I’ve been in many “Linux on the Desktop” debates over the years and my stance today is largely the same as two decades ago: if you want free software to succeed, it must be pre-installed on hardware where all hardware features work, with a hardware vendor that supports it. It doesn’t matter nearly as much how easy a distribution is to install (it’s been easier to install than alternatives for twenty years), because people generally don’t install Windows or MacOS from scratch either, they just buy a computer with everything set up out of the box. Unlike twenty years ago, people are more familiar with computers today and easily switch between Windows, MacOS, ChromeOS, Android, and iOS. I’d argue PureOS is as easy to use as the rest.
Yet no matter what OS or hardware you use, or how easy it is to use, you are going to need help with it at some point. This support is critical to the success of free software, but it’s (unfortunately) largely under-appreciated while simultaneously a significant cost both in time (for volunteer projects) and money (for commercial projects). I wanted to use this post to underscore the importance of professional support for free software, and highlight why it’s so important that we at Purism offer full support for free software on our hardware–it’s critical to free software succeeding and it’s been a critical part of how we approach our mission.
One big reason we value free software is the freedom it gives people over their computer. People will often highlight the fact that if you don’t like something free software does, or you find a bug, you are empowered to fix it yourself. While that’s true, it’s only true for software developers or people who can hire one. Yet even if you aren’t a software developer, the underlying philosophy of freedom for the user extends past developing software and into how free software empowers people. By developing software out in the open, with a mind toward building a community, free software creates a more fertile ground for exploration, experimentation, and education.
Many of our customers come from the Windows or MacOS world and it’s the first time they have used something like PureOS. While PureOS is easy to use, it’s also different from those worlds so people often have questions as they explore the system. They also typically need to deal with proprietary services or file formats they used on their previous computer. These folks would not be using free software if they had to install it themselves, yet with it pre-installed and fully functional on their computer, they get the same experience they’d get from proprietary vendors, with the same safety net of professional support to answer any questions. Our support team is also able to help them interoperate with the non-free parts of their computing life and help them to get the most out of their computer without having to rely on us.
Proprietary software vendors have a perverse incentive to lock you into dependence on their products, and ultimately on them, to use your computer. This incentive bleeds into their support model. Their goal is not for you to become a more capable computer user, but for you to rely on them. They don’t want you to tinker or explore, but instead to “leave everything to us.” This dependence is one reason why so many people feel like they rent, instead of own, the hardware they buy.
You don’t empower people by making it difficult to interoperate with competitors, or by making them rely on you. Instead you empower them with professional support that lets them explore and tinker, and when they get lost, guides them back to safety.
Many Purism customers are tinkerers and explorers and we encourage it. It’s why we expose the screws on the bottom of our laptop, explain how to install firmware and different operating systems, and often write guides that dive into the lower levels of our systems. Yet what empowers people to explore more than anything else, is knowing our support team is there when they get lost.
Our support team fields incoming questions every day, not just about regular PureOS desktop use, but everything from security questions, to customers tinkering with our firmware, replacing hardware, writing their own free software applications, and even running other Linux distributions on Purism hardware. It takes a dedicated and knowledgeable support team to handle such a high volume and wide range of questions and we are so fortunate to have incredibly talented and dedicated people on our team.
The community (wikis, forums, and chat) is an important way for people to get support. These avenues not only enable self-service, but also allow the community to supplement the time and effort of people directly working on a hardware or software project, which is critical to a project being able to scale. Community support also provides a wonderful opportunity for people from all backgrounds–instead of just software developers–to contribute to a project. The free software world is (finally) starting to realize that these contributions and contributors should be considered as on an equal footing with more technical contributions.
Yet even as valuable as community support is, professional support is still critical for free software to succeed. Geeks aren’t the only people who deserve freedom. If we want people of all backgrounds to use free software (and we do!), we must give them an experience like they have on their proprietary platforms, but empowered by the freedom we already enjoy. The only way to achieve this goal is to combine hardware that runs free software well with an easy-to-use operating system set up ahead of time and fully functional out of the box, and provide professional support to help people when they need it.
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