it from their application store without any further notice. For instance, they do not allow you to use an alternative browser engine on their iDevices, even though their own implementation of WebKit is very slow. They really don't care at all that you have paid 800 dollars for your new iPhone, and would like to decide for yourself. They are vigilant about remaining in charge. Your wishes are completely irrelevant. You will pay up and keep quiet, because you are nothing to them.

This is the harmful aspect I so desperately want to clarify. Of course the technical sides of GNU/Linux are amazing, and I'm convinced that everyone who gives it a real chance will agree that it offers a much better computing experience than Microsoft Windows on the long term. But even if it wouldn't be better, you would still be doing the ethically right thing by not spending money on companies that do not have any respect for you and those around you. The sooner more people will choose free software, the quicker the assets of Microsoft will shrink, and perhaps they might just start making serious efforts to develop decent products one day. But now, Microsoft is acting like a tyrant who wants to put himself on every single person's "personal" computer, all over the world, and attempts to destroy everyone who tries to get in his way. Apple, on the other hand, acts like an unhinged watchdog, attempting to sue everyone who tries to develop something square with rounded corners.

If you even care the slightest about computer technology in general, it is really important to know that regardless of the fact that these two companies may be the best known, they have absolutely not had the biggest and best influence at all. If it was up to Microsoft and Apple, people will only be able to do less with their own devices, and they will never be allowed to decide for what purpose they want to use their machines, whereas GNU/Linux developers couldn't care less what you do with your own property. They make their software hoping that someone may find it useful. In fact, it's usually even explicitly stated in the description. It's exactly because of that kind of transparency that so many developments have been able to occur in the last two decades. The entire internet is based upon the idea of software freedom, which is also why it primarily runs on GNU/Linux servers. Within the GNU/Linux community, there is no oppressing ambiance at all. Developers really don't mind what people do with their computers, as long as they don't use them to harm others in any way, which includes taking away their freedom.

So please, forget everything they told you about Microsoft and Apple throughout the years. Just because they've been very successful economically, doesn't mean that their intentions are good in any way. Using their products is harmful for the future of computer technology in many ways. But more importantly, it hurts your own freedom, your family's safety, and human rights. If you want a smartphone or tablet, don't get an iPhone, an iPad or a Microsoft Surface, but buy one of the dozens of Android devices, in particular Google's Nexus phones and tablets. Also, try to avoid buying computers and laptops with proprietary software pre-installed. Buy barebone laptops and build your computers yourself, or have someone else build them for you. Of course, stay away from iMacs and MacBooks as far as you can.

Not until GNU/Linux has created a serious user base on the desktop market, will companies understand that they can't ignore free software any longer. Only then hardware vendors will stop claiming they only support Microsoft products. Only then internet service providers will stop claiming they do not want to help customers who do not run Microsoft Windows. Only then will things like Silverlight will no longer be adopted, because companies will know that a large part of their user base will either not be able to run it, or just reject it nonetheless.

It worked for Android and Chrome (and yes, I know that only AOSP and Chromium are real free software), but that was only the first step. Switching your browser isn't enough. Using a mostly free mobile operating system isn't enough. The most important thing at this point is that as many people as possible will switch to GNU/Linux on their desktop computers and laptops. It would not only improve their user experience and rejuvenate otherwise discarded machines, but it will most importantly ensure that these people contribute to making a better future, so people will still be in charge of their computers by the year 2100, rather than having the computers being in charge of us.

Supporting and endorsing proprietary software is one of the biggest mistakes anyone can make. Please, whoever you are, whatever you do, do not fall for it. But my biggest question remains this: where the hell is Google in all of this? Google is using the Linux kernel for basically everything they do, most obviously Android phones and tablets, Chrome OS netbooks, and Google TV. They use modified Ubuntu installations for their entire company infrastructure, but they never mention desktop GNU/Linux anywhere. If there's one company that should do something back to the community, after everything it has done for them, it's Google. We need their endorsement, we need their support (or at least of some really rich company). Let's face it, they really owe it to us.

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