Crystal prisons and Calvinists

The Apple side of the blogosphere has been alight recently with the EFF’s editorial, “Apple’s Crystal Prison and the Future of Open Platforms.” John Gruber nails the common—and essentially correct—reaction to this:

Prison is an unpleasant (to say the least) place, and prisoners are not allowed to leave. If you own an iPhone or an iPad you can sell it or throw it in the trash whenever you want. People choose to buy an iPhone. No one chooses to go to prison.

The piece is supposed to be a criticism of Apple’s platform design and policies, but really, what they’re doing is criticizing users for enjoying it.

This crystallized, if you’ll pardon the expression, a complaint that I’ve had about the free software movement—at least the partisans most aligned with Richard Stallman—for a long time. They don’t actually believe free software is good enough to make arguments for its use on technical merits alone. Instead, their arguments, if you pursue them long enough, always end up in a very Calvinistic place: if you don’t use free software, you’re a terrible, immoral person and you should be ashamed of yourself.

Someone making rational, informed choices might choose free software, but they might decide that certain functionality or even aesthetics is worth paying for and accept the inherent risks that come with closed source products. They might decide that open source isn’t necessary for their purposes as long as they have open data.

Bring that up in an online discussion with the more zealous types, though, and you will absolutely not get a response arguing for free software on practical merits. What you’ll get is pious sanctimony and fire. (No brimstone—it’s under the BSD license.) If you use closed source software then, like the rest of the unbelievers, you’re going to hell. Put down that iPad before it’s too late! Don’t say we didn’t try to warn you!

No, Richard Stallman is certainly not a communist. He’s a Puritan with poor hygiene.

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