10/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Free Software

Like nearly everyone else these days, I use computers to write, read email, browse the web, store music and photos, and generally organize my life. Unlike most people, I'm using a free operating system, rather than Microsoft's Windows/Vista, or Apple's Mac OS. Specifically, I'm using Ubuntu, a popular distribution of GNU/Linux.

Ubuntu is but one of many free software distributions. Distrowatch lists 10 major and more than 100 minor Linux and free BSD distributions, many of which are minor remixes of a handful of the major distributions.

I would encourage others to think about migrating to Linux. It's now possible to buy laptops from Dell with Ubuntu pre-installed, or to install Linux on one of your computers, either as the sole operating system, or as one that co-exists with Windows or the Mac OS.

Why would anyone try Linux? Well, it does put some fun back into computing, and the newer distributions are both powerful and elegant, with eye candy, cool programs, a very good usability. There's more, however. Linux is truly a "free" operating system, with an emphasis on freedom. It is created by and for users, and as a platform, it creates a different relationship between the users and the Internet than do the Microsoft or Apple commercial alternatives. It's also an important experiment in how information technologies are created and managed, and the success of the experiment depends somewhat on the ability to attract users.

It's hard to explain the experience without trying it. Using any Debian type Linux distribution (such as Ubuntu), it is very easy to find, install and update software. Pretty much everything I use is available at a zero price. Linux isn't a program, but rather a collection of thousands of programs that work together, each maintained by different communities. Most share the source code they develop, allowing others to copy, modify and incorporate code into new and even competing programs.

The most popular office productivity software is now from OpenOffice.Org, a project supported by Sun, IBM and many individuals and small firms. Version 1 of Open Office was lousy. Version 2 was much better, and I'm looking forward to Version 3, which will be released soon. Firefox is the most important of more than a dozen web browers that run on Linux. An increasing number of commercial products work on Linux, such as Google Earth, Google' Picasa, Adobe's Acrobat Reader and Flash. Most of what people expect on a laptop already works well on Linux, but that is not really the main point. Linux is a possible future, one that isn't controlled by Microsoft or Apple, and one that responds to a different set of values. Ubuntu is so good that it now seems plausible to anticipate a significant shift from Apple and Microsoft to Linux. This would be no small thing, increasing the odds that the Internet will continue to develop in ways that empowers users. Linux provides a powerful counterweight to companies or governments that undermine innovation, privacy and freedom, benefits that should not be taken for granted or undervalued.

Both Microsoft and Apple want Linux to fail as a "client" operating system. Apple has yet to support the open document format (ODF), or make its popular iTunes or Safari programs available for Linux. Microsoft has not released its widely used Microsoft Office program for Linux, and is pushing for a series of proprietary or Microsoft controlled file formats that are not fully implemented on the Linux platform. Governments can help by using procurement policies to ensure that data formats can be implemented by more than one software program in at least the three leading operating systems, something that will be explored in some global forums.

In general however, it will be important for individuals to switch to Linux, not only from Microsoft, but also from Apple. Today many free software proponents don't use free software themselves. Because of this, they often don't fully understand or appreciate the ways the platform works, the policies (by individuals, organizations, regulators or governments) that would make it work better, or the interesting ways that innovation is created and managed in an environment where knowledge becomes community property. I'd like to use analogies to better explain the difference between talking about free software and using free software, and I'm sure there are plenty -- is reading about sex the same as having sex? Can you really understand foreign policy without visiting foreign countries?

Today there are enormous pressures to monopolize data formats, control multimedia content delivery to users, introduce deep systems of surveillance into the networks, and other disturbing trends. There are also very powerful examples of the benefits of more openness, freedom, competition and collaboration. There is, I believe, an increasingly important social aspect of personally embracing the use of free software. There are of course some challenges, rough edges here and there -- nothing like even a few years ago, but they do exist. But they are manageable for many users.

Because of the stakes, people should increasingly be thinking of free software as a social movement. It is not only about a small number of programmers and engineers. It is about everyone who cares about the future of knowledge ecosystems.