Wednesday 3 September 2008

An education issue? + Yay for the Intrepid user switcher and shutdown/logoff window

Talking to my father tonight, helping him with some computer tasks and advocating free software in the process, I've come for myself to the realization of what many may already know, but anyway... the use of free and open-source software is an education issue. What I mean by that is that if we want FOSS to be adopted in a more widespread fashion, if we want projects to succeed (and FOSS-focused companies to succeed), we need to make sure that people know that alternatives exist. We need to let people know too, that the alternatives are legit -- because I think that this may actually be a problem too. Maybe people are accustomed to paying for software that has very specific capabilities, or lots of features, or for operating systems, and from that habit they are inferring that whatever is not being charged for is like the today sadly common pirated software? Is anybody else noticing this kind of thing?

As such, I think that is really is important to support projects like Fabian Rodriguez' Ubuntu In Libraries, that promote availability of open-source software, education of potential users on the fact that legit, free, and working software actually exists, and that it can replace other software with fewer features that you could potentially pay a lot more for.

Extending this, I also think that Ubuntu should be advocated in a more overt manner in schools. I'm often somewhat shocked at the fact that teachers will encourage students to procure themselves extremely specialized and pricey software like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator (which tend to be somewhat out of most students' budgets, especially living on their own... and usually also out of their parents' budgets!), when viable alternatives like GIMP or Xara Xtreme, which could not only do the same work in many cases, but benefit from the additional user base while helping these new users by adding features. If there is demand for something, it has more of a chance to be added to a software project. At the same time, from my experience with the commercial and free alternatives of graphics tools, I see that a lot of things are done exactly the same way, with very similar menus or icons for the same tasks. I'm no expert, but wouldn't that still be good if students are taught the theory basis, and can then transport, transfer that knowledge to whatever different tool they use to do the job? At the very least, I say thanks to Ubuntu for making some of the finer of these alternative programs easy to install or even available by default in new installs (I'm thinking


DARG said...

"the use of open source is an education issue."

ummm. no. buddy. it might appear to be but no. sure education plays its part. but well no. i disagree. the use of open source is brought by a natural desire of people to be curious. if they find something useful then they will use that. if their system works on 100% open source then they will stick with that. if along the way they feel secure that their system will work in mission critical moments. then they will gladly pay for that. for me, an os is like an employee. it can be good or bad. you can rely on him or not. you can teach him stuff and expect him to learn or not.

dont punish your dad with having to learn too much open source. let the thing speak for itself. if he thinks open source is for him then he will decide on his own.

but hey. scratch that. it might help you bond with him. ick, i cant believe i just said that. advocacy is good but too much shouting can hurt peoples ears. remember that.

Matt Trudel said...

Oh, rest assured, this is far from a punishment or shouting. The tasks I'm being asked for help with are usually simple things, but each of them would usually require that one would buy a 20-30$ piece of software that you'd use only once or twice, for say, modifying ID3 tags in a batch, or doing audio sampling. All these we were able to make work with simple programs that would run as well on Windows (what we used in this case) as any Linux.

I wholeheartedly agree that a lot of it comes from curiosity, and you need to be willing to put some time and effort into making things work, but this is, fortunately becoming less and less true. Linux distributions are getting better, and for example, you can easily get a system that will work just fine as soon as it's installed, and that will be easy to work with, even for people who know barely anything about computers.

Also, yes, sometimes you need to pay for stuff if you want to feel secure that it will work. As a network administrator, I'm always very partial to good old Cisco hardware that will work without issues for months at a time and without much tweaking, whereas you may easily waste 6 months testing and tweaking and preparing a homegrown router or firewall infrastructure. However, if there is a way to get by with some daily tasks or one-shot tasks with FOSS, where my time will not be wasted on making it work instead of working with it, then I'll always be in favor of it.

What I was describing is the fact that often, people don't know that alternatives exist. People don't know that instead of buying Soundforge or whatever software to do what they want, there's an open-source program that will do just the same, and for someone new to either, you'd never tell the difference.

Moreover, for open-source to succeed; for companies that live off, for example, paid support for users of open-source software like Canonical; there needs to be a change of vision from the "this is for the people who are curious and like to tinker with things", to "this will just work, and always work". That's the kind of thinking that will help people in the long run... And it's not just about open-source, it's about anything and everything. Everywhere, in life, when you want to succeed, be ahead of the game, or just want to take things easy, you need to be aware of the alternative options, and make the best choice considering the options you have.

What does it do? How well does it do it?

DARG said...

Very well said.