Oh, The Huge Manatee

A blog about technology, open source, and the web... from someone who works with all three.

The #1 Question I Get Asked Working at MS: Why Do You Run Linux?

I’ve had all of a week working at Microsoft, and so far it’s been great. I’ve managed to get my Linux daily driver machine working with almost all the MS internal systems (more on that in a separate post), and all the daily use applications have web or Linux versions available. So far, so good!

But every time I’ve asked for support, or visited IT, or encountered something that didn’t work perfectly, I hear the same question: “Why do you want to run open source software, anyway?” The question isn’t asked with malice or condescention. It’s asked with genuine curiosity. This is tremendous progress for Microsoft.

It is an important question, though: Why do I run Linux? Especially when it’s not explicitly supported, when it entails more work, or more frustration. Why put myself through that?

First of all, it’s none of your business what I run. I get all prickly when a service provider tries to get proscriptive about what I should be able to do on my own computer. On geeky principle, I should run the OS and configuration that suits me best. The service provider should implement standards so they don’t have to care what I’m running. Almost by definition, a service provider that limits what OS you can use, is Doing It Wrong.

Of course that’s not the intent here. Take a deep breath, Cam. Microsoft allows you to run anything you like, as long as it’s up to date with security patches. Their IT services only support Windows and OSX, but that’s not unreasonable. Anyway, the question has come from all sorts of colleagues, not just IT. Deep breaths.

Once I calm my inner Stallman, here are the real reasons:

  • I believe that either I own my devices, or they own me. I prefer that I make the decisions about how my computer should work – especially given what a large proportion of my life is spent working with this thing!

  • I trust open source software a lot more than proprietary software. Many eyes make better quality code, and better engineering under the hood.

  • It drives me crazy when something goes wrong with a proprietary product. There’s usually no way to figure out the problem, know what I can do to improve it, or even how to report it appropriately. It’s a black box of frustration.

  • I believe that open source software exerts a strong equalizing force on the world. I “vote with my behavior” to support it.

In general, as more and more of our lives become computer controlled – today every car, airplane, pacemaker, and TV are computer-controlled – it becomes increasingly important that software is open. Given the chance, Google hearing aids would inject advertising into your dinner conversation, while Facebook would block sounds from companies that don’t pay. Internet providers have recently won the right to tamper with your content, injecting ads, slowing competitors, and prioritizing their own websites. I believe that the best tools are controlled by their users. Open source is how we make that happen.

All these points seem pretty abstract, and they are. But they boil down to a very concrete impression for me: I am used to a computing experience where I am in control, and my device is a neutral extension of myself. So when I use a computer with an OS that someone else has dictated, it’s very frustrating! I’m frustrated by the ads that I can’t block, the buttons that seem to be in the wrong place, the capabilities that are disabled because of someone elses priorities. It makes me feel like I’m getting screwed. If your computer doesn’t let you watch a region-coded DVD (Windows and OSX), you’re getting screwed. If your phone doesn’t let you block ads (unrooted IOS and Android), you’re getting screwed. If your office suite restricts functionality based on what web browser you’re using (Google Apps), you’re getting screwed. I don’t like to get screwed.

So, why do I insist on using open source software whenever possible? Because I feel screwed by proprietary consumer software.