Programmers. The system administrators worship their bit twiddling capabilities. The users exchange vast quantities of beer for new features and tools. And the project managers sell their souls when they make the magic work. But inside the average programmer’s psyche are several demons that need exorcising.
With the bickering about what Dell will and won’t do to provide Linux on their desktop machines, it seems to me there’s a much easier way to introduce GNU/Linux into the world. Scrap it!
[Click here for an expanded, updated version of this blog entry which hasnow been published in issue 17 of Free Software Magazine!]
Programmers. The system administrators worship their bit twiddling capabilities. The users exchange vast quantities of beer for new features and tools. And the project managers sell their soul when they make the magic work. But inside the average programmer's psyche are several demons that need exorcising.
Drink was the first great leveller, as it brings everyone to the floor eventually. The second was the Internet. Everyone can be published, listened to, and promoted giving freedom of expression to the masses. Community-driven development is the third leveller, as it allows anyone to affect a project that's important to them, as either a programmer, artist, writer, or web designer. Alas, the leveller in this case engenders a flat uninteresting landscape because these self-assumed polymaths reduce everything to the best they could manage. And not the best that can be achieved.
Some people who advocate against free software claim that it's bad for the economy and not sustainable in the long term, because the lack of direct revenue on developing free software makes it harder to make money out of developing such software. If generating direct revenue out of software development is not possible, they claim, then less people will be inclined to write software professionally. In turn, this will mean that end-users will have less high-quality software available. Is that really true? Let's find out.
Revenue, and money as a motivator
Not long ago, a family member's company discovered their former IT consultant had dealt with them dishonestly. The office had paid him for a number of MS Office licenses, but later found out that only one licensed version been installed on all their systems. Since this was a small business with a limited budget, I suggested they try OpenOffice. But, in the end, they chose to purchase MS Office again.
So I asked, “Why?” The answers were revealing into potential barriers from individuals when recommending FOSS.
The ideals of free software may have freedom have its center, but for many the concept of ‘free’ relates to its price. Even with RMS’s jingoistic “free as in freedom, not free as in beer” people don’t get it. Even though RMS has repeatedly said he has no problem with commercial software, the message is not getting through. Instead, the merest hint that someone in the community might be making money from something open source related sends large factions into spasms of rabid anti-commercialism.
To broaden or not broaden the GNU/Linux user base. This topic has generated a ton of discussion and emotion within the community. Whatever your particular stance, one thing is guaranteed. Change! And human beings are typically adverse to Change!
Change is maddeningly inevitable. Change may be planned, such as a wedding. Change may be unplanned, such as a job termination. Change may be hard-earned, such as a graduation. Change may be filled with energy and hope. Change may be filled with uncertainty and doubt.
Change is an integral part of our life-fabric
Is getting people to convert to GNU/Linux like feeding your kids veges? I'm used to the feeling of smug satisfaction when I've slipped a couple of extra vegetables in a meal and the children haven't noticed.
Mmmm, this is delicious Mum. I love Spaghetti Bolognaise.
The techo-resistant person in my life is my own spouse. See, my wife loves to work with her hands. Her favorite activities involve knitting or crocheting. She takes balls of yarn and converts them into items of beauty. So, her instinctive reaction to computers and software was “why do I need that” and “what would I have to show for my time”.
However, in the last few years, I converted her into a bona-fide computer user just as I converted her to Chinese food. She is now a frequent user of free software, primarily Edubuntu 6.10 and Firefox 2.0.
So how did I activate her latent geek genes? By following this four step program:
Answer: As dumb as necessary.
Let's rephrase: How technically sophisticated should GNU/Linux users have to be? How knowledgeable should any computer user have to be? The answer to that, of course, ranges from "very" to "not very." We need to get past the name-calling of clueless newbie and sneering elitist, and understand that there are going to be varying levels of ability in any community, including the one made up of people interested in using free software. From there, I suggest it is critically important that we expand the size of the free software community. That means dealing with more "dumb" people.
There is a fundamental problem with GNU/Linux—it requires clueful people to exist in the IT food chain. Anywhere in the food chain. It doesn’t take an experienced kernel hacker to install GNU/Linux, run a web server, or teach people how to log on to the network. It just requires a user with an interest in the subject, the ability to solve problems, and the desire to achieve results.
I'm guessing many FSM readers will recognize the title reference, if like me you're a fan of Neal Stephenson's work. If you're not a fan, then... er... how could you not be?! I'm kidding. I realize tastes differ, but to me, Stephenson is essential geek reading.
His essay, In the Beginning was the Command Line, has been around for several years now. It's showing some age in areas, but it reads as well today as it did back in 1999. It's filled with interesting ideas and thoughts about technology and culture, including free software. For example, you don't have to read very far in to the essay to find a great analogy between operating systems and car dealerships.
My previous blog, Pay a little now, pay a lot later, generated a lot more traffic than I expected. Lots. As a consequence, it was seen by many people who probably aren’t as familiar with certain aspects of free software as my normal target audience. This led to several misunderstandings.
In a few years viewing source code within the major components of software infrastructure will probably be a routine way of doing business. In the meantime it seems that the only reason managers want free software is because it is free (as in free of costs). That’s not a good reason in itself: in the long run there are compelling reasons that robust, mission critical infrastructure software should be made free software.