The other day I was installing a server operating system at a small organisation. After waiting till all staffers had gone home so that I could safely take over the network, I sat down to business.
The organisation had limited needs (basically they wanted a file server) and had bought Microsoft Server 2003 on advice of the sysadmin of a subsidiary. While I was waiting, and while screen after screen told me what a fantastic time I was having (I was glad at least somebody thought so), I realized that the great thing about Free Software is not its adaptability, nor its interoperability, nor its robustness, nor even its price, but the fact that I can download it and install it without tons of copyright lawyers breathing down my neck.
You see, the hardest thing by far I encountered during my installfest was the licensing policy of Microsoft. And I am sure Microsoft’s lawyers aren’t even the worst, because at some level the giant from Redmond tries to look out for its customers. But I know the GNU General Public License (GPL, the license behind Free Software). I have released patches under the GPL myself. I know which freedoms it returns to the user, and which it keeps reserved to the author. With that, all my remaining problems are of a technical nature, and these can be overcome by many.
But I am not a copyright lawyer. Microsoft Server 2003 offers you a choice of two or four licenses (it wasn’t really clear, and they took some time explaining that they had actually changed the licenses, which only confused matters), but none of them let you do very much. Or perhaps they do, but that was burried in all the legalese. I don’t think I found out, and I “activated” just the one that seemed the most appropriate.
For an organisation using proprietary software, the first question is not “what will it let me do?”, but rather “when will I be breaking the law?”. And so I find myself often in a position that for a quick fix I will choose Free Software. It’s the less-hassle choice. Once I have worked out what exactly the consequences are of a proprietary license, I may decide to switch. Of course, if the Free Software is good enough, it is probably easier to convince whoever is in charge of software acquisition within the organisation that they should use the Free Software.
So there you have it. To me the great thing about Free Software is that you can deploy it right away. It is about freedom after all.