Why Linux? / Why free software?


There’s countless individual reasons why Windows sucks and nobody should use it, so I’m going to focus more on the ideological differences and how they give rise to practical differences for end users. I’m also going to avoid addressing macOS here too much because (1) some of these arguments still apply, (2) the people that use macOS tend to want it because it’s Apple, (3) switching wouldn’t be very hard so they don’t need much convincing. There is a bit of nuance to it, but that’s out of scope for this discussion.

The free software movement focuses on many aspects of software (actual price being of lesser importance) but a common theme between it all is respecting the personal autonomy of the user and the software not acting as if it always knows better than the user. Another aspect involves treating the software more like knowledge to be shared and built upon instead of (intellectual) property that needs to be managed by a sole owner and where people are merely given the privilege of accessing it.

Part 1 - History

It’s important to characterize what Microsoft is like as a company. I think it’s important to analyze things in terms of incentive structures, and we can use past behavior to try to understand the incentives that actors are following.

One of the earliest examples of Microsoft being Microsoft was the DOS wars in the 80s. Most people aren’t aware that there was other DOSes than MS-DOS. PC-DOS, DR-DOS, FreeDOS, and others. For the most part, programs written for one DOS could run just fine another DOS. Microsoft made early versions of Word and their other products print a warning message if it detected that they were running on any DOS other than MS-DOS, even though it ran just fine. So this plus other warnings they gave to decision makers in companies made them very afraid to use DOSes other than MS-DOS, and Microsoft crushed the competition.

Microsoft, once being the most valuable corporation in the world, now has immense power over the entire technology industry. They want to keep being a massive corporation and they have the means to make that happen.

The GNU project started in the 80s in the wake of RMS getting really angry at printer manufacturers for being bad, even worse than they are today. Independently, the Linux project got started as a side project in 1991. These projects grew out of academia and had no profit motive, and the earliest distributions were put together just by normal people in their free time. This kind of project saw enthusiastic adoption among a somewhat technically-inclined crowd, and for a brief weird time (nearly 30 years ago!), some game publishers, in the interest of reaching as wide as an audience as possible, even made native Linux releases of their games. Not random games people has never heard of, games like Quake.

But that got Microsoft really scared. A free and open source operating system that respected the freedoms of its users? Early Windows couldn’t possibly compete in the long run. So they changed the game. They poured millions of dollars into marketing campaigns and other propaganda to slander the early FOSS movement. You probably still may have heard the lies repeated today:

The reasons about security are especially ironic because of the atrocious track record that Windows has. Windows security vulnerabilities are always way funnier than anything else because of the sheer scope of their fuckups. That could also be a little schadenfreude.

They also took more direct efforts to establish Windows as the singular OS for businesses and to undermine alternatives:

The internal corporate motto is “Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish”. This was especially a big deal during the Browser wars of the late 90s and early 2000s with Internet Explorer, ActiveX nonsense, later Silverlight vs Flash, Java, etc. The Wikipedia article on that is good enough. (As an aside, the entire existence of C# is to lock desktop application developers into the Microsoft .NET ecosystem. That’s why it’s so similar to Java. It’s vomit inducing to think that someone would want to try to own a language that people use to express ideas. Could you imagine if the French government tried to sue you for speaking French outside France? Yet multiple companies tried to do that in the 90s up until around the mid-2000s.)

And more recently:

After Satya Nadella came to the leadership, things did change somewhat. Developers were leaving Windows in droves because all the good tooling was on Linux or macOS. The old strategy of EEE didn’t work anymore because people realized what was up. It was too ingrained in Microsoft’s corporate culture to remove, so they changed course. People left Windows for Linux because of the dev tools, but they stayed because of the culture and ideology. So what Microsoft did was introduce WSL. It was a basic way for people to use Linux dev tools on Windows, in a Linux-ish environment. From a technical perspective, it was pretty cool, but it also kinda sucked a lot of things didn’t work. But it worked just well enough that suddenly the perceived benefit of switching for most devs just wasn’t there anymore. They launched this long campaign of “Microsoft <3 Linux” in order to try to pave over their earlier war crimes, and now there’s an entire generation of developers getting started that don’t remember their earlier sins. They became of corporate sponsor of the Linux Foundation, but their contributions are almost exclusively to make Linux work better in WSL and on Azure, their cloud infrastructure service. If they really “loved” Linux, they’d be contributing to WINE, releasing Office for Linux, and taking an entirely different track. They only “love” it to the extent that it deepens their position, and fuck anyone that thinks otherwise.

This also brings us to the GitHub acquisition. GitHub spent a really long time building themselves as the place where open source development happens. But because of corporate mismanagement (they went without a CEO for a few months, among other things), their investors were looking for an out. Along comes Microsoft with infinitely deep pockets and decides to buy them out and rescue them from that.

I don’t want to get into the Minecraft situation with “Windows 10 edition” and transitioning to Microsoft accounts, but you can probably fill in the blanks at this point.

To conclude this section, some of big ideas are these:

Update: I was made aware of the history that Microsoft had with Corel, the makers of WordPerfect which was a competitor to Microsoft Word for a very long time. Corel saw the competition that Microsoft was and doubled down on investing in the Linux ecosystem in the mid/late 90s and even began their own Linux distribution, in order to be able to better sell productivity software and support into that ecosystem and make it a viable alternative in the office environment. Microsoft invested a bunch of money in Corel and acquired shares, which naturally led to them dropping their interest in Linux soon after. If they just got $135M of fresh funding then wouldn’t they be happy to continue development on their Linux stuff?

Part 2 - Success despite it all

Things just work. The way software development in corporations works tends to be focused on delivering products, and bigger picture work to pay down technical debt and change things for the better tends to happen very rarely. Software that people work on for the joy of the craft tends to be better. The kinds of people that do it for the joy of the craft often have almost autistic obsessions with developing good software (including myself, unfortunately).

Since computers have integrated themselves so deeply into our society (and in a relatively short period of time, about 30 years), and they forms a new medium with which our culture plays out. The tools that we use to interact with this new medium are extensions of ourselves and we shouldn’t have to settle for using software developed by actors that don’t have our best interests at heart. It puts you in a position to be taken advantage of and subjugated, and what you get out of it isn’t worth selling yourself into serfdom.

To speak more practically about it, there’s plenty of reasons:

I could go on for a while, but those are the bigger reasons.

These days there are some businesses made on providing for the free software community. Most of their income is in enterprise support. Some successful examples are:

There is an element of street cred to it. But it’s not really seen as something to brag about. Use a Thinkpad running QubesOS if you want to brag. Historically, it was a right of passage to use it as your daily driver and it’s a signal that you’re serious about what you’re doing with your personal computing. But because Microsoft (and others) is starting to sabotage the culture and corporations control the narrative of popular software development, this view is harder to come by. Now everybody is a code artisan using Macbooks sitting in Starbucks writing Ruby on RailsNode.js on top of MongoDB in Sublime TextVS Code. Oh yeah that’s another one, everybody uses VS Code these days too.

On “muh gaems”

(Context: WINE is a project for running Windows software on Linux, it works really well. Proton is a extension of it from Valve built into Steam that’s customized for running games.)

I don’t know the history of WINE very well, but it’s a great project. Gabe Newell started his career at Microsoft before starting Valve, and while he doesn’t speak out about it very often, it’s pretty clear he rejects their ideology. Valve is not morally pure, they’ve done some problematic things in the past, but as far as respecting the freedoms and autonomy of its users they’re better than pretty much every other game developer. (And of course they don’t release their games as free software, but that’s not really as much of a problem for games as it is for other categories of software.) A couple of years ago, Valve started funding some development for WINE in response to the Windows 8 and UWP debacle, as Gabe saw the writing on the wall that Microsoft wants to control the PC gaming industry with even more of a stranglehold than they do already. There was also that guy that really wanted to play Nier: Automata on Linux so he started working on DXVK, which was an implementation of DirectX 11 on top of Vulkan, and it lets countless games just werk that wouldn’t otherwise. Not random Unity games (which do work well), AAA games like GTA, Fallout, The Witcher III, Sekiro, Hitman 2, Cyberpunk 2077, etc. And even VR games like Beat Saber work really well. (That one time I didn’t get Beat Saber working is because there was an update and I forgot to do a thing that I should have done, and I was also trying to have a nice night drinking with friends. VR is still problematic sometimes in Windows, even when you’re staying within the lines of what the corporate overlords have decided you’re allowed to do. It worked before then and it’s worked ever since.)

Check out protondb.com to check how different games are doing. In the top 100 games on Steam, 80% have Gold, Platinum, or Native ratings. Also check out Lutris, sometimes there’s some quirks that haven’t made it into Proton that Lutris can work with if someone’s made a configuration for it.

Part 3 - Reasons

People have a lot of excuses as to why they can’t use Linux. Some of them are actually valid (even if it’s unfortunate), but there’s a lot that are just shortsighted. So I’m going to refute a few of the more commonly cited ones.

Bad reasons:

And everything here should be taken with a massive massive grain of salt: You can have it both ways. Dual booting is something that personal computers have been able to do almost since the dawn of time.

From above: DRM is fundamentally a flawed concept because of the analog loophole (see Wikipedia). Anti-cheat is really misused. The popular one to talk about is Vanguard because of how invasive it is, but practically speaking game publishers use it to allow themselves to hire cheaper developers instead of hiring people that know (or spending money to train people to learn) how to write game netcode that’s harder to cheat with. Minecraft servers have better free and open source community-developed non-invasive server-side only anti-cheat systems than AAA games like Valorant. I could probably do an entire writeup on these ideas, too, but it’d just be reiterating a lot of the points I already made here.

Good reasons:

Maybe some others. I’d have to think about it.


So that’s a brief overview of it all. If I’m wrong about any of the particulars of the historical parts then let me know and I’ll correct them.

my hands are getting tired

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