The European: In theory, free software is more customizable, accessible, and transparent than commercial software. Why aren’t we seeing more of it in our everyday lives?
Hall: You don’t see it because you don’t really look for it. But of the 500 fastest computers in the world, 98% run Linux. The same Linux that I run on my notebook or my desktop. And out of the 2% that are left, most of them run a Unix derivate of some type. Exactly one of them runs software from Microsoft—and that is only because Microsoft pays them to. Most of the email in the world uses a program called “Send Mail” or another one called “post fix,” both of which are open source. Android is based on a Linux kernel and is now outselling iOS even though iOS came out faster and everybody hails Steve Jobs as being a wonderful creator. In fact, it is the most used operating system and embedded system design these days. The one place where you don’t see Android is on a desktop, because Microsoft has an immense marketing engine.
The European: Does that mean that the Linux community has stopped pushing the desktop version?
Hall: No. We continue developing Ubuntu, which is one of the biggest distributions of Linux focused on a desktop. They now also create server editions and cloud editions but it started off on a desktop. We keep pushing it. Some people wrought their hands and said succeeding in this market is too hard – but they are forgetting something: There are 1.5 billion desktop computers in the world but there are 7.3 billion people which means that 5.8 billion people have not selected their desktop yet. And those people are typically people who don’t speak one of the five major European languages.
The European: What effect does this have?
Hall: They typically don’t have a lot of money, so many of these people pirate software. But there is a problem with pirating software: you cannot go back to the maker of the software and say: “Please would you fix this problem in the software I stole from you? Can you give me some training so that I can use the software I stole from you better?”. Piracy devalues the worth of a program just like stealing music devalues the worth of a musician. So what we say is that the development of free software is a cooperative thing where people keep adding to a product. Once it is on the web, you can use it as it exists. Just like if you bought a piece of software from a computer store. But if you say “I need to change it just a little bit. I need to add my language to it. I need it to work the way I work in my business, you can.” You can make the decision to hire a programmer to pay them to make the software work the way you want it to.
The European: For example?
Hall: A small company in Rio de Janeiro trying to investigate the rain forest went to Esri to get some geographical information software to do mapping. But the software was only available in English and all of them spoke Portuguese. Could you imagine that? Somebody not speaking English? They were willing to buy a 4.5 million dollar software. They went to Esri with 4.5 million dollars and Esri said the translation was not in their best business interest. So they went to a free software developer who used different components of available software, created software in Portuguese and charged them 380,000 dollars. What is the value of the software that this person created? It was infinite because that little company would not have survived without it. This is the difference between the cost of ownership and value. People don’t buy software. They buy solutions.
The European: You are an outspoken supporter of the copyright system – and yet you promote an alternative. Isn’t the copyright system standing in the in the way of greater software for all?
Hall: Actually one of the main licenses of free software is a software called GPL which was developed by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation. Richard believes that all software should be given away and freely shared. However, he also believes that people should be paid for their work. You would go in, you will write some software for some people, you will be paid for the work and once the software was written you will be free. The problem comes as soon as your software is out there without any other type of protection on it. All of a sudden you find out that people could take your software, change it slightly, and not make their changes available to you. But when you copyright the software and it belongs to you, you can lend licenses with the GPL, which forces people to make their changes to that the software is available if they distribute it. So the only thing that allows you to apply that license is the copyright. Without the copyright it is public domain. And with a public domain you can do whatever you want.
The European: You have criticized what you call “software slavery,” our dependence on closed, proprietary systems. Yet most desirable gadgets of our time are closed, and since software has become increasingly commodified, people are not even realizing that they are buying closed systems. Are we enslaving ourselves?
Hall: People have not realized that for a long time. Back in 1969 there were very few computers in the world and a lot of those did not use an operating system. They ran one program at a time. The software was delivered to you in source code form because you had to compile it on to your computer system to have it work. And I remember taking a long time getting some company programs to run on our computer systems. But then about 1977 to 1981 along came CPM, the Apple II, the IBM PC with MS DOS and people started to get the software in binary form and the people that were used to source code started to object. But then more and more people started to deliver software that way, following the Microsoft model, and the objections became less and less and quieter because that became the norm. Most people never think about this. Most people just buy the software and pay for it and live with software that does not meet their needs. Then free software started to come in and particular companies started to understand that this is a problem. Because they spend huge amounts of money on closed software, they never got it working right and they had no way to make it work right. There is no warranty that says it will ever work right. If you look at your software warranty it is worse then worthless. Very few people ever think about this.
The European: Most customers buy a device and simply want it work, they do not think about the limitations of the software or the control a vendor has over it.
Hall: What would happen if somebody came along and said to you: “I have got this great idea for your phone and if I could change the software on it, I can make this phone float in the air. I can make this phone power your car for a year but I cannot do it because I cannot change the operating system and I cannot convince the vendor who makes this to do that.” There is a whole series of applications that could work on your phone that can’t work because it requires them to change the operating system. Remember when the first iPhone came out? All these applications that could not go on the iPhone store because Mr. Jobs didn’t approve of them.
The European: Jobs wanted to permit only web applications, which run solely in a browser.
Hall: There was more: Steve Jobs wanted no pornography on his platform. You may or may not like pornography on your phone but there may be a whole bunch of people that do. Nevertheless, he was deciding what would and would not go on the phone you bought. He is telling you what can’t go on to it.
The European: On my way here I passed an enormous picture of Apple’s newest gadget. How does it make you feel that most of the really large amounts of money are being made in such proprietary systems?
Hall: On the desktop, Apple never had more than about 7 or 8 per cent of the market. They tuned their attention to a very profitable market where people pay a lot of money. They created good products. I have no doubt about the fact that they create good products but the thing was you could not buy something to go on an Apple system unless it came from Apple. Microsoft is on the opposite side: they created an operating system that goes on every motherboard, supports every device. By helping others achieve spectacular sales on their platform, they made a lot of money. I believe that Microsoft made more millionaires than any other company on earth. Both made their shareholders very happy. The end users, however, were only just so happy because every once in a while Microsoft would introduce a new system and stop supporting the old one. What about the people who only can afford systems that run Windows 98? They can’t get the patches for it, they can’t get any more patches for XP. Sooner or later their Windows XP will be invaded by some virus or something and they will be powerless to protect themselves from it and then they will have to upgrade. If they had free software, a group of them could get together and say: “Hey, we really like Windows XP and we are going to apply the patches, do the work until finally so few people are using it that until they can say ‘okay – the rest of you have to upgrade.’’’