The Attitude that Free Software is *Just* a Substitute

Jul. 21, 2022 [technology] [libre]

A prevailing perspective among tech enthusiasts paints liberated software as some secondary, afterthought solution that remains perpetually “not ready for prime time”. I have even witnessed this mentality among those who have started primarily using free programs. They often cite things like interfaces that don’t appear modern or the incomplete handling of certain proprietary file formats as deal breakers. Others swear that they would never touch anything which hasn’t seen an update in over a few months.

And they’re not entirely wrong considering that quite a few libre projects tend to be clones trying to keep pace with some commercial software. But quality really needs to be judged on a case by case basis. It’s actually only those that fall short on expectations which foster this negative perception that wider libre software is just cheap knock-offs. I think there are a few misunderstandings that fuel it.

In the last decade or so users have been conditioned, especially by proprietary platforms, to believe that constant updates are necessary for a program to be usable. When they look at the date of some latest release build to find a six month gap or more, an assumption takes hold that the program is “dead” and will no longer receive any updates. The reality is that many free software programs have simply reached feature maturity. Unless some security issue or breakage is discovered, there may not be any need to declare a new release. They even tend to have fewer problems, as I describe at In Support of Withered Technology.

There is also a very real psychological phenomenon that leads people to subconsciously associate no-cost gratis goods with poorer quality. It is sales industry wisdom that sometimes, even contrary to logic, it is better to maintain a disproportionately high price since it will instill a sense of quality to the buyer. And these same dynamics are at play between proprietary systems that demand a price, and libre systems distributed at no cost. People simply tend not to value things they can get for free.

Modern graphical user interfaces are an ever moving target. Libre projects which seek to replicate modern GUIs quickly find themselves out of vogue when the paradigm inevitably shifts with the GUI tides. And moving over to the next great thing isn’t always a simple matter of swapping out some skin. The philosophy that “if it works, why change it?”, while reasonable, stands at odds with the expectations of those who quickly dismiss any application that doesn’t bear the sleekest, newest, shiniest layout.

Change can be hard for users, making familiarity one of the biggest drivers of decision. Individuals who had spent years under the workflow of a given software begrudgingly adapt even to changes made within that application. For a user to migrate to something else entirely can be a bit like relearning how to ride a bike. But does this mean that the new solution’s interface is crap? Not necessarily. These challenges also appear for those switching between Mac and Windows along with their associated software. Most understandably want to avoid sacrificing their sunk costs to protect what they already know.

So once one is able to get past the fact that things will look unfamiliar and work differently, one finds that most free software is very much a first class citizen in its own right. If you’re constantly dipping your toes in and never committing, of course it’s always going to look daunting. That is true of anything. Sounding off about a new tool not being completely identical to one’s current tool is largely internal justification to avoid unfamiliarity or growing one’s knowledge.