We're not going to bore you by talking about free beer versus free speech - that's an old argument and one with which we hope you're familiar by now. Instead, we want you to focus on the web services you rely on. Think Google. Think Gmail. Think Twitter, Facebook, Last.fm or any number of others.
Large chunks of your life are likely to rely on these companies continuing to provide their services to you for free, but are they free software? Of course not - but the problem is that most folks don't even consider that question.
Thanks to its developers, OpenOffice.org is approaching feature parity with Microsoft Office, and Evolution now functions as a drop-in replacement for Microsoft Outlook. But if more people rely on web-based services such as Gmail or Google Docs, which aren't available under a free software licence, aren't we giving up our freedom just as we're on the verge of removing the proprietary shackles once and for all?
This isn't about being online
You might think that OpenOffice.org will always have a place, given that it runs anywhere, anytime. That's true, at least for now, but Google, Adobe, Microsoft and others are committing huge resources to producing software architectures that enable web apps to work as well offline as they do online.
With Gmail, for example, Google's 'Gears' technology stores an offline cache of your inbox so you can carry on working even when your connection is gone. And it's not just partial functionality - you can read emails, write responses and do pretty much anything you'd do online. As soon as you reconnect to the web, Gears sends all the emails sitting in your outbox, just as if you were using a traditional email client.
If you're thinking, "Well, it's one thing getting email to work, but getting their online spreadsheet or word processor to function is much harder," then I'm afraid you're wrong: Google Docs works offline and has done for a year. People are already giving up computer freedoms without even realising it.
Take personal information: Facebook recently tried to change its terms of service so that data you uploaded could be used by the company even after you terminated your account. Users across the world revolted and made the company rethink its plans, but it shows how little control we have over data that's stored on another company's servers.
Being "in the cloud" might set off buzzword alarms, but it does accurately depict the nebulous, uncertain location of our data. Just where are your Google documents stored? If you ever wanted to transfer your Facebook life to a different server, is there a way to move everything you've built there to another site? A lot of people are unnerved by the fact that even if you had the source code and servers powerful enough to run it all, you still wouldn't be able to recreate the sites to which people queue up to donate their data. And a small group of geeks are already taking action.
Identi.ca is a service that's built on the GNU Affero GPL, which is a modified version of the GPL that closes a loophole enabling people to make alterations to GPL software without releasing those changes. (The GPL says you must release your changes only when you distribute them and technically web servers aren't distributing code, as they're run at the server.) Identi.ca is also special because all the content on it is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence, so you're able to get all your data off whenever you want to.
Identi.ca is a drop-in free software replacement for Twitter. You can send your messages to other people too.
But what's most significant about Identi.ca is what it does: it's a clone of Twitter, the 140-character microblogging sensation, except it supports OpenID and OpenMicroBlogging as standard. As the Identi.ca developers put it, "the goal here is autonomy - you deserve the right to manage your own online presence. If you don't like how Identi.ca works, you can take your data and the source code and set up your own server (or move your account to another one)."
To many people, the idea of a high-speed, offline-capable Google Docs doesn't sound bad at all. Google seems to have been gunning for Microsoft almost since the company was founded, so going after the old cash cow of Microsoft Office makes sense. And for a lot of folks, it's easy not to care: Google will undoubtedly continue to offer its Docs service at no cost for the forseeable future and people are happy to use it while that continues.
But from a free software perspective, we're fighting a dangerous battle. Trading one closed-source app for another gets us nowhere, even if the new app happens to come from Google. Yes, the company does appear to have a bottomless source of storage and bandwidth, but would you feel happy recommending Google Docs to your friends if it were run by Microsoft? It'd be just as free and just as featureful - but somehow people have been fooled into thinking that Google can be as proprietary as it wants and we ought not to care.
Tim O'Reilly's classic speech, "The Open Source Paradigm Shift", makes it clear that the commoditisation of operating systems is imminent, with the next war being fought in the web app space. In 10 years' time your desktop computer will almost certainly run nearly all your programs over the internet, with your OS being a relatively thin shell that fires up a web browser and points you towards the net. If, in that time, all we've done is trade offline closed-source apps for online closed-source apps, then everything we're fighting for will be worthless. We don't think anyone wants to see that happen.
First published in Linux Format magazine