Promoting Free Culture With Proprietary Software
In the last couple of years I sadly tuned down my free software usage and evangelism. I still believe in it but I just got tired of using 100% free software and decided to take a more pragmatic route. The pragmatic route, just as the title says, it means sometimes using proprietary software. But I’m not talking about Google services or Windows, I’m talking about companies that promote free culture1 even if their core product is not necessarily free.
I’m sure many in the free software community will reject the ideas I present here, but I hope this post will still help others find a middle ground that can let them use technology effectively without compromising their beliefs. But not only will you use technology more effectively, you will also support those services that promote free software instead of staying an observer.
Bandcamp is a website that lets you to listen to and purchase music. The twist is that when you buy through them, not only do you support the artist2 but you also get your purchased song/album in a standard DRM-free music file3. It is one of the last (and largest) services that let you own your music. I think that even though their service is proprietary supporting them is a great way to promote free culture as a whole.
Komoot is a social network for travellers, and just like Bandcamp it’s proprietary, but what drew me was their usage of OpenStreetMap. How does using OpenStreetMap actually help our free culture? By spreading word of it. Not only do they contribute to free software (and maintain one of the best geocoders for OpenStreetMap), they expose users to OpenStreetMap and that’s how many people, including myself, started contributing. Ideally I would have used a fully free OpenStreetMap client like OSMAnd, but I think the level of polish in Komoot helps get people to use it and break Google Maps’s monoculture.
There are many proprietary services that use OpenStreetMap, but using OpenStreetMap is not enough, the service should also be good for its users. I think Komoot achives it eithout engaging in any dark patterns. By being a paid-for service, they have a better incentive than ad-based services like Facebook or Snapchat4 which both also use OpenStreetMap.
There is an abundance of free mail services and I might switch to one of them one day, but Fastmail has something important that most of them lack, a really good user interface. From my experience, Fastmail is such a good service, that you should use it even if you don’t care about free software at all.
But I’m here to talk about free culture, so how does Fastmail promote it? It helps keep email decentralized, against the attempts by Google and Microsoft. In the past couple of years, the standard mailing protocols have become obsolete, but Fastmail are the only ones who’re trying to replace it with a new open alternative. Not only that, they are keeping the concept of smaller mail servers alive, without services like them, Gmail will become a centralized service that only accepts messages from other Gmail addresses.
These are only three examples of proprietary services that I have come to use in the last couple of years. But there are more that promote important aspects of a free culture, in my opinion. WhatsApp for example is a notorious proprietary service that was unfortunately bought by Facebook, but are we really moving forward by using a centralized, non-encrypted, service like Telegram5?
I believe that by focusing on paid services, you can filter out most of the really harmful services, and who knows, you might find some services that shares your values, even if not completely.
I’m talking about more than just software, so I intentionally use the phrase free culture. ↩︎
An average of 82% of each purchase reaches the artist ↩︎
You can also buy a physical album as a CD or vinyl if that’s your thing. ↩︎
In every ad-based service, you are the product that is being sold to advertisers. That means they will try to make you addicted and track you as much as they can. ↩︎
There are other solutions like Riot (or is it Element now?) but they haven’t reached the same level of polish. ↩︎