Pushing the Glacier

Thomas Holbrook II | *NIXEDBLOG

Free and Open Source Software is a wonderful thing. I use it everyday. Whether it is OpenOffice.org for writing this article, using Firefox to do research for this article, or using VideoLAN to listen to some streaming Internet radio courtesy of Ormgas, I know that I am saving money, time, and hard disk space by not using the commercial alternatives. For the rest of my college career, I no longer need to pay for expensive software. I am not the only one who has come to this realization.

According to the Associated Press in May of 2002, key segments of the U.S. Federal Government rely on computers in which the operating system utilizes Linux as the kernel of choice. As recently as December of last year, the New York Stock Exchange has moved to platforms that utilize the Linux kernel. Several hundreds of systems were purchased so that they could be independent from other technologies. It is quite clear from the two examples that parts of government and business are getting it. I am sure more are going to understand the meaning behind computing freedom, but how can it be spread?


Jeremiah T. Gray from Linux Insider has given an interesting suggestion: build the educational base. Keep that in mind for later. One of the issues at hand is the great Catch 22:

    • Organizations will only use FOSS if there are budget constraints.
    • The resources lack for professional consultants and administrators.
    • Resentment grows because FOSS is now seen as a distraction from getting things done.
    • That means less experience for potential consultants and administrators.
    • Organizations are reluctant to utilize FOSS platforms.

    Gray said it best:

    Since today’s newbies are tomorrow’s leading engineers, the sooner we get the tools in place to teach them the important lessons they will need in the field, the sooner we can start using the amazing software they will eventually develop.

    This educational base is very important, especially considering Jim Whitehurst has admitted that his company, Red Hat is not the easiest company to do business with. The technology is great, but Whitehurst sees an efficiency problem. Whether it is dealing with customers in a better way or encouraging other companies to share their source code so that development time is not wasted on software that may not be used, one thing will be a deciding factor in Red Hat’s success under his leadership: how educated is the user base? More importantly, how can the user base be effectively educated?

    Back in the 1980’s, Apple was quite dominant in the educational sector. However, they were a recognizable brand outside of the educational sector. They started outside of the educational sector. Yes, it helped that one could find an Apple in school when they were younger. However, if one were to read Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, they would soon realize that a user base had to be established. The fact they appeared in the educational sector shows that it was a success.

    So in that same vein, how can more of a user base be built? When enough people become educated, things are brought into the educational sector. In the case of FOSS-based platforms, businesses and government groups are already utilizing FOSS itself. The foot is already in the door, unlike Apple back in the day when they exploded after the education sector picked up their hardware and ran with it. This is where I am seeing a problem, and some questions need to be asked.

    As it stands now, there are three projects currently in operation that are very noble. In one case, it has already impacted the entire world. For all of the projects, they could be the beginning of something wonderful.

    The School

    Imagine if you will a large underfunded school district. Now imagine said school’s principal being interested in the possibility of using FOSS on their computers. What would your reaction be if you were to see such a story appear in your favorite newspaper, on your favorite news channel, or on your favorite FOSS news website? How would you know if it has not?

    Enter Christian Einfeldt of the Digital Tipping Point. It is a project that has the aim of creating a documentary of FOSS entering into multiple cultures of this world. Right now, he is working with a school on migrating to a FOSS-based platform. Due to the Iowa situation concerning Microsoft, said school got some money as part of the anti-trust settlement, hence why so many have thanked the state for staying with the lawsuit for so long.

    This settlement allowed for said school district to purchase machines from ZaReason, as noted in Enfeldt’s Slashdot journal. However, Apple is attempting to charm the district as well, so the machines that they had at the time were not stacking up too well compared to a MacBook. A notorious blogger went out of their way to attempt to tell the world about it. It was then picked up by LXer and soon appeared on my site. Where was everyone else?

    Where was all the other major FOSS news sources? How could they not have noticed that this individual was doing some interesting things on the west coast? Remember, I am speaking of an entire school district that can not be named due to a certain software corporation in the state of Washington who probably would not want to lose any customers from the education sector. Were it not for this notorious blogger, I would not have known about this project myself, nor would I have covered it on my own site.

    Einfeldt is at a potential tipping point as it were for adoption of FOSS on a mass scale. Some call it the domino effect for a reason. When one goes, so follows the rest. Why were we not paying attention to what he was doing all of this time? There are plenty of people out there who love FOSS to death and will sing its praises all day long, which is great. However, why not also spread the word on projects that could cause such a tipping point to occur?

    I once talked to the high school principal of my school in Leeton, Missouri. I asked them about considering something other than Microsoft products for the workstations. I was starting to see the potential at the time of software in which people could have access to the source code. I was told that it was Novell’s Netware technology that kept them on a Windows platform. Lots of schools in my time as a high school student used Netware technology with Microsoft Windows for their technology needs. Even if they switched to SuSE, it would not have meant much as it is to this day a very small district.

    California has plenty of larger school districts though. It has been over two weeks since I read about the project in and of itself. Why were there so few publications out there taking a look at it? There is still an opportunity to make this thing go viral, and I would love it if it were spread all over the web. The question is whether or not the keyboard commandos out there are willing to lift a finger to help out this volunteer on the west coast by raising awareness of such an interesting thing, or are they going to be too concerned with the needs of their own CPU to even care?

    The Town

    While a school is on the verge of potentially converting to FOSS, there is a town in the same state by the name of Felton. The plan is to have an entire town Microsoft free for at least a week in July. If all goes well, it could go on for months on end. Let me ask you, the dear reader this: would it not be a cool thing to wake up one morning and read in your newspaper that an entire town said goodbye to Microsoft? Speaking of press, why has there been such a lack of press on this?

    Carla Schroeder briefly covered it on O’Reilly. Danijel Orsolic also interviewed the people involved for said project which can be read on the Nuxified website. Other than that, there is a brief mention on FSDaily, a comment on the part of a snarky blogger, an episode of The Linux Link Tech Show talking about it, and mentions through feeds on various sites, there has been no mention of said project. Where are the major FOSS news publications? Why are they not even looking at the possibility of an entire town being converted to FOSS, even if it only lasts one week?

    There are plenty of high name participants too. They include OpenOffice.org and Codeweavers. The *nix distributions that are also being represented include Mandriva, Mepis, AntiX, Wolvix, Fedora, and Ubuntu. They are fairly well known too. Again, where is the FOSS press on this, and why are they dropping the ball?

    Without enough press, an informed public can not know what a project does, and what it requires to get the job done. There are times when making the most noise does not produce the loudest result. The silence from the major FOSS publications out there has been quite deafening. I understand the phrase, “Silence is Golden,” but would they be taking a bit too far in this instance? Will they stop staring at Big Iron for five minutes to take a look at spreading FOSS onto the desktop?

    The Generous Man

    The Golden State itself has been quite the theme in this article, and it in the case of James Burgett, it shall be so once again. This is an individual who finds a use for technology that has been discarded, because previous owners no longer had a use for it. He has also given out computers to the disadvantaged. The Alameda Computer Resource Center itself has been seen as an inspiration. Without it, we may never have a vendor such as ZaReason. The project was already getting attention from the mass media in general, but when a crisis hit them, coverage spiked.

    A bit of an explanation is in order. I screwed up in the past concerning ACCRC. I saw it posted on ZaReason’s website one day, then went off in the *NIXEDBLOG about it. I have since removed the post after rightly being ripped to shreds. Long story short, I leaped before I looked, but I digress.

    The whole point of writing about the ACCRC itself was to raise another question. Why did it take such a crisis to get so many people to pay attention to such a wonderful project? There was great coverage by various outlets beforehand, but after being threatened by the state agency in question, it obviously got more attention. Some could argue that his popularity went up on CNN due to this. How major does a potential threat have to be before people start caring for real about such a project.

    Yes, once again, I am talking about the (lack of) press coverage as of late on ACCRC. Hey, I understand being a bit hesitant due to Burgett’s specific request concerning copyrights, but come on! Since when did we have the right to own somebody’s words, thoughts, feelings, and dreams? I would like to think never, but that would be my naive side talking. I myself would have no problem giving the organization itself the right to redistribute anything as far as interviews go (assuming I can land one… which would be assuming that Mr. Burgett is no longer upset with me… assuming I had the courage to ask, which I lack at the moment in this case).

    Now is the time to turn my attention away from the press in the moment and talk directly to you. Yes I mean you, the one reading this. By that I also mean those who are a part of the whole FOSS movement? There is a very important question I need to ask of all of you.

    Where In the World Have You Been?

    After watching the efforts of advocates of FOSS for quite some time, I can now see how all the effort put into projects like putting the Tux logo onto a race car can feel like pushing a glacier with the others sitting on top of said glacier laughing at you. Of course, this can apply to other projects, where it feels like two steps forward, three steps back. The lack of caring on the part of a massive crowd can be frustrating, especially when at least one prestigious news discussion site refuses to talk about some efforts of promotion. Do we really want FOSS to become more widespread or do we want it to simply happen by magic? Or do we really care about preventing Microsoft from dominating the entire world with their proprietary products?

    Now I know there are those out there who have done their best in promoting FOSS. There are also those who have donated to the projects they saw as worthy of receiving a monetary incentive to keep going. There are also those who are on a very tight budget, and thus supporting such projects with time and/or money may be out of the question. Feel free to turn a blind eye for the next few paragraphs, since I am not aiming this at you.

    Are We Trying to Proliferate FOSS or Are We at War Against Self Preservation?

    Considering that Microsoft is attempting to make another play in Asia itself, one could come to the conclusion that they are afraid of FOSS itself, whether it be Linux, GNU, and other forms of software that are not locked down, but free to be scrutinized and modified as anyone sees fit. What does that tell you? It tells me that unless FOSS is marketed to those not familiar with it, it will eventually start fading away. Forget about the distro wars for a moment, the arguments over Mono, feuds between distros, and feuds between bloggers and distros. This is not doing anybody any good right now.

    What I am asking is a very difficult question to ask. Do you really, truly support FOSS and the philosophy behind it or are you more interested in getting the Internet equivalent of a hand out? Without all the blood, sweat, and tears of the various developers around the world, you would not have the polished product running on your computer at all. I know there are going to be all kinds of “reasons” for either not paying attention the three efforts I listed above. Allow me to address the potential “reasons” now.

    Shooting Down the Excuses

    I can hear it now. Some may say, “Not my country, so why should I care?” I am not saying you should care about the projects listed earlier. Why not support local projects that do not involve sucking up to Big Iron or preaching to the choir? There are plenty of things to do like starting a computer lab, an Internet cafe, and more.

    I can see someone stating that they do not particularly care for one of the individuals. That is perfectly okay by me. Why not support something you do agree with instead of wasting your time telling the person you do not like why they are doing things wrong? If we had more constructive things happening as opposed to people fighting each other all the time due to disagreements in philosophy, then FOSS would have a more prominent position in the world today. Now is the time to stop being so timid in my humble opinion when it comes to Free and Open Source Software.

    Please read over this article, pass it around to your friends, talk about it, discuss it, and think about it. Mark Shuttleworth once told me during the attempt to plaster Tux on a race car that it would be really cool if the community as a whole could get the thing happening. So why am I not scrutinizing his comment to me? Perhaps it was because he had a valid point, and it is one that Jeremiah T. Gray shared in the article I cited earlier. The seeds need to be planted, but are enough people going to kick the digital-handout mentality?

    Only time will tell it seems.

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