A Question of Choice

Choice: it's one of the key ideas at the heart of free software.  The right to choose how to use your software, the right to choose who you share it with.  Who could be against choice?  Certainly not the Initiative for Software Choice, except that it has a slightly different view of what choice implies:

To encourage continued software innovation and promote broad choice, governments are encouraged to consider the following neutral principles:

  • Procure software on its merits, not through categorical preferences

  • Promote broad availability of government funded research

  • Promote interoperability through platform-neutral standards

  • Maintain a choice of strong intellectual property protections

But wait a minute: "maintain a choice of strong intellectual property protections" - that's not quite a neutral principle, is it?  It rather begs the question whether intellectual property is really a good idea.  In Europe, for example, there are still lively discussions going on about whether such intellectual monopolies should apply to "software innovation" at all.

So let's look a little closer at this Initiative for Software Choice.  It certainly has an impressive list of members - hundreds of them.  They mostly seem to be small companies, and nothing wrong with that.  But wait, there are couple of bigger fish among the minnows: EDS is there, and a certain outfit called Microsoft.  And investigating a little further, in the great memory bucket that is Google we find this interesting article in The Register from 2002, by Bruce Perens, in which he reveals that the Initiative for Software Choice owes its origins not only to Microsoft, but also to Peru:

Microsoft is worried about Peruvian Congressman Edgar Villanueva's proposal for his nation's government agencies to standardize on Free Software for their own internal use.  ...  Microsoft has responded with a clever Software Choice campaign that, read quickly, appears to fight discrimination and call for choice, while actually promoting policies that would lock out Free Software.

This information is particularly interesting in the context of a letter that is starting to pop up across the Internet.  It was sent on 10 October from Hugo Lueders, Director of the Initiative for Software Choice Europe, to Françoise Le Bail, Deputy Director-General for the European Commission's Directorate-General Enterprise and Industry, and copied to three other senior EU figures.  The letter comments on a draft version of a study carried out by UNU-MERIT on behalf of the EU on "The impact of Free/Libre/Open Source Software on innovation and competitiveness of the European Union".  A related workshop on the topic was held recently.

The letter seems to be an attempt to blunt some of the impact of this study, which presumably comments positively on the state and potential of free software in Europe, and recommends its wider promotion and deployment there.  Mr Lueders plays his main card right from the start:

It must be reiterated that FLOSS is merely a business model for distributing software, just like many other software business models including hybrid and proprietary software.

This is a clever gambit.  By reducing free software to "merely a business model" it tries to short-circuit all discussions about the other, non-economic benefits that open source offers.  For example, free software creates a digital commons, owned by none but from which all can benefit.  Free software puts the user firmly back in control: there is no vendor lock-in as with proprietary products.  Often there are several suppliers of similar products (as in the GNU/Linux market) or several completely different but compatible solutions (as with the office suites that support ODF).  But these are aspects that the Initiative for Software Choice wants to avoid discussing, because closed source software is the equivalent of enclosing the digital commons, not extending it, and its business model is to make it as hard as possible to leave for those that pay for the privilege of using some fenced-off resource.

Ignoring these broader issues, Mr Lueders prefers to talk about serious business matters like "IPR" - intellectual property rights:

the proprietary model is supported to a large extent by a complex system of rights (i.e. IPR) that has spawned from societal experiences to provide incentives for innovative technological progress.  This system remains valid of its own right; it is an intricate and market-oriented stimulant of innovation that clearly works. ...  IPR fosters and protects innovation - that cannot be denied."

This is the line routinely taken by fans of IPR, but there is plenty of evidence that IPR neither fosters nor protects.  For intellectual property is not about property at all: it is about a government-granted intellectual monopoly.  And monopolies are bad - "that cannot be denied" as Mr Lueders might say.  If you want to understand why, read the brilliant book "Against Intellectual Monopoly" by Michelle Boldrin and David K. Levine, freely available online. 

The overall thrust of the letter (and of the Initiative for Software Choice's campaigns) boils down to the idea that choosing to give preferential treatment to open source is somehow discriminatory and wrong, just as Microsoft's Software Choice campaign claimed back in 2002.  But as Rob Weir points out in a wise posting on the subject of choice:

The fact is that every decision, ever[y] choice you make, commits you and eliminates some other choices. We choose because without choosing we cannot claim the value in a single path among alternatives.

In other words, choosing to support free software is not a neutral act, and should not be judged as such: it is a conscious selection of the solution that is deemed to be better. The Initiative for Software Choice, by contrast, wants to deny governments the option of choosing to encourage such solutions, forcing them instead to support business models that inherently limit their freedom.

This is similar to the pro-smoking lobby's argument that the government should not try to prevent people from taking up smoking because it would restrict their ability to choose, as if smoking and not smoking were abstract, equivalent states.  But they are not: smoking harms the smoker directly and society indirectly in many ways.  When governments choose to discourage smoking they are doing so because they want to intervene to protect the smoker and reduce social costs.  Similarly, when governments choose to promote free software, it is with the aim of guiding their departments towards solutions that are better for them, and better for society as a whole.

Glyn Moody writes about open source software at opendotdotdot.



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linux choice's picture

Yes, choice is an important factor, but at the end of the day, it all depend on quality, how easy to use the software and easy to install.


Taran's picture

A well written and accurate post that connects the dots pretty well. And yet, there is an issue of there being a choice as well between software licenses as well. Certainly, we would like to encourage open source and free software licenses, but legislating them as the only option does not necessarily make them right. It's in this muddy water, where most people stop thinking, that Microsoft usually starts their cases.

If only people chose to think of long term consequences...

Smokers Analogy

Anonymous's picture

I really like the smokers analogy, kool, extra points there!

"When governments choose to discourage smoking they are doing so because they want to intervene to protect the smoker and reduce social costs."


When governments choose open source they are doing so because they want to intervene to protect the people and reduce social costs.

Just love it!


Minor quibble

Nicholas Petreley's picture

Free software puts the user firmly back in control: there is no vendor lock-in as with proprietary products.

Proprietary software does not guarantee vendor lock-in. If a proprietary software product uses open standards in all of the right places, you can switch to another product that does the same thing (FOSS or proprietary) with very little effort.

For example, I am now running two email servers, one is CommuniGate Pro, the other is cyrus IMAP. I happened to use an imap copy utility, but since CommuniGate Pro stores all its messages in mbox format, I could have migrated the data in other ways. I wrote a simple script to migrate almost everything from CommuniGate Pro to cyrus, unattended, in just minutes. I imagine I could have done basically the same to migrate from CommuniGate Pro to another proprietary product. I experienced no lock-in at all just because CGate is a proprietary product.

On the other hand, it's easy to get locked into something like Microsoft Office because Microsoft deliberately makes it difficult to migrate to anything else.

As yet another example, many Linux distributions can be 100% FOSS, yet they still have a degree of lock-in. It's not easy to install on Debian a package intended for Mandriva, to cite one of MANY examples. I may have to find several libraries on my own, I may have to compile some libraries myself, I may have to rewrite init scripts, and so on. So it's possible to use the Mandriva package, but it can be harder to do than it was for me to migrate my data from CommuniGate Pro to cyrus imap.

This goes back to my other blog entry that points out that proprietary, itself, is not something that is inherently evil. Granted, FOSS is almost always a better choice because it give you more freedom in the long run. I just wanted to point out that it's not as black and white as many think.

Quibble to what point?

Jim Dennis's picture


Glyn neither said nor implied that all proprietary software entails vendor lock-in. You're argument only has a point if he were being so absolute or, if it was an uncommon problem.

In fact vendor lock-in is one of the most common risks taken by customers of non-free software. Many, many customers have been
"left in the lurch" or forced to undergo expensive conversion projects
with large volumes of their critical business data due to various vendor lock-in issues. Probably the most common forms of these headaches are precipitated by the failures or aquisitions (sometimes hostile) of software companies and the subsequent discontinuation of their products.

It isn't wrong to point out that there is no lock-in with free software. In fact it emphasized one of the key benefits by contrast to one of the major risks of using non-free software.

So, I would say that your quibble is wholly misguided!

Jim Dennis

lock-in != hard

Tyler's picture

So you're arguing that it's easier to transfer data between some proprietary applications than to install mandriva packages on Debian... which proves what exactly? Lock-in doesn't mean 'hard'. If the source code is available for the packages you want to use then they can be installed on any system. It might be hard, and it might take a lot of digging to chase down dependencies, but that's not the same as lock-in.

With FOSS you have the freedom to find the solution. With proprietary code the solution is kept from you. If, as in your example, a proprietary vendor provides an easy way to transfer your data, that's great. But if they choose not to, you can't do it for yourself.

FOSS avoids lock-in not by making things easy, but by making things possible.

Of course, we'd like it to be easy to use our preferred programs on our favourite OS. But that's a separate issue.



Nicholas Petreley's picture

Lock-in often does result from "hard". It's entirely possible to migrate an entire company off Microsoft Office onto OpenOffice.org. Many companies choose not to do so because it's hard (and therefore costly). I consider that lock-in, even though it's certainly possible to migrate. I also think the cost would be worth it, but that's not for me to decide. Companies make their own decisions, good or bad, and live with the consequences.

Lock-in also results from closed formats

Anonymous's picture

Hello Nick,

You're right in that it can be "hard" for some organizations to migrate from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice.org. Now, let's look at *why* it's hard.

Simply installing an application onto "the perfect workstation", and then imaging that workstation out to a bunch of workstations, is trivial; I do this all the time. That part is not at all hard. Additionally, I would claim, from several years of experience with OO.o in a dyed-in-the-wool "Microsoft shop", that OpenOffice.org has little, if now any, trouble with even the closed, proprietary Microsoft Office file formats (I find it superb, actually). The "hard" part of the file format issue, i. e. the reverse-engineering done by the OO.o team, has been stellar in this regard, even since the 641b Beta version from 2002.

What makes such a migration "hard" now is when an organization has macros written in Visual BASIC for Applications, a proprietary, closed language that Microsoft keeps very tightly controlled. They would sue the pants off of anybody, including the OO.o foundation, if that somebody tried to implement VBA w/o Microsoft's blessing. Those macros would, therefore, need to be re-written in OOBasic/StarBasic. While that can be expensive, you're right in that it can be done. Microsoft is thus doing everything that it can to make it so difficult to move to something "not theirs", that many businesses can be expected to, and do, just throw in the towel and roll over.

*That* is the problem with proprietary software. It is *possible* to move from well-known standards to closed standards and thus lock your users in. The whole point of Microsoft moving from the MS Office 4.3/95 formats to the new ones in MS Office 97/2K/XP/2003 was to stop competitors from being able to interoperate with them. With Free Software, such a move would be impossible.

As for the "use the Mandriva package on Debian" angle, personally, I would just download the source code from the upstream developer and compile it on Debian (I do this on Slackware all the time). And in the specific case of Debian, I believe that distro's got the most precompiled packages of all the GNU/Linux distros (over 15,000, last I counted), so I can't imagine that a .deb equivalent to your Mandriva package wouldn't be available.

Pardon me, but it sounds to me like you're confirming the case that Glyn is making in this article. If not, can you explain what you're getting at a bit more?

Hard revisited

Nicholas Petreley's picture

My point is that the lock-in you described is deliberate. It isn't an inevitable result of software being proprietary. You can create and sell great proprietary software that does not lock in your customers. So proprietary simply does not equal lock in. It simply makes lock-in a lot easier if that's the company's intent.

The lock-in we find in FOSS (primary Linux distributions) isn't nearly as hard to deal with because it's FOSS. But that doesn't mean there's NO lock-in. It's just not as severe, and not as likely to hold people back. But it exists, and it would be intellectually dishonest to refuse to admit it. It's one reason why some companies officially support one or two distributions, and not ALL distributions. Distributions differ at a low enough level to (sometimes) make it a pain in the keister to mix packages, or migrate things, or build software (like MythTV) based on instructions for a different distribution than the one you're using.

I guess my real point is that I think people go overboard in their views that FOSS is utopian and proprietary is evil. It's not that black and white. I wish it was that simple, at least on the FOSS side, but it isn't.

You're right

Glyn Moody's picture

I was exaggerating for the sake of rhetoric - but not much. In general, those selling proprietary software see their model as locking you and in feeding off you. If they follow open standards it's only because the marketplace has forced it on them - just look at how long it took for TCP/IP to establish itself against the myriad communications protocols.

And it's true that companies based around free software are not entirely innocent of this sin, but the underlying dynamics of the open source world mean that lock-in tends to be more subtle - like the Debian/Mandrake problems.

My main point was the obvious that doesn't really need to be made here: that there are lots of good reasons why people would want to use open source software beyond the economic ones that this letter wants to focus on.

I understand

Nicholas Petreley's picture

I get your point. It was just the blanket nature of the statement I wanted to address:

Free software puts the user firmly back in control: there is no vendor lock-in as with proprietary products.

This implies that all proprietary products produce lock-in, and that OSS somehow necessarily frees people from lock-in. I just wanted to point out that it's not that black and white on either side. I wouldn't have even mentioned it if it were worded a little differently, such as:

Free software can put the user firmly in control: there is no vendor lock-in as with some proprietary products.

Better still (not a suggestion for your article, which was great, but just how I would address the issue, myself):

Proprietary software, just because it is proprietary, enables vendors to attempt to lock customers into a solution, or worse, bleed their customers with an endless upgrade or bug-fix cycle. Free software better enables users to control their own destiny with respect to the software they use.

The above tempers the praise for free software a bit, because let's be honest, it's not all roses. It also places the blame where it belongs with respect to proprietary software: The vendors who use it to lock in customers and bleed them. All things considered, free software always comes out on top. But free vs. proprietary is not always heaven vs. hell. ;) There are good proprietary products that don't lock you in. And there are free software solutions that are a big pain in the butt, and hard to deal with even when you do have control.

FOSS and lock-in--a bit of disagreement

Anonymous's picture

I don't see the lock-in here with FOSS. Let's take Red Hat as an example. If I don't want to deal with Red Hat, no problem; I actually *can* go elsewhere. CentOS is one of several clones of RHEL, and even Red Hat themselves admit that they still have to actually earn your business for this reason. The reason is that the source is GPL'd. Furthermore, anybody--including any company--can make RPM's that will work on RHEL, CentOS, White Box Enterprise Linux, Pink Tie Enterprise Linux, or whatever. I just don't see how you're locked into one vendor here.

By contrast, if I invest in platforms from, say, Microsoft or Apple, I cannot go out and get a clone of Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X. Nor can I have someone else write changes/bugfixes to the MS Windows or Mac OS X source code. It's illegal, due to their closed, proprietary nature. The fact that both speak an open standard called TCP/IP doesn't change that. Now, this seems more to me like actual lock-in.

Your analogy

Nicholas Petreley's picture

Your analogy works but it doesn't cover all types of lock-in. Sure, you can go from Red Hat to CentOS, but you can't go from Windows XP to CentXP because CentXP doesn't exist.

But your analogy breaks down when you try to go from Red Hat to Ubuntu, or even Red Hat to Mandriva (which used to be based on Red Hat, and still uses RPMs). It's certainly possible to make the switch, but it isn't easy. The level of difficulty and cost involved will determine the amount of lock-in. If a company had 50,000 employees with Fedora on their desktops and decided that they didn't like Fedora anymore, what would it take to migrate all the clients and all the software they were running (including their internally created software) to run on Ubuntu? There's no telling, really, because we don't know what they use or what they wrote, and what their custom software depends upon. But it could be anything from a pain to a nightmare to switch.

That's lock-in. It is not cured by the fact that both Fedora and Ubuntu are FOSS. And, even worse, it's lock-in that doesn't have to exist. I don't see a GOOD reason for many/most distributions to differ at as low a level as they do now. I see plenty of bad reasons, but no good ones.

I'm not talking about the difference between something like DSL and Ubuntu. Two different audiences. I'm talking about the needless differences between Fedora, Mandriva, SUSE, Ubuntu, etc. These are all comprehensive distros basically targeted at the same audience.

Just being FOSS is no miracle cure for all types of lock-in. It just makes total lock-in impossible. It doesn't make all degrees of lock-in disappear.

Use vendors that offer a choice

cyber_rigger's picture

Buy your next computer from a vendor that offers you a choice.

preinstalled Desktop Linux