Barnraising your IT

Posted 16 May 2002 at 16:18 UTC by garym Share This

When people buy a software product, they say they get a sense of security they say is missing from opensource and free software. Not only is this myth-information at it's worst, but it also betrays an old-world thinking that misses the point of open source software.

There's a common argument against open source software which is typified by the following quote:

... free software is sometimes not very well maintained. I buy the Eudora package from Qualcomm so I can feel justified in complaining to them when a bug needs fixing, for example, rather than using the free version.

With all due respect to the author, this Eudora story is missing the point, it's spreading un-called-for FUD, and at best betraying an "old-world" way of looking at our software ownership.

There is only we

Ok, this is advogato, so I'm preaching to the converted to some degree, but bear with me. There's a point which a lot of us need to take home from this, and one which many of those seeking to "make money from free software" seem to miss: Free software is not about selling a service, it is about a community activity, a shared commons. If some software we are using is broken, or needs work, like any commons, it is our failing, not a failing of the "vendor".

There is no "vendor" in this world, there is only "we".

That the users don't participate, that is the crime, that is the sad omission. We are so accustomed to being sold to, we don't recognize when a neighbour comes up to shake our hand.

Helping the Helpers

Say your community shows up to build you a barn, and you sit on the porch drinking lemonade, criticising their carpentry and pestering them for a completion date, well, just how ludicrous is that scenario? Yet this is exactly what we are doing when we sit back like some ancient king, expecting free software served to us, taking what we you need, giving nothing in return except maybe money ... or "advocacy". Sigh

Even if all we can do is serve them lemonade, or do the little grunt jobs for the apprentices, carry the lumber, hold the chalk-line, mix the paint ... at least we're helping ease the load.

Paid-for Sex is Better(?)

This comment about Eudora is also guilty of propaganda, even if only naiively. Commercial software, if anything, is equally guilty of not supporting or maintaining their products. The commercial world has no monopoly on professionalism, just as the private sector has no monopoly on efficiency.

That one can get results from Qualcom is not in question, but for every Qualcom in this world there are ten more who just dump products on the market and take the money and run, and who will insult you if you call on them (a certain large vendor in Redmond Washington comes to mind). Equally, for every ten GTimers in the Opensource/FreeSoftware world there is a Postgres or a Ruby or an Evolution or an XEmacs who take being neighbourly quite seriously.

The Things Money Can't Buy are Free

Of course, just as with the barn raising, which neighbour do you suppose is more likely to get future assistance, the one drinking lemonade, or one weilding another hammer or brush? If you don't mind Christian mythology, consider the story of the Good Samaritan and the question Jesus asks, "Which one is the neighbour?"

Here's where this all comes home to the Advogato crowd: This paradigm shift out of colonial thinking of being sold to, of being passive wallets that product is pumped into, and into becoming part of a whole community, this is probably the single biggest obstacle to the widespread adoption of open source software. It's a tough nut to crack, too, as it is not just the users of the software stuck in this mindset, but too often also the producers of the open source who still seek only to colonize the user's IT.

Community means an Ecosystem

Old habits die hard. It's time both sides realized that this truly is a commons, and that, as custodians of the park, it makes more sense to encourage our visitors to pick up their own trash than to invent more elaborate cleanup machines. Ok, bad metaphor, but the point is, unless we can engage the user-base, we are pissing in the wind. Ok, not much better, but you get the picture, right?

Eudora is a bad example of "support", posted 16 May 2002 at 18:27 UTC by AlanShutko » (Journeyer)

It's had bad handling of the References and In-Reply-To when replying for years. People complained, but at the time, those headers weren't strictly specified. RFC2822 does specify them, and now Eudora is non-compliant, and they still aren't fixing it.

Ok, rantlet done....

Comercial support?..., posted 16 May 2002 at 21:19 UTC by salmoni » (Master)

Don't forget that if a commercial company goes bust, non open source software is usually totally neglected and nothing more can be done with it. Free and open source software can continue to be developed even by the end users.

Having said that, I feel that the biggest barrier preventing participation as a member of the community is that a lot of users feel too intimidated to get involved possibly due to the perception that a lot of expert knowledge is needed. This is a shame as active participation would increase the feeling that people have of being in a community.

Besides, if people want to I am sure they could pay the developers a little money to get "priority" treatment! (which in my experience would be superior to most comercial services)

Old habits die hard... how true!, posted 17 May 2002 at 01:46 UTC by tk » (Observer)

Many people, after they'd had Linux installed on their laptops for them and they tried it out for a while, would ask, "How do I uninstall Linux?" instead of, say, "How do I do word processing under Linux?" / "How should I get my sound card to work under Linux?" / "Is there a Doom for Linux?" / etc.

I wonder why they never thought of uninstalling Windows. :\

Maybe it's because Windows is often installed by seemingly respectable companies, while Linux is frequently peddled by a few odd-looking individuals. Therefore, Windows must be superior, and Linux must be inferior, right? This thinking is obviously irrational, but sadly common.

Get the right environment from the start...., posted 17 May 2002 at 10:59 UTC by johnb » (Apprentice)


Perhaps the real issue is that when someone has Linux installed, it's often installed with the tools that the installer would use, rather than the fun /useful stuff the end user would like. The question "How do I do word processing under Linux?" should never really need to be asked. After all, if the person doing the install is doing it properly, they should ask exactly what the end user wants to do with the machine, and stick $wordprocessor [1] on there, ditto doom, quake, UT, and whatever else.

People rarely want to destroy any tool that does most of what they want, reasonably well, and if an end user find that their install of windows has more stuff on it that they want than their install of linux, then the choice as far as they are concerned is a no-brainer.

Obviously the person doing the install cannot put everything the user will ever want on the system, but as long as there is enough stuff on there to get the end user interested and keep them interested, they'll stick with it. If they have doom, they'll know that sort of thing is possible, and will look for quake/ut/whatever, and if they have abiword[2], they'll know that sort of thing is possible, and will look for a complete office suite, if they need it. Etc, etc, etc...

[1] not wanting to start a "don't install this, install that thread"
[2] Oops..

The ethical value of Free Software, posted 17 May 2002 at 20:39 UTC by adulau » (Journeyer)

The important advantage of Free Software[1] is his ethical value.

The Free Software ethic is protecting freedom for everybody.

Proprietary software can compete on every classical aspect of sofware engineering (quality, reliability,...). The only point that proprietary software can't compete is the ethic. To promote Free Software, the best way is to promote his long-term ethical value.

Yes, there is also some technical point that Free Software is better located. (like auditability of the source code and so on, quality on the long term)

But ethical value is an excellent argument.

[1] Free Software (FSF definition)

..., posted 18 May 2002 at 00:21 UTC by tk » (Observer)

johnb has a point. Thanks!

adulau, that's the losing tactic which ESR has been trying very hard to steer people away from. Many people (myself included) treat software as tools for getting their tasks done, not as parties in a battle of good against evil.

It isn't such a losing tactic, posted 18 May 2002 at 01:04 UTC by johnnyb » (Journeyer)

It's wrong to think of the Freedom of free software as a losing tactic. Maybe you just need different words for your freedom.

I think the problem is that we are displaying freedom as altruism, rather than displaying freedom for the "whatsinitforme" that corporate culture expects.

The truth is, freedom benefits everyone, and you just have to show that. Being able to copy software to any computer is a benefit directly from freedom. Deleting you software license compliance database and firing or relocating the people who spend their days maintaining it is another freedom benefit. Being able to fix your own problems is another freedom benefit.

Freedom does sell. Even to corporate IT departments. As long as it's not sold as altruism. That's one thing corporate IT departments are not.

Every Little Bit Helps , posted 18 May 2002 at 04:57 UTC by garym » (Master)

salmoni: Yours is an argument I most often hear, second maybe to "I don't have time, my time is money" yet anyone who's contracted even a carpenter knows you get better service if even all you offer is a cup of coffee.

There's lots the non-technical person can do, even for something as elaborate and deeply technical as the Linux kernel. You can proof-read the documentation and comment on where it was confusing for you; as a novice, you have something the developers have lost, ie your innocence. I produce docs all the time which state things I think obvious but which totally confound my readers. My guide for emacspeak for non-technical users ( tried to de-mystify Emacs (talk about doing something impossible before breakfast!) and would not have got as far as it did were it not for kind comments from several novice users.

The point about proprietary systems that go bankrupt is a very good case in point. Here at TCI, we use the old MetaDOT portal software as our Intranet; all we use is its ability to put RDF boxes into a page and update them on a schedule, but now that this opensource project has vanished are we out of luck? No, I just maintain the perl code myself, best I can, to keep it current to our requirement. Contrast this with our last major purchase for Windows, S-Designor which had the Y2K bug and now no longer works with post-Win98; I've had to simply abandon it. Ditto for our photo-scanner from EasyPhoto.

Someone once proposed that companies going bankrupt should just dump their sources to an archive and GPL it on their way out; were I Emperor of IT, that would be my second decree, right after the decree that "no one shall compose software they themselves do not use"

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