What the FSF is doing wrong

Please don’t take this post the wrong way just because of the title.  I love the FSF.  However, based on my observations, it has made some major mistakes that have ended up leading fewer people to freedom.  Allow me to elaborate.

The FSF has evaluated most of the reasons that encourage people switch to Free Software, and has campaigned accordingly.  They have all of the essays, web pages, brochures and other resources known to mankind about why it is important to jump to freedom.  They’re forgetting something, though.  The social aspect.  It is completely missing from almost all of the FSF’s activities.  The fact of the matter is that the choice of what computer software to use depends just as much on social factors as other things do for Joe Shmoe, whether Joe is a Windows power user, a six year old child, a stay at home dad, etc.   Think about a new user going to one of the Free Software Foundation’s sites, like badvista.org or defectivebydesign.org.  Other than a few comments, there is no verification whatsoever that a large number of people support the FSF’s views on these issues.  There are two major ways the FSF could gain the social element, and make sure the number of people jumping to freedom is skyrocketing through the roof.

1. Build open communities on a large scale – In order to allow more people to jump to freedom, the FSF has to show off the number of people who love Software Freedom.  By making the Free Software philosophy seem less alien and abstract to new-comers, people will gain a sense of trust in it.  The FSF has done a fabulous job building communities already, but most of these communities have the prerequisite of Free Software knowledge.  Even an advanced user doesn’t want to dive into the emacs-devel list!  The FSF has made an attempt at this with the formation of the fsf-info mailing list, but this is still too much of an entry barrier.  Most people, and not just the technophobes, want an easy path into a large community.  Currently, Windows is the easiest way to achive this.

Large communities come in many shapes and sizes.  The most common example, when dealing with the internet, is a forum.  Think of how reassuring it would be for a new user to be able to look around and ask questions about the importance of freedom in his/her own life.  There is a forum hosted on fsf.org.  Unfortunately, it is only available to paying members.  No individual is going to become a member in order to see if Free Software applies to them.  It makes you wonder: is the goal to convince more people to go to freedom, or to make money through subscriptions?  To me, it almost sounds more like “Open Source” than “Free Software”!

Other large-scale community options are possible as well.  A major example is a Digg-style news-sharing site.  A wonderful Free Software news sharing site named Free Software Daily already exists.  Unfortunately, there is no mention of Free Software Daily anywhere on fsf.org or gnu.org.  Free Software Daily’s parent, Free Software Magazine, is briefly mentioned in a 1550 line directory.  Other than that, there is no promotion whatsoever of these wonderful resources on the FSF’s site.  It is strange that these resources are not mentioned, because of the number of users they could lead to freedom.  Just for a second, think about how easy it is to subscribe to an RSS feed.  Copy.  “New Feed”.  Paste.  “OK”.  Now, think about how much the news you read influences you.  Even in history, think about how much the media or the lack thereof has influenced people in almost every famous historical event.  There is a “community blog” on the FSF’s website, as well as a main new stream, but neither of these are exhaustive in article quantity.  Allowing a simple submission of articles by the community will not only give a wider and more plentiful selection of articles, but will also encourage people to be on the lookout for articles relating to software freedom and to critically read and evaluate these articles.

2. Make sure users are properly welcomed – All Free Software advocates need to make sure they remember how important each and every single user who switches to Free Software is.  Every single user must be taken by the hand and led into the world of Free Software.  This goes hand in hand with large scale communities.  I predict that Microsoft’s downfall won’t be poorly designed software or stupid executives (ones who think cancer is contagious).  Instead, I believe that it will be them not giving a rip about their different customers, and forcing a “one size fits all – make it work” method down everyone’s throat.

My first exposure to GNU/Linux was a couple years ago, when doing a school project on the history of “Linux”.  Since this was the biggest single school project I had ever done, and because it was a competition, I needed an expert’s opinion.  I didn’t know where to find someone who would know that kind of information, so I cast my line into the water and sent emails to all of the biggest names in the field.  I emailed Linus Torvalds, Eric Raymond, Andrew Tanenbaum, Bill Gates (about the Open Letter to Hobbyists), and Richard Stallman.  I (unsurprisingly) never got a response back from either Torvalds or Raymond.  “Bill Gates” wrote me back, encouraging me to stay in school.  Andrew Tanenbaum sent me back an email complaining about how many times he is asked about that every week.  Richard Stallman was the only one to send me back a quote.  My interest in GNU and the FSF rose now that I had a quote from the guy in charge, so I started to look more into the FSF’s philosophy.  I fell in love with what I found, and have supported Free Software ever since.

Not everyone is going to email rms, though.  Most new computer users will still be influenced by the people who lead them in, though.  For most people, “computer == Windows”, so it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how most new users are being taught.  Even if the person decides to go with GNU/Linux, almost everything they hear about it will refer to “Linux”.  Eventually, the person will be led down the “how does it benefit me now” path instead of the “how will it benefit all of society in the future” path.

Even for experienced Windows or Mac users, it is important that the highest possible priority be put on every single case.  Experienced users will, more than new users, know to look online.  Nothing says more about an online community than the “Let me explain it to you” attitude.  A good example of an online community that has this attitude is LinuxQuestions.org.  Is LinuxQuestions.org a good thing, or a bad thing?  Well, for freedom-lovers, it is a very bad thing.  LinuxQuestions.org is filled with users who advocate for proprietary software, ads for proprietary software, and is even based on proprietary software!  The users there are ready to take the experienced Windows/Mac user by the hand and lead him/her into the world of “Linux” and, if he/she is lucky, “Open Source”.  I am not against ads for proprietary software on most Free Software sites; accidental clicks generate a hefty sum!  I am against, however, these ads appearing on sites that are targeted at new GNU/Linux users.  Excluding everything else, the fact that they run the site on proprietary software should say enough about them.

The world of Free Software today is due in a large part to the FSF.  But, the world isn’t free yet.  The single easiest way for the FSF to advance the spread of freedom is to make the changes described above.  Being a freedom-lover myself, I hate to see people not switching to free software simply because of a couple unintentional mistakes. These changes would also offer a resource for people to suggest for others.  Knowing that a user could go to fsf.org and be doused in Free Software knowledge and encouragement would offer a much easier way for advocates to lead interested people in.  If the Free Software Foundation were to make the changes outlined above, a whole new group of people would be Free Software users that would have never had much exposure before.  Hopefully, it will help create the GNU Generation that we have been dreaming of for so many years.

Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 5:49 pm  Comments (9)  
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Gaining popularity? Yeah right, says Google

I have been under the impression that GNU/Linux and Free/Open Source Software have been gaining popularity, especially within the last couple years.  One trip to Google Trends proved me wrong.

The first search I tried was “GNU/Linux”, but since Google Trends didn’t know how to handle the “/” properly, I entered “GNU Linux” instead.  The result was astonishing.

Entering just “Linux” doesn’t give any better results.

Nor does just “GNU”.

This made me wonder: are distributions themselves gaining popularity?  Obviously Ubuntu’s graph would go way up, but what about the more elder, time tested distros?  Debian isn’t doing so well.

Fedora and Red Hat aren’t increasing either. (Blue is Fedora, Red is Red Hat)

At least a stone-age distribution like Yggdrasil can’t loose too many users!

The KDE vs. Gnome debate (with the former obviously being the stronger contender, and the latter only having the popularity Ubuntu gives it) is at a neck and neck downward spiral, though not as sharply as most of the other Free/Open Source Software keywords. (KDE is blue, Gnome is red)

So what about proprietary software companies?  Are they going down too?  It depends on which you are talking about.  Microsoft is slowly but surely going down.

It’s taking its partner in law-defended crime, Novell, down with it.

Many proprietary software companies are increasing, though.  Take Adobe for instance.

Apple is also doing well.

Is this really that big of a problem?  Hopefully not.  Despite what most of us think, Google doesn’t know everything.  While it is an amazing resource, we still have to use our noodles.  In my opinion, there is no way that the popularity of GNU/Linux and Free/Open Source Software can be decreasing with the amount of activity going on.  KDE is almost done rebuilding itself, Artheros opened up some of its drivers, Firefox set a world record, etc.  I could go on forever.

Let’s keep spreading the word about GNU/Linux and Free/Open Source Software! (and possibly do some Google searches on the subject as well…)

Published in: on August 11, 2008 at 9:20 am  Comments Off  
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Is Free Software dependent on the Internet?

Is Free Software dependent on the Internet?  I have fantasized a (hopefully) comical situation that describes where I believe Free Software would be today if the Internet had never been invented.

Once upon a time the was a man named Tommy.  Tommy’s loved his job as systems administrator for the grain distribution giant Garcill.  He never had to do any real work; he could get by fine by doing almost nothing at all.  Every now and then someone would have a problem with one of their computers.  No worries; it didn’t take any effort whatsoever to throw a new cd in the cd drive and wait for Windows to reinstall itself.  Other than occasional responsibilities, Tommy was free to sit at his desk all day, eat popcorn, and play hours worth of “Captain Comic”.

In order to make it seem like he was really motivationally driven to create the best possible technology system for Garcill, Tommy would occasionally attend technology conferences.  The Chicago Mid-summer IT Convention was one of his favorites.  You see, most of the people attending this conference were going for technology news and advice.  This was one of the few places these pieces of information could be obtained, other than the occasional newspaper or TV story.  Tommy thought differently.  He knew the tourist attractions in Chicago were plentiful, all of which could be paid for through company money.  Plus, the presenters never used microphones, so they couldn’t wake you up during a well-deserved nap.  Life was good, thought Tommy, as he loaded up his suitcase with the things he would need to have a blast roaming the streets of Chicago.
Tommy arrived at the convention ready for a good time.  Every year, he would compare the sessions he attended with the ones from the previous year to see what the worst one was.  So far, the most boring one was “Understanding the Security and Compliance Implications of Large Scale Data Management” from 2005.  Would this year be better or worse?  By the sound of the first session, it would be worse.  “GNU: The Operating System of Hackers”.  Wasn’t a gnu another name for the wildebeest, and what the heck was a hacker?
When he walked into this session, there was some hippie standing on the stage.  A hippie?  Why in the world was there a hippie standing on the stage?  What could he possibly lecture about, freedom?  Yeah right.  “Go back to the 70s,” Tommy thought to himself.  While waiting for the lecture to start, though, it started to bother him.  What could a hippie possibly lecture about.  He obviously wasn’t going to lecture about freedom.  What did freedom have to do with technology? “Maybe it has to do with saving the wildebeests,” he thought.  “But they aren’t endangered.”

Tommy’s mind kept ping-ponging until the hippie stepped up to the podium to begin his lecture.  He introduced himself and claimed he was the last true hacker, and that a hacker was someone who programs for fun.  When he wasn’t allowed to modify the source code to a printer during his days at MIT labs, he decided to make a complete operating system that allowed anybody to modify it.  He called this operating system “GNU”.  Releasing GNU this way allowed people to have the freedom (“uhhh”, Tommy moaned) to use the piece of software, make changes to it, and give away the original program with or without your changes.
The presenter went on to talk about how he created the GNU project.  In the 1980s, he started working on some of the basic components of GNU.  He continued working faithfully on it, and had a usable operating system by 2005.  Another benefit, he explained, was that it kept growing.  If somebody wanted to add a feature, they could add it, and then give away the new modified version to anyone interested.  Then this person could modify the modified version, and give that away again.  After explaining all of this, the speaker put an old computer disk on his head and said he was “Saint IGNUtious, of the church of Emacs, granting computer freedom to all.”

“That was different,” Tommy thought.  “Some of these presentations are really boring, but that was just plain stupid.  How many times am I going to find someone who just made the changes I need to a piece of software?”  As he walked out, he noticed that there were some demonstration computers set up.  Tommy thought he would try one out, just to see how powerful this GNU thing was.  Tommy sat down at the computer, and stared blankly at a screen that was, well, almost blank. It was a terminal.

“What does this thing do?” he asked the man next to him.  “Type ‘ls /usr/bin’,” he replied.  Tommy typed ‘ls /usr/bin’ and words were printed on the screen.  “Those are all of the files in the ‘/usr/bin’ directory.”  “What else does this do?  I can do that on any UNIX machine.”  “Not much.  I suppose, though, that no one person can program a good operating system all by himself.”  “I am sure there are a bunch of people out there who really want to work on GNU, but have no way of doing so.  How would that person get his/her changes integrated into the code?”

“I should have probably introduced myself.  I am Dan, from Indianapolis.  I work in the Garcill IT department.”  “You work for Garcill!”  Tommy exclaimed.  “Yeah.  I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I do a lot more work than you probably think.  The technology director in Minneapolis doesn’t exactly do what he is supposed to, so I am usually stuck cleaning up after him.  So, where do you work?”  “Uh… I…” Tommy stuttered.  “I am on the All-Mart IT staff in Kansas City,” Tommy lied.  “Sounds much more appealing than my job cleaning up after that buffoon,” Dan joked.

Not finding that joke very funny, Tommy quickly looked back at his computer screen.  It still had the output of the command he had typed earlier on it.  Among those words listed was word ‘emacs’.  “Wasn’t Emacs the name of that ‘church’ from the presentation?” asked Tommy, trying to change the subject. “Yeah, I think it was.”  Tommy typed ‘emacs’, expecting something amazing to happen.  A text editor popped up.  After a few minutes, the two men gave up trying to figure out how to actually type something into the text editor and left to go their the next presentation.

“What is your next session?” Tommy asked.  “Caldera UNIX Desktop Deployment for the Medium-sized Business.”  “I’ve got the same one.”  As the two men walked to their next session together, their conversation had nowhere to go but back to the previous presentation.

“So why would anyone ever use GNU over a more powerful version of UNIX?” “It seems to me that he has this insane dream of everyone working together to create software for the greater good.”  “Unless people printed out their changes and mailed them to a central developer, there is no way to communicate changes to the main developer.  It’s impossible for anything productive to ever happen.”  “Yeah, it’s not like computers can call each other up on the phone and have a conversation!”  They laughed, but the laughter was short-lived.  For the next seven hours, Tommy got to sit through session after session after session.

After the convention, and some fun roaming the streets of Chicago, Tommy caught the flight back to Minneapolis.  He forgot about the presentations he attended at the conference, but he didn’t forget about the fact that someone else had to clean up after him because of his laziness.  Tommy learned that the time he put into his job really did make a difference.  He had a good feeling that he was, ethically, doing the right thing.  He walked hastily down the hall to help some co-workers with their Windows computers.

Published in: on August 2, 2008 at 9:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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