The FSF needs a new approach to advertising

Ah!  A fresh issue of the “Linux Format” magazine.  I rip off the plastic wrap and open up to a random article.  This article is about the newest piece of proprietary Grubby Games software.  I immediately realize something isn’t right.  My eyes slowly make their way to the bottom right side of the page.   There is an advertisement for the Free Software Foundation staring right back at me.

When I saw this, I was shocked!  I had never seen an advertisement for the Free Software Foundation before!  I have been reading incorrectly-titled “Linux” magazines for a long time, and never once seen an advertisement for the Free Software Foundation.  I feel that most GNU/Linux users who care about GNU/Linux enough to go buy a magazine on it already have an opinion about the Free Software Foundation.

There aren’t too many GNU/Linux users I have actually met in person.  One of these users had never even heard of software freedom before.  He had been using “Linux” since the middle 90’s.  When I wished him “Happy Software Freedom Day“, the conversations followed:

Him: “What is that?  Is that a day for pirating software?”

Me: “No, software freedom as in Free Software”

Him: Blank stare

Me: “The Free Software Foundation?”

Him: Blank stare

Me: “It’s kind of like Open Source, but…”

Him: “Oh, Open Source!”

At first, this surprised me.  How could someone who used GNU/Linux for that long not know about software freedom?  Well, I figured that there really were a handful of people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and did not know anything about software freedom or the FSF.  But I never assumed that a large number of people were like this…  until I learned about the stereotype “Ubuntu user”.

By no means am I saying that all, or even most Ubuntu users know nothing about Free Software.  I personally use Kubuntu.  Even Richard Stallman and the rest of the FSF use gNewSense, a derivative of Ubuntu.  The reason I am making the reference to Ubuntu users is because so many of them believe that Linux=Ubuntu, and have no idea what GNU/Linux is. Just do a Google search on “Best Ubuntu Applications” and see how many come up.  Now take a look at how many of them don’t mention “Linux” anywhere on the page, even in the comments.  It’s shocking.

In my opinion, the users I am talking about use GNU/Linux for one of four reasons:

  • They want to make themselves seem really geeky
  • They are trying show off to their peers
  • They need to save money
  • They have no choice

Some people think that these people should not use GNU/Linux in the first place.  I firmly disagree.  Originally, I tried “Linux” back in ’05 because I heard it was free of cost, and I had a computer that wouldn’t run anything other than Windows ME.  I thought it would be a good experience to try to get this computer to work.  I played around with it for a year or so, until I did my History Day project on it.  When I started, I didn’t even know the name of the OS was GNU/Linux, let alone what GNU was.  This was my introduction to software freedom.  Most of what I know now came from the research of that project.  After learning the history behind Free Software, I became an instant advocate, and immediately made a presentation to my school’s Tech Coordinator about why Free Software should be used in our school.  (Even though it didn’t work very well – when you are in middle school, you don’t exactly have that much power…)  If I hadn’t been drawn into GNU/Linux by the initial cost factor, I would have never even tried it in the first place.

I do think that it is a good idea for the Free Software Foundation to advertise.  It is important that new users are inaugurated into the world of software freedom.  I don’t, however, believe that the magazines are the best way to reach the target audience.  “Linux” magazines have already left a bad taste in Richard Stallman’s mouth (see “The GNU Project“), so why would he allow the Free Software Foundation to advertise there?  Almost all of the people who read those magazines either already know and love the FSF, or have conciously chosen to ignore it.  At a level that requires buying an expensive magazine, you won’t get many newbies.

So what are my suggestions for where the FSF should advertise?  If they could pay to include a chapter in “Linux for Dummies”, that would be a much better outlet for the pennies the FSF makes every year.  Obviously that isn’t possible, so my suggestions are as follows:

  • Answer posts relating to proprietary software on UbuntuForums.org and LinuxQuestions.org, and talk to these people about the benefits of Free Software
  • Create media, including videos, music, etc that people would enjoy listening to (that means this doesn’t count) that they would enjoy sharing with others
  • Start Free Software User Groups
  • Make an effort to get schools to switch to Free Software

Think about it: would it better if everyone in the world heard the name “FSF” mentioned once, or if a small group of first time “Linux” users were educated about why Software Freedom is important.  One trip to the Free Software Foundation’s website probably won’t get anyone to change their ethics regarding computer software.  I admit that I went to both the FSF website and the GNU website after I first used “Linux”, but didn’t really take the time to understand any of it.  The FSF needs to hook people.  The advertising techniques I mentioned above (and certainly ones I didn’t think of as well) would greatly enhance the publicity of the FSF.  The goal is to get people hooked, not to try to tell people to go to fsf.org and make a donation.  You can’t get people hooked by showing them a generic advertisement; you have to get down to the personal level.

I love the Free Software Foundation dearly, and appreciate all the work they are doing to spread software freedom.  I just hope that they can improve their advertising to better spread the word of Free Software.

6/30/08 Update: I just received a comment from Paul Hudson, editor of “Linux Format”.  He informed me that “Linux Format” gives that advertising space out to the Free Software Foundation for free.  That’s really nice of them to help out the FSF.

Unfortunately, this also reveals another problem.  The Free Software Foundation doesn’t do any advertising or publicity!  They do all of this great work, but don’t spread the news beyond their their cronies.

Published in: on June 28, 2008 at 8:22 pm  Comments (10)  
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10 Reasons why Free Software and GNU/Linux should be used in schools

I’ve got a pet peeve. I love reading “Why GNU/Linux should be used in schools” articles. My pet peeve is the fact that the main focus of most of these articles is cost. The way it is portrayed by the media turns it into a cheap “alternative” that you use if you can’t afford Windows or hate Microsoft. This isn’t what makes GNU/Linux truly great for schools. Using that as my motivational drive, I decided to compile a list of the top 10 reasons that make GNU/Linux and other Free Software essential for schools.

1. No vendor lock-ins – Once you go to a proprietary company, it’s hard to leave. Many people, especially computer-illiterate people, believe that companies all try to make their products the best so that consumers will like them. While this is definitely true for most markets, the software market is completely different. The longer you use a piece of proprietary software and build up your infrastructure around it, the harder it is to leave.

2. Freedom to redistribute – The freedom to redistribute allows schools to bridge the gap between home and school. Since the GPL allows free redistribution, any student or staff member can install it on his/her own computer and have access to the same applications that they have at school. Many freeware programs do not allow you to redistribute them, or limit the environments in which they may be installed.

3. Security – In almost all cases, Free Software based solutions are more secure than proprietary software based ones. Free software leaves software in Beta until it is really ready to be used, whereas some proprietary software companies sell you Beta 1. When you use a rock solid system like Debian Stable, it is rare to find a security hole. When security holes are found, they are patched much sooner because everyone has access to the source code. People don’t have to wait for weeks on end to see if the company decided to fix the bugs they found.

4. No pressure to upgrade – “Done!” exclaimed Joe, the school’s network administrator. He grabbed his Norton Ghost CD, slammed it in the garbage, and strutted down the hallway back to his office. It was a wonderful thing, to see all of these computers running Megasoft Doors XT. It had taken years to get XT onto all of these computers. As he approached his office, he noticed a shadowy figure standing in the doorway. “Are you Mr. Joe Peterson?” asked the equivocal man. “Why yes, I most certainly am. How may I help you?” Joe asked, as he stepped into the door. The man followed him into the office, and closed the door behind himself. After about an hour, both men emerged from the office. Joe had a new responsibility now: install Megasoft Doors Perspective on every computer in the school. In most schools, situations are closer to Joe’s extreme than the average person would expect. Big Brother Salespeople are lurking around every corner.

5. Computers last longer – I have a machine from ’96 running the most recent version of Debian smoothly. Older computers can run stripped-down distros, like DSL or Arch, that will work great on nearly any computer. I wonder how a certain other operating system from a monopolistic company would work if it had only 32 mb of RAM to work with? (Probably the same way it would work on a brand new Alienware machine: not at all! :D) Even through many schools wouldn’t want to use computers this old, it provides another excellent opportunity: distributing them to poverty-stricken children. This isn’t possible with today’s proprietary operating systems because of licensing problems. Even if it were possible, it would still be far from practical to give students a computer that doesn’t even have the RAM to open a web browser.

6. Ability to modify – The truly amazing part about Free Software is that you can adapt it to fit your needs. All software has limitations. Proprietary software power users know the limitations of their software. Free software power users know how to fix the limitations of their software. This flexibility is especially important in the educational environment, where programs must be molded to suit students, staff members, and administrators.

7. Students get exposure to free software – Nobody knows what the future will hold. It could be an online desktop. It could be cell phones completely replacing laptops. Nobody knows. The more exposure students have, the better. It also helps students develop more tolerance. People today think of GNU/Linux as the ‘generic brand’ product. Every GNU/Linux user has, at some time, had someone “inform” them in this jeering, derisive voice, “You get what you pay for.” Well, I hate to break it to you, but nothing in life is free. People don’t understand this. Therefore, when they hear about GNU/Linux, they don’t take it seriously. For the same reason people buy outrageously priced Abercrombie clothing, Coach purses, and BMW cars, they continue to buy “designer” software.

8. Choice – When students get older, they shouldn’t ever be forced to use any specific piece of computer software. Every piece of software has its advantages and disadvantages (though some more than others), so everyone deserves an educated choice. When you don’t have a choice, things don’t tend to go very well. That’s why monopolies are illegal. Lets take my cousin for example. She called me a little while ago wondering how to use Photoshop, which she had just purchased. I told her I never used it, because I used GIMP instead. When she asked about GIMP, I explained it to her. You can imagine the disappointment she must have felt, especially since she bought it to do a few simple image edits that even a novice Imagemagick user could do via the terminal. So why did she immediately go to Photoshop? It is because she had a class at school about how to edit images with it. Knowledge is power.

9. Open file formats – If everybody and everything in the world would work together and seamlessly exchange information, we would be in Utopia. Unfortunately, that will never happen. Some jerk (or group of jerks, formally called a “Corporation”) will end up ruining it for everybody. Imagine a new company just started up, called Ship-N-Store. Ship-N-Store offers a completely free service. What they do is hold all of your most important stuff for you. You simply package up all of your most prized possessions and ship them off to this company. Then, to get your information back, you simply write a letter to this company, and they will hopefully send your stuff back. You are probably asking yourself why anyone would use such a stupid service, even if it is free of cost? People would do it for the same reason that they would use a closed file format: to put themselves at the mercy of a large group of people who want nothing but money. Using a closed off file format offers no advantages whatsoever, beyond compatibility with certain proprietary products. In the future, there is no guarantee that any piece of free or proprietary software will be able to open the files that you save.

10. Ethical – Free Software encourages sharing with those around you. One person can use their time to create something that affects thousands of people in a positive way. Richard Stallman learned this back in ’85, and it motivated him enough to start the GNU project. Free Software is the heart of projects like OLPC and The Helios Project (formally Komputers4Kids). It is based on the same philosophy that made Wikipedia the seventh most popular site in the world. (Wikipedia used to be, in part, a GNU project.) The only way great things can be accomplished is if everybody works together. Linus Torvalds figured this out in ’91. Linus’ Law, coined by Eric Raymond, states that “With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” This couldn’t be more true. Would you rather have one professional detective look for your lost wallet, or have everyone in your city keep an eye out for it?

There are so many benefits other than cost to using GNU/Linux in schools. In this article, I have only scratched the surface. I strongly encourage you to join the fight against proprietary software in schools. Together, we can make IT work!

Published in: on June 23, 2008 at 9:18 pm  Comments (22)  
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If only schools could change

Right now, many schools’ technology systems are corrupt, but not necessarily for the right reason.  It seems like schools are completely locked in to Microsoft, not only as a platform, but also as a curriculum.  A great example of this is the description for the “Using Tech – Accelerated” class in my school.  The prerequisite for going into the advanced “Using Tech” class is “experience using most Microsoft products”.  This just shows that schools today aspire to teach kids how to use Microsoft, not how to use computers.  The excuse is that “Microsoft is what is used in the business world”.  Make of this statement what you wish, but I don’t believe for a second that that is the only reason.  I am making these generalizations based on my school district and other school districts I have seen.  I speak with my district’s technology coordinators regularly, so I understand the attempt to make the perfect technology system, but it isn’t really happening.  The reason is society in general.  My school is already completely based on Microsoft.  The experience of other school districts, and common sense, tells us that staff members will not allow something like this.  In other districts, attempts to make even the tiniest changes repeatedly fail due to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude.  I overhead a conversation a little while ago.  For the most part, this is how it went:

Teacher: “It’s almost time to go, so save your work and email it home if you aren’t done.”
Student: “Can I use Google Documents?”
Teacher: “Why?”
Student: “It is a lot easier than emailing it home.  I learned about it in ‘Using Tech’ class.”
Teacher: “Well, you could, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Student: “Why not?”
Teacher: “Because there is no need to use it.  Emailing it works just fine.  Plus it doesn’t sound very reliable, and if something goes wrong, no one will know how to help you.  Just email it home.”
Student: “Okay”
A great technology wasted because the teacher doesn’t know how to use it.  The student knew perfectly well how to use it, but the teacher was clueless.  This is a perfect example of how schools want to change, but can’t.  This situation is kind of like a school district switching to GNU/Linux.  In the teacher’s eyes, Google Documents did the same thing that emailing it home did.  Teachers (and even most people in general) don’t want to learn a new technology if it doesn’t offer immediate significant advantages.  They are willing to put in the time to learn other technologies, like LCD projectors in the classroom, because it is obvious that there will be instant bennefit.  To them, GNU/Linux is just another headache. In addition, there is no cost effective way to switch immediately, especially in larger school districts.  GNU/Linux turns out to be far more expensive than Windows, after staff training and migration costs.  Now, my district is trying to adopt Moodle.  This is a giant leap in the right direction, but in a marathon, a giant leap means nothing.  It takes a sustained effort of steps to win a marathon.  A sustained effort is the only way for any school district to switch.  The problem is that there are too many other resistant people and other issues (http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2002/05/13/schools-microsoft.htm) for something like that to happen.  The only way to push this forward is for community support.  If there are more people pushing for FOSS adoption than against it, we can make something happen.  I STRONGLY encourage you to write a letter to your district’s schoolboard, superintendent, principal(s), administrator(s), technology coordinator(s), or anyone else that may or may not listen.  A battle of this magnitude must be done Bazaar style: with numerous people doing their part.

Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 1:32 pm  Comments (4)  
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About my Blog

I have always felt so-so about blogs.  I enjoyed reading them, but I never imagined myself having one.  I thought they were a waste of time, so I didn’t give the concept of having  one much thought.  That was a mistake.  One day, from out of the blue, my dad declared that he was going to start a blog.  My whole family thought he was nuts.  He thought it was an amazing idea, and that he would get famous and be on the news.  He made a bet with us that he would have over 100 subscribers by the end of summer.  That was some easy money.  (I don’t want to give you the URL, though, because I don’t want anyone to subscribe to it.)  I continued on with my daily life until I had an interesting news feed pop up in Akgregator: “New FSDaily feature: community blogs!”.  My initial reaction was, “Has the whole gotten blogging fever?”, but then, it occurred to me: people may like to read about my opinions. Why?  Because I am a high school student who is a FOSS advocate.  I have a hunch there aren’t too many of those around.  So I had a discussion with my father.  In the end, there was an additional bet: that my blog would have more subscribers than his.  I went to go start blogging with FSDaily, but I didn’t really like the platform.  Therefore, I went here instead.

Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 12:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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