What free software has to do with sheep

One approach to explain the benefits of free and open source software

In the past, I’ve repeatedly shared what free software and cooking have in common. Today, I’d like to show you what free software has to do with sheep. That’s right, with sheep! If you think this is going to be a text on community management with references to flocks, shepherds and green fields, however, you’re quite wrong…

There’s often the question whether free and open source software is actually better than proprietary one. My gut feeling tells me quite clearly: of course! But if I look at the question with a little distance and try to be objective, then the answer is a bit more detailed.

Let’s maybe compare things to clothing. We all need clothes, because very few of us walk around naked all day. Some of us are quite interested in clothing, are familiar with patterns, cuts and materials and always know what’s in fashion. For others, clothing is simply a commodity that always looks very similar. That’s maybe comparable to cars. Some people are experts, know their way around engines and love to work on them, while others just want to drive the thing - they don’t care about any technical details or philosophical discussions.

That’s no different with software. While some people know all the specialties and technical details like the back of their hand, others simply want to use their computer without having to deal with too much details or discuss licenses and development models.

Clothing is everywhere, just as software is everywhere for all of us today, whether directly or indirectly. Cell phones, televisions, printers, also cars, washing machines and light bulbs - pretty much everything we have in our everyday lives runs on software these days.

A t-shirt, just like e.g. a graphics program, is first and foremost a product category. There is a variety of goods on the market that all look similar and all fulfill the same basic function. Regardless whether it’s the expensive luxury item from the designer’s shop or the version from the discount store that costs just a few euros, you can wear either of them and both are less or more fashionable. A graphics program will also generally fulfil all the essential functions - you can make and print drawings with pretty much any software, regardless of whether it is an unknown app from an individual programmer or a well-known software from a globally renowned company.

But if you take a closer look, things get more interesting.

When it comes to t-shirts, you not only have the choice between many colors or cuts. There is also an almost endless selection of materials and production methods, which also differ massively in terms of sustainability, reparability, environmental protection and manufacturing conditions. On the one hand, there is that absolutely cheap variant, which is made from an inferior fabric mix and has already traveled halfway around the world. Given the price, it should not come as surprise that the working conditions under which the t-shirt was made are probably rather precarious and that environmental protection is not that good either. If you’re lucky, it will last a whole season, after which it often can be thrown away - that doesn’t have much to do with sustainability. If it breaks, it’s usually not worth repairing. On the other hand, there is the expensive luxury producer’s version. This can be much better in some aspects, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Also in this case, the products are often flown halfway around the world before they reach the store, and the quality does not always match the price.

But let’s finally get to the sheep.

I am a huge fan of clothing made from sheep’s wool. The products are significantly less known than branded products made from other materials and cannot compete in price with the items from discount stores that cost just a few euros. Unfortunately, despite the price, you don’t automatically get sustainably produced goods here either. Some products are flown around the globe and animals have to suffer to produce them. However, there are also numerous manufacturers, some even organized as cooperatives, which produce sustainably, fairly, ecologically, locally and with consideration for animal welfare, and whose products last for many years if you take care of them, so they could even be cheaper in the long run than supposed less expensive items. Some manufacturers also offer a repair service so that the product does not have to be trashed immediately if it gets damaged. In other words, you get great quality from a small supplier that is not even known nationwide, let alone worldwide.

That brings me back to the software. Also here, the user has a choice in terms of quality, price, manufacturer, manufacturing conditions and sustainability. Software is similar to fashion - the purchase price is one thing, but care and maintenance should not be underestimated. Software requires regular updates, which today often come in a subscription model. T-shirts, on the other hand, need to be washed, in the case of luxury designer products sometimes also only with dry cleaning - all this involves effort and costs that should not be underestimated. Another criteria is the intended use. While one person is just looking for a comfortable t-shirt for the sofa, another needs a shirt that goes with a suit, and the next is looking for robust workwear for rough conditions. When it comes to software, one user needs a graphics program for occasional drawings, while another works as a photographer and uses it to do image editing, pushing all the functions to the limit.

For most people, the product category “graphics program” fulfils its purpose in the same way as the product category “t-shirt”. In the end, the question is always what is important to one personally. Do I want to know exactly how my product is created and who is involved? Do I have special requirements in terms of quality, sustainability and environmental friendliness? (Yes, there are now also corresponding certifications for software.) Do I want to be able to adapt and repair things myself if necessary? What do I like? What “feels” good?

To come back to the initial question: Even with a differentiated view, free software wins for me here. Fair, open, honest and sustainably produced in global communities, everything is transparent, everyone can contribute improvements themselves, and it simply “feels” good. In terms of functionality, free software is generally in no way inferior to proprietary software, and often even surpasses it. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t also proprietary software that I like and use - but free software simply “feels” better.

At the same time, I try not to overly “evangelize” anyone and explain all the philosophical details of the open source model (or even get into the discussion about the difference between free software and open source), because I have to accept that for some people the computer is simply a commodity - just as a car or a t-shirt is for others.

The “overall package” of price, function, feel-good effect, sustainability and transparency is convincing - and this is where free software clearly wins for me.