This article appeared in print in the December 2006 issue of the FSF Bulletin.
As activists perhaps we imagine ourselves as marginally more self-aware versions of the famous frogs waiting for their soup to boil. We know the evaporation of freedom tends to approach at a slow, deliberate pace, and that those seeking its evaporation hope this recipe will maximize their efficiency while minimizing our objections.
But sometimes, the cooks get greedy. They crank up the temperature because they are late, their guests are waiting on them, and they need things to happen faster. At moments like this, we either jump out of the pot, or we cede a sizable portion of our livable space all at once. We are now facing such a moment with the release and possible adoption of Microsoft Vista, a moment where there could be a massive and sudden reduction in the freedom of computer users.
In March, Microsoft announced a $500 million business marketing campaign, calling it their “largest ever”. Much of this budget will be devoted to promoting Vista. By the time you read this, Vista will likely be shipping to large commercial outfits (though at the time of this writing we are still reluctant to underestimate their capacity for delay). It is scheduled to be available for imposition on individual users at the end of January 2007.
Already for the last several months, technical journalists have been reviewing the release candidate versions of Vista. The success of the free software movement and of campaigns against Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) like DefectiveByDesign.org can be seen in the priority these journalists have been giving in their reviews to criticisms of the new restrictions and limitations imposed by Microsoft.
To seize this moment, the Free Software Foundation has launched BadVista.org, a campaign with a twofold mission of interrogating Vista and spotlighting free software alternatives. The campaign will comprise the organization of supporters into effective and unusual direct actions protesting Microsoft's daylight theft of our freedoms, the aggregation of news stories critical of Vista, and the provision of a user-friendly gateway to free software adoption.
Microsoft Vista is an upsell masquerading as an upgrade. It is an overall downgrade and regression. It is a ruse to compel the further transfer of control over peoples' computers to an external and mysterious certification authority with peculiar standards of “genuine”. It is a ploy to artificially motivate the purchase of expensive, unnecessary hardware.
With this campaign, we will ensure that each time reporters mention Vista, they will be comparing it not to Windows XP or Mac OS/X, but to gNewSense and other free software distributions. By making our criticisms from a place of freedom, we will ensure that comparisons focus on the ethical relationship between user and software — not only on which system has the better graphical transparency or the superior benchmark performance. Our aggregation of all the bad news about Vista will be a valuable resource available for anyone trying to write an honest assessment.
In the past, we have often found that the primary obstacle encountered when asking a friend, family member, or workplace to try a free software operating system is the effort required to change the operating system at all. But over the course of the next several months, this suggestion will look much more reasonable next to the alternative — a painful and complicated Vista downgrade.
In the same vein, it is sometimes difficult for computer users without much technical knowledge to relate concretely to the reasons we in the free software movement are so concerned with the ethics of software distribution. But from the reviews we've seen so far, it is apparent that through its overt shackling of users and its boldly invasive “security” mechanisms, Vista will make our case for us, compellingly.
You can help us expose Microsoft's business marketing campaign as the “largest ever” power grab that it is. Visit BadVista.org and join the ongoing conversation about best practices to promote free software during this critical rollout attempt. Create and participate in direct actions to keep freedom at the head of the Vista debate as it comes to a boil. The movement for free software is not merely a movement against Microsoft, of course. But let's make sure their $500 million soup turns out to be a feast for free software.