Open source software users voluntarily pay more

Who are the biggest cheapskates of the consumer software market? Hint: They are not the users of the least expensive operating systems.

If you search the Web for flame wars between open source and proprietary software advocates, you will surely find more examples than you can use. Even just searching TechRepublic for such fights is likely to provide a glut of examples. Among such flame wars, it is dismayingly common to find a case of someone on the pro-Microsoft side of the divide blaming draconian licensing on people "stealing" software (never mind that theft and copyright infringement are not just distinct areas of law, but distinct concepts), and blaming the piracy on open source software advocates. This unfairly characterizes anyone who uses Linux -- the most visible target amongst open source software advocates -- as someone who just wants something for nothing, regardless of the consequences.

All open source software users and advocates, then, must be cheapskates who just want free software, and do not care about supporting the software developer. Right? Never mind the fact that a far greater percentage of open source software users are also software developers themselves than the percentage of MS Windows users who are software developers.

The truth of the matter is not so simple as such accusatory statements from some of those who hold Microsoft in the highest esteem would have us believe, of course. Open source software users are, in fact, often quite generous, and many do their best to support the developers whose efforts they appreciate. Consider the massive sums of donations received every year by the FreeBSD Foundation, for instance. It is true that Microsoft gets more money each year, but it not only enjoys a larger installed base from which to get that money -- it also gets a lot of its revenue indirectly, from the point of view of the end user.

Every time you buy a computer from a major vendor such as Dell or HP with MS Windows already installed, some of your money is going to Microsoft, even if you are only really trying to pay for the hardware and plan to install some other OS on the system once you get the machine home. Many call this somewhat hidden expense the "Microsoft tax".

Open source software users are generally quite aware of these facts. They are probably no surprise to readers of this article, even if people who claim all open source software users are freeloaders, cheapskates, and thieves at heart refuse to believe these statements when presented to them. There is other evidence, more difficult to refute or ignore, that open source software users are generally the most generous, least freeloading software users on average. A recent example is presented in Aaron Hastings' discussion of the subject of Humble Frozenbyte Bundle purchase patterns, "Linux users pay more for software."

When someone pays for the software, that person gets to name a price -- a "pay what you want" scheme. After the transaction, some statistics are presented showing overall buying patterns for all customers so far. As Aaron Hastings reports, the pattern looks something like this:

  • Slightly more than 50% of customers are MS Windows users, and they pay an average of $6.38 each.
  • Mac users make up slightly less than 25% of customers, and they pay an average of $8.51 each.
  • Linux users also make up slightly less than 25% of customers, and they pay an average of $13.72 each.

The end result is that MS Windows users are apparently the real cheapskates, while open source software users are easily the most generous, paying more than 200% what MS Windows users are willing to pay on average.

There are two very interesting conclusions that are easy to draw from these statistics, apart from the obvious fact that MS Windows users appear more numerous than open source software and Mac users:

  1. Any corporation that refuses to serve open source software markets because there's no money in it, when there is a measurable desire for that company's software on open source platforms, is probably run by morons.
  2. Microsoft's business model may well encourage people to behave like thieving, freeloading, antisocial cheapskates.

Before objecting to that second point, consider a few simple notions that may change your mind:

  • Microsoft treats its customers like criminals. There is no "innocent until proven guilty" with Microsoft and other corporations that use similar business tactics; we are all guilty until we prove ourselves innocent by allowing spyware such as Windows Genuine Advantage to report back on our license compliance. Compliance enforcement often misidentifies a user as violating license terms just by replacing a failed component in a computer.
  • Microsoft charges incredible amounts of money for software whose only benefit over software the user already owns is, all too often, the simple fact that Microsoft is still supporting the new stuff. Many users who had no interest in MS Windows Vista were essentially "forced" to upgrade simply to get a newer version of DirectX required for certain games, for instance.
  • Relative to many other operating systems, MS Windows' security support from the vendor leaves something to be desired -- to put it mildly. After spending hundreds of dollars for a new MS Windows license, users can look forward to spending hundreds more on security software that consumes system resources, does not work nearly as often as we would like, and at times even behaves like malware itself. Even when using free versions of security applications, the hours spent maintaining it properly to minimize the likelihood of a security compromise are not trivial. Insult is added to injury, because much of this software is of a class not even needed on many other operating systems.
  • Even as Microsoft claims its software is getting more secure, it backs its claims with such user-hostile features as User Account Control, which is so annoying that finding articles about how to turn it off to get back some lost convenience provides examples orders of magnitude more numerous than the articles one might find about how UAC protects the user. Such features tend to try to duplicate security capabilities that have existed in open source operating systems for decades, but do so in a much more intrusive, less convenient manner. In the end they still fall short as security measures because the new features are just that; features, rather than architectural laws of the operating system.
  • All too often, getting a new version of MS Windows requires buying new hardware, adding to the cost burden of an MS Windows upgrade.
  • Following an "upgrade", it is often the case that a lot of applications the customer wants to use will no longer work.
  • Even when getting an expensive, brand new computer to run the new MS Windows version, it is often the case that everything still runs more slowly than it did before. At the very least, using the older version would generally mean much better performance on the new hardware. Many other operating systems do not suffer that problem.
  • The changes in the user interface and capabilities for a new version of MS Windows imposes a learning curve very similar to that of switching to a user-friendly version of other OSes such as Mac OS X, Ubuntu Linux, and PC-BSD -- two out of three of which are available for free.
  • If someone gets a free copy of FreeBSD or Debian, uses it for a while, and decides he or she likes it, he or she can then send money to support those organizations with monetary contributions. If the same person gets a free copy of MS Windows, it was almost certainly acquired illegally, and there is no way to choose to support the developer by paying for it after the fact without admitting criminal activity and being punished -- by the complexity of the process of getting on the "right side" of the law, at minimum, if not by actual litigation or criminal prosecution.
  • The usage restrictions imposed by the MS Windows End User License Agreement seem tailor-made to trick people into violating its terms. In many cases, in fact, the EULA actually prohibits the user from reinstalling the OS that came with a computer on a different computer, even if the original computer gets wiped clean and sold second-hand.
  • The possibility that Microsoft's business model encourages people to behave that way does not in any respect mean that users of Microsoft's software are all cheapskates. Those of us with integrity are fully capable of resisting the temptation to behave badly, even when Microsoft sweetens the deal for pirates by making non-pirates feel like criminals.

Considering these conditions of use imposed on users by strictly enforced, draconian software licensing, it should be no surprise at all that many people who use MS Windows feel encouraged to infringe copyright by pirating the operating system. The software corporation often abuses its customers, making them feel persecuted when they try to abide by the rules imposed on them. Piracy, it seems, might feel like a very liberating experience by comparison; the simple act of giving up on adherence to arbitrary and unpleasant rules might provide a rush of relief to the harried customer.

Microsoft and other corporations using such business models effectively encourage people to behave like cheapskates, thieves, and freeloaders. It should really come as no surprise that open source software users, on average, pay more than twice as much for software when given the option to pay whatever they feel like paying, given that their software choices treat them as equal partners; mi casa es su casa.

In fact, if the people offering the Humble Frozenbyte Bundle had access to such information, I would bet you $50 right now that the lowest-paying Linux users were -- on average -- the people who had most recently made the switch from MS Windows to open source operating systems. Given time to get acclimated to their new software choices, their generosity would grow.