Less control is… better?

I had a strange conversation with my classmate today in my Red Had System Administration class. It kind of left me speechless. The conversation wasn’t very well guided, but the main topics were software freedom and user control.

I brought up the topic of smart phones, and why having something like Linux on a phone would be so desirable. With my Nokia N900 and Maemo, I pretty much have just that. I also have control. Every Nokia N900 comes unlocked (I can use it with any SIM card), with root privileges (I have admin control anywhere in the filesystem), able to be rooted (any OS can be installed or reinstalled), and any application can be installed on it using the default package manager, apt (the same that is used by Debian GNU / Linux).

I brought up this topic so my classmate could help me think of reasons why Linux on a phone would be great. Instead, I discovered that his opinion is the exact opposite of mine: It’s much much better for the owner of the phone to have less control. This will prevent the user from breaking it.

He went on and on with this point. I wish I could describe it better, but the problem is I have a really hard time understanding it.

Here is my point: There’s no difference in stability between an iPhone that is locked down (like it currently is) and an iPhone that gives me complete control (to install applications from any source, access to the filesystem…). If I choose to do something with my phone that is not supported by Apple, then yes, I may break it, but at least it’s my choice. Instead, Apple worked very hard to add extra software and extra hardware that will prevent me from doing anything of the sort. They did extra work to give me less control of the electronic device that I own.

My classmate’s opinion surprised me. I mean, it really surprised me. I’m used to talking to people who care about software freedom, at least a little bit. I’m also used to talking to people who don’t know or don’t care about software freedom. But I can’t think of a time I’ve ever met someone who was so much against the idea of software freedom.

I was also extremely surprised to find out how little he and my other classmates understood about free software, as described by the Free Software Foundation. I mean, we’re in a Red Hat class, so I just kind of assumed everyone knew. I think I assumed incorrectly.

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