Explaining Software Freedom to a Beginner

I needed a good way to explain software freedom to people who have little to no computer experience (possibly parents or grandparents, kids, stay-at-home moms/dads, etc.), so I created the following blog post.  Many of these people could benefit from free software, but aren’t going to learn about it through mainstream media.  These people are usually easy to convert to Free Software, because they don’t already have blind opinions about the benefits of proprietary software.  They also don’t resist with the “I don’t want to learn a new program” excuse, because they haven’t put much time into learning any software yet.

You are free to modify and distribute the following under the terms of the GNU FDL.  To redistribute this, you can download it in PDF format or ODT format.

What is Software Freedom?

Many years ago, when computers were just being invented, people really didn’t care about computer software. If a company or organization was lucky enough to own a computer, it would find or create a piece of software to use on it afterwards. Other companies or organizations with computers would be nice enough to give away the software they had written, because it really didn’t mean that much to them. People had all the freedom they could want with this system. They had the freedom to give away their own software, and to receive software from others. They had the freedom to change any piece of software to accomplish the task at hand. They even had the freedom to give their modified version of a piece of software away to someone else in need.

Since then, the times have changed. Now, many pieces of computer software are locked down in a way that prevents people from making changes, just so that the software can be sold for a profit.

What is wrong with most software?

The reason companies lock down their software is because know they can make money off something that should be shared among everyone. Under normal circumstances, there isn’t any problem with people trying to make money. There is a problem when people want to make money so badly that it interferes with progress and innovation.

Different companies and individuals had to keep reinventing the wheel in order to sell their software; they couldn’t just change someone else’s software to fit their needs. Lots of people spent a lot of time writing computer software that somebody else had already written. If these people had shared the software they wrote with everybody, all of the time spent duplicating an existing program could go to improving it.

Another problem with not sharing software is the fact that one company or individual maintains complete control over what that piece of software does. More often than not, that person or company will be interested in making money instead of making the software as powerful and useful as possible. Therefore, the program’s creator is free to put obtrusive or unobtrusive advertisements into the program.

Obtrusive advertisements are pop-ups, nagging screens asking you to buy the “full version”, and other advertisements that ask you to spend your money in a certain way. An example of an obtrusive advertisement that you may be familiar with is the MSN icon (the butterfly) on the bar at the top of Windows Media Player. Another example of obtrusive advertising is when the Apple iPhone adds the text “Sent from my iPhone” to the bottom of all emails sent.

Unobtrusive advertisements are certain features or the lack thereof that force you to use software from a certain company again in the future. Unobtrusive advertisements are far more common than obtrusive ones. An example of unobtrusive advertising is the fact that Microsoft Word saves in Microsoft’s “.doc” format instead of the international standard, “.odt”. This forces you to use Microsoft Word again in the future if you want to view or edit that file. It also forces anyone else who wants to view or edit that file to use Microsoft Word.

The History of Software Freedom

One of the first people to realize a problem existed was Richard Stallman. In the 1970s, Stallman became frustrated when he couldn’t make an improvement to a piece of software he had received at no cost. This made him start to think about the computer software market. He was talented at creating software himself, and he knew several other people who were as well. They decided to create all of the software that a computer needs to run, and then share it with anyone who wanted it. It would be free of cost, but more importantly, anyone would have the freedom to change and redistribute it. Stallman wanted to make sure that, if modifications were made to his software, other people would be able to benefit from those modifications as well. Therefore, he put a modest requirement on his software that stated, “If you make changes to this software, those changes need to be shared as well.” He called this collection of software “GNU”. In 1991, another component was added to GNU to complete it called “Linux”. Therefore, the complete system was called “GNU/Linux”.

What is is called?

Stallman called this form of software “Free Software”. Most people incorrectly call any software that is free of cost “Free Software”. In true Free Software, the “Free” part refers to freedom, not cost. While it is true that most Free Software is free of cost, not all software that is free of cost can be called “Free Software”. Many times, applications that are free of cost are marketed as Free Software. There have been other names given to Free Software to help differentiate it, including “Freedomware”, “FOSS”, and “FLOSS”. Often, is is also called “Open Source Software”, or “OSS” for short. (Open Source Software has a few very minor differences from Free Software, but for our purposes, they are the same concept.)

Stallman also called any piece of software that wasn’t Free Software “Proprietary Software”. He carefully chose not to use the term “Commercial Software”, because he knew that some companies have indeed found ways to make money off Free Software. Calling freedom-subtracted software “Commercial Software” would give the impression that Free Software can’t be used in the industry, which is far from the truth.

Why Free Software is great

Free Software is generally much higher quality than Proprietary Software for several reasons. Many of the people who create Free Software do not get paid for doing so; it is created completely in their free time. These people obviously have a passion for creating software, since they are willing to do it in their free time. This gives the free software community the cream of the crop developers. There isn’t anyone working on Free Software who does it just for the paycheck.

In addition, all software is shared. This means that, unlike proprietary software, the wheel is never reinvented. Let’s say an German developer spends several years of his life creating a computer program that does the user’s yard work, and decides to make it Free Software. Now let’s say that a Russian software developer wants to create the same program, but in Russian. All that Russian developer has to do is go through and translate the existing piece of software. In the world of Proprietary Software, that Russian developer would have to start from scratch and recreate the whole application. Free Software just saved this person years of work. After a while, you can see everyone’s hours, days, and years start to add up to a considerable amount of time saved. This time saved directly translates into quality and progress

Free Software won’t always do everything people want, but it is guaranteed not to do the things people don’t want. If there is anything that the world as a whole does not like inside a piece of Free Software, it will eventually be removed by someone who feels strongly about its removal. This system of checks and balances is one of, if not the best, system of quality control ever created.

Final Comments

Free Software is any software the gives people the freedom to do what they want with it. Proprietary Software is any piece of software that is not Free Software. Free Software offers a massive number of advantages over Proprietary Software, because it is created by people, for people. Features are not added to or subtracted from Free Software based on how much money they will generate, but instead on how useful they will make the software.

One of the reasons not many people know about Free Software is because Free Software projects usually don’t advertise. The creators of software usually prefer to use all of the money available to them to improve the software. The only advertising these projects get is word of mouth.

To help promote the spread of Software Freedom and the advancement of technology, try using some pieces of Free Software instead of Proprietary Software. Two very well known pieces of Free Software you may want to try are the Firefox Web Browser (http://mozilla.com/firefox) and the OpenOffice Productivity Suite (http://openoffice.org). There are Free Software applications to replace most Proprietary Software. Two good sites to go to to find more free software are Osalt (http://www.osalt.com) and the Free Software Foundation Directory (http://directory.fsf.org). Together, we can help spread Software Freedom.

Published in: on July 4, 2008 at 12:45 pm  Comments (13)  
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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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