May 12, 2006

Evangelising free software

Writing about Warwick University – "an affiliate of M$"? from Joe's blog

(This was originally going to be a comment on Jonathan Rose's blog entry, but it grew far too long, and it looks like I'm ranting. So, ideal blog material, then.)

The trouble with evangelising is that it immediately makes you an outsider – you're the group of weird kids trying to persuade the heathen masses of something that might be against their best interests. (Not that free software is necessarily against their best interests.) The whole thing could potentially cast the whole of the free software community as a bunch of nutters, when we should be aiming to eventually become the mainstream (arguably).

For instance, using creative spellings of 'Microsoft' isn't terribly respectful – it creates a bad image of people who advocate free software. As the Linux Advocacy mini-HOWTO says, "If we expect respect for Linux, we must respect other products."

Really, there are two groups of people you might want to convince about the viability of free software; ITS, and Warwick students. Now, ITS will probably come round to using free software on their servers over time; for instance, they (afaik) still have a plan to deploy Linux desktops in greater numbers across campus, and just look at their new choice of mail server (Sendmail with a SquirrelMail web interface). I'm confident that this trend will continue, but it can only be made on technical arguments. It is also likely to be slow. I can't see all of campus switching away from Windows overnight.

Warwick students… well, there's a puzzle. The more technical among them will get exposed to GNU/Linux on desktops in DCS and Maths. Most of the rest simply won't care. The challenge could be to somehow find the demographic of users who would be open to trying Ubuntu Dapper when it gets released, for example – who have been hit by viruses and spyware in the past, and just want an easy desktop that lets them browse the web, check their webmail, and play music. This range of applications is more demanding than it sounds – it includes being able to run Java applets, play Flash animations, and various multimedia codecs that don't have free implementations yet, so you couldn't currently give them a completely free desktop without some complaints.

Your best bet at furthering 'the cause', is to learn as much as you can, and either start programming free software, or get a job administering GNU/Linux servers, or both – the entire computer industry has to turn around before 'Linux on the desktop' is going to be feasible. The first thing that has to happen is widespread adoption of servers running free software in businesses (for technical reasons, which is already starting to happen), and then a standardisation on a free platform for those businesses' desktops. People might then end up wanting to use the same software at home as at work. It's simply not going to happen overnight, and I would contend that effective advocacy does not include hanging around outside the library, preying on people with Knoppix CDs.

- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. I posted a reply on the main bit in my blog, although I would add one way to push Firefox is to use the little search bar at the top more; I've actually consciously started using it because Mozilla gets money from Google every time you use it. It's a small way to start, but if all users made it their primary method of searching they'd be raking it in… and they do give to other open source projects (fairly) generously. Recently they gave $10,000 to an open source company (although I've forgoten the details – sorry)

    12 May 2006, 18:15

  2. Backstory: Until it was replaced (around 99? 2000?) the mail service at Warwick was based on Sendmail/procmail, with a selection of clients to read it. Then a Big Project decided that Groupwise was the way to go. Mail relaying was always handled by sendmail.

    You're only half right about the new solution being sendmail – this is only for students. Staff are moving to a MS Exchange system

    12 May 2006, 21:41

  3. I was thinking of posting a similar sort of entry… it looks like you beat me to it :–)

    Unfortunately, although Microsoft has been known to employ somewhat unethical business practices, they make software that appeals to the masses. Whatever the reasons, Linux software has still got a very long way to come before it can think about taking some kind of dominant market share.

    There's lots of things that need to be done; codecs, as you say, are a big problem (especially for stuff like the WMV codec which currently doesn't really work and getting HD to play nice with Xv), better browser streaming, and a bunch of other stuff. Not to mention gaming, which currently sucks under Linux unless you can get Cedega/Wine working.

    However, some really good new technologies are emerging. Gstreamer 0.10 is looking promising as a new multimedia framework, and whilst Xgl is still a bit hacky at the moment, it shows the kind of things that we can currently do with the drivers currently available. Above and beyond that, after years of neglect under XFree, X is really coming along and hopefully with bandaids such as EXA things should start running a bit faster.

    For now, I just don't think that ITS is going to be suddenly gutting the Student Computing Centre and replacing it with nice copies of Ubuntu overnight. It's clearly not going to be happening for obvious reasons. We just have to keep trundling on, introducing new people to excellent pieces of open–source software such as Firefox and the Gimp and hope that over time, peoples' opinions of the general open–source movement and their misconceptions can be overcome.

    12 May 2006, 21:43

  4. /me nods.

    13 May 2006, 08:53

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