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The software we use

by Eric Lee

Is there such a thing as politically-correct computer software?

I ask because the question comes up from time to time and has been on my mind a lot lately.

A couple of years ago, I briefly ran an online web forum for trade unionists hosted for free by a company in Canada. The company ran some advertisements on the forum pages and one of those advertisements was for a Microsoft product. I was promptly denounced on several mailing lists and web forums for being a paid agent of the prince of darkness himself, Bill Gates.

My critics were rather enthusiastic supporters of Microsoft's one-time arch-rival, Apple Computers.

At the time I didn't think much of it, but the question returned again and again.

I keep coming across people on the left who are enthusiastic supporters of the Linux operating system -- which is a PC-compatible variant of the venerable Unix operating system. By enthusiastic, I don't just mean the kind of calm, rational this-is-a-better-product enthusiasm -- I mean something more like the enthusiasm for a favorite football team.

Both the fans of the Apple Mac and those of Linux share a common hatred -- and hatred is not nearly a strong enough word -- for Bill Gates and Microsoft. And when those Mac and Linux proponents are leftists, they will come up with various explanations of why it is the duty of all those struggling for a better world to use the one system and not the other.

In the case of Linux, this goes way beyond the operating system. It extends to the whole Open Source software movement. Linux proponents on the left tend to see Open Source as something truly revolutionary, or potentially revolutionary. Something that is somehow changing the very way capitalism works.

So when it comes to web browsers, Open Source supporters prefer Netscape's products over Microsoft's ever since Netscape released the source code a couple of years ago.

It's not only enthusiasm for Open Source, but a more general supporting of number two, the little guy, the challenger, and a rejection of numero uno, the monopolist. This attitude does indeed seem to affect many computer-savvy leftists.

Given a choice between Intel and Apple, they choose Apple. Between Windows and Linux, they'll go for Linux every time. Netscape is the preferred browser over Internet Explorer. They use HomeSite instead of Microsoft Front Page to edit their web pages. And so on down the line.

I'm not trying to sound too critical of this -- I understand the feeling myself.

Even though I, like every other socialist, looks forward to the abolition of capitalism, when it comes to the products I use, I two tend to go with the challenger every time.

If the dominant web browser is Microsoft's Internet Explorer, you won't find me using it. (Except to test my web pages, knowing that 90% of my readers use the Microsoft product.) And for true revolutionaries, even Netscape doesn't go far enough. We use the Opera browser, made by a tiny company in Oslo, Norway -- especially now that (as of December 2000), Opera is free of charge.

Usually the only difference between two companies producing competing software is that one is making more money than the other. But sometimes there is a happy coincidence between one's desire to use the product made by the smaller company and the actual company which benefits.

Take, for example, the fierce competition between Real Networks and Microsoft's Windows Media Player. Obviously, people with their hearts on the left will use Real Network's product -- just so we won't be supporting the arch-monopolist Gates. The happy coincidence is that Rob Glaser, the guy behind Real Networks, comes out of the American left, and originally launched his streaming audio product with the modest ambition of helping community groups. (He has since become a zillionaire.)

In March 1998 Glaser set up something called RealImpact, a division of his company that provides "online technical services at cost to progressive organizations." And to this day, Real Networks maintains as a sub-division of its immensely popular website something called WebActive -- described on the Real site as being "a site designed to offer progressive activists an up-to-date resource on the World Wide Web to find other organizations and individuals with similar values and interests." Webactive is clearly labelled as a project of a company which earned $60 million in the final quarter of 2000.

In terms of the day-to-day lives of the workers in the companies that produce all this software, the differences aren't great.

Microsoft, Netscape, Apple and all their clones are viciously anti-union companies. Opera, being based in Norway, is slightly different. When I asked Pal Hvistendahl, Communications Manager at Opera if they were at all tolerant of trade unions in their company, here is the reply I received:

"Most Opera employees are not in a union, but some are. We do not have a company policy against anyone joining a union, our employees may do as they please:-)"

By the standards of Silicon Valley union busting (exemplified these days by that is positively enlightened.

So should socialists use one particular software product? Obviously we all want to use whatever program is best, whatever makes us most productive at the computer. But here you'll always get the whole range of opinions, with everyone claiming that his or her favorite bit of software is absolutely the best there is.

And obviously where it makes a difference to the lives of workers, for example where one product is made by a union shop and the other isn't, we should give that a lot of weight in our decisions.

Still there is that intangible element, built into the personality, I think, of so many of us on the left. It makes us want to give our support to David and not to Goliath.

As for me, I'm sticking with Opera, Real Player, and Eudora, thank you.

This article appeared in Action for Solidarity.

This document was last modified: Wednesday, 23-Nov-2022 08:31:48 CET

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