Pointless Quagmire

With respect to bringing Linux to the masses, Linux culture is its own worst enemy… A few observations if I may.

  • Pick ONE Linux distro and promote that to the mainstream.  Ubuntu should probably be the one.  They will figure out about the many distributions in due time, and can think about the over-abundance of choices later.
  • People are intimidated by the word “Linux,” and for good reason.  Unless absolutely necessary, leave it out of the equation altogether.  For example, the word “Ubuntu” all by itself is just fine.  “Ubuntu Linux” is an unnecessary clarification.  The phrase “GNU/Linux” (in whatever context) is extremely unnecessary, and does not need to be part of the presentation of FOSS to average computer users.
  • Stop bothering potential newcomers with introductions to the various desktop environments.  The modern paradigm properly makes no distinction between an Operating System and it’s so-called ‘Desktop Environment.’  New users will (after becoming sufficiently comfortable with whatever D.E. was packaged with their OS) eventually learn about the additional choices – and even then still may not care a wink about it.
  • When introducing newcomers to their new Linux Operating System.  Don’t even bother mentioning the Command Line.  They don’t care.  Actually, they don’t even want to know it exists.  They just want to get up and running and get comfortable performing basic tasks.  Mouse-centric GUIs are the now the norm for mainstream computer users.  Let’s leave it that way.  It’s Ok…really.  They’ll survive.  When the time and circumstances are right they will come around and ask you about ‘this Command Line thing.’  Feel free then to take the ball and run with it.
  • Free “…as in Speech, as in Beer” is not an intuitive analogy for the two primary characteristics of free software, and is actually counter-productive.  The only thing this tired and overly perpetuated phrase is good for is to help with gaining acceptance among entrenched members of the Linux subculture, which is its own worst enemy (assuming its goal is truly to bring Linux to the masses).
  • No one cares about the Penguin.  The Penguin does not inspire people to switch Operating Systems.  Let it go.
  • When promoting software to the mainstream let the word “Free” simply mean ‘no cost’ and leave it at that.  When promoting software to potential developers use whatever designation(s) you want, because they already get it.  But whatever you do, at least make an allowance for the different types of visitors who may show up at the software homepage. Newcomers are only interested in the type of software being offered, whether it’s easy to acquire & install, and the fact that it is apparently free, which is pretty neat.
  • Make all FOSS cross-platform.  Once people finally grab hold of the idea that free (as in ‘no cost’) software can be both intuitive and reliable they will eventually begin to seek out more of it.  Assuming this process doesn’t become intimidating and overly complex they will begin to adopt more of it as well, using it meanwhile on their commercial OS of choice.  Once regular, everyday users are running a sufficient spectrum of quality Open Source, cross-platform software they are in a prime position to make the final realization that even their very Operating System can be high quality, reliable, and Free.  Hopefully their chosen Free Operating System will also be intuitive and friendly to new users.  With the added knowledge that their productivity (and everyday) software is already available for the Free Operating System, the motivation to migrate over grows exponentially higher, and becomes significantly more likely.
  • Decide once and for all which is of greater importance:  Perpetuating the many longstanding tenets of Linux subculture, or bringing Linux to the masses.  Because one of these has to give.
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Published in: on July 29, 2010 at 5:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Understanding Free Software

The world of Free Software is filled with commonly used, but often unfamiliar, terms due to subtle differences in the way the software is created.  It isn’t necessary to understand these things in order to benefit from using free software…but it can help, and may even put other things in perspective.  The purpose of this post is to explain in the simplest possible way how free software differs – and to offer a reminder that free software can be extremely high quality.  Most of all, it truly and genuinely doesn’t cost a dime.  Why?  Because it turns out quite a few people in this world are both talented and generous.  Seriously.  It’s true.  Here we go.

Freeware – Probably the most commonly used term for free software.  Also probably the most common type.  The underlying code is private (or “closed”).  Only the original author can modify it.  But this doesn’t matter to most users, who don’t care about the underlying code.  They are still free to download and use it and, in most cases, share it with others.  If you enjoy the software, and appreciate the hard work put into creating it, there is usually an option somewhere to offer a small donation to the author.

Open Source – Another popular term; a type of free software; also an entire movement within the software development community.  Unlike Freeware (and Commercial Software) the underlying code is completely “open.”  Users who are so inclined, and endowed with the proper coding skills, can open up the source code and tinker around with it, perhaps making improvements and changes along the way.  Almost by definition this kind of software is community driven.  That is, usually many talented people contribute to the project, constantly improving the software  and keeping it up to date.   There are many small nuances in the way all this works but that’s the gist of it.  Ultimately, the only thing that matters to the rest of us is that this software is free to use.  If we appreciate the hard work that goes into keeping it alive, a small donation is an excellent way to show our thanks.

Portable – This is just a quick way of saying that the software can run directly off a USB drive.  Some free software has two versions, a regular and a “portable” version.  Other software is natively portable (meaning that it will run from your hard drive or a USB drive).  Sometimes the software has to be installed to the USB drive in order to work properly.  Other times it’s as simple as dragging the software file (the executable) from your hard drive to the USB drive.  In every case the end result is that you can take the software with you.  It’s portable.  I use a handful of “portable apps” right here on my main computer.  Not because they’re portable, but simply because they work well.  The fact that they also happen to be portable is just a bonus.

Cross Platform – As you probably know there are but a few major Operating Systems that, pretty much, rule the world.  They are Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.  (Ubuntu is one flavor of Linux geared toward average users, and also happens to be 100% free).  These are “platforms.”  Software has to be written to run on a given platform.  In many cases the author of a piece of software will code it to run on multiple platforms, or all the major platforms.  The end result is a piece of software that is “cross platform.”  Otherwise, you would need to see which Operating System the software was written for.

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On the other side of things we have a sort of hybrid between traditional Commercial Software and Freeware.  This is called…

Shareware – The software is usually free to try for a limited time, after which the user must pay to continue using it.  Or, another approach is to offer a feature limited version of the software with no expiration.  But in order to take advantage of all the features users can (optionally) pay to upgrade to a “Premium” or “Pro” version.  Some might argue that the latter of these two still qualifies as “Freeware” since, technically, the user never has to pay if they don’t want to.  There’s no need to settle that debate here and now other than to agree that it’s a debatable matter.

Then of course there is what most people are used to, Commercial Software.  The underlying code is proprietary and closed, and probably protected by one form of copyright or another.  Users can purchase the software; but in reality you really only purchase a “license” to use the software.  In fact, it has even become difficult to define what it means to own a piece of software.  But that’s another topic for another day.  The defining characteristics of Commercial Software are that it’s purpose is to generate profit (for a corporation or individual), and is usually accompanied by some sort of customer support.  Although, it is not uncommon for even that to cost extra nowadays.

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I’m an advocate of Free Software because I’ve had the fortune of using some truly excellent Free Software to greatly enhance my productivity.  When you stick to those with a proven reputation one can almost be guaranteed to enjoy a game or application that’s both high quality and stable, and often comes with free support through the use of support forums (or message boards).  In this day and age of prolific, high quality free software, there’s no reason to believe we are ever stuck paying for and using costly, proprietary Commercial Software.  If you find something that works, works well, and you’re willing to pay for it…great.  Alternatively, there may be something else that works, works equally well (or better) and also happens to be completely free.

…just don’t forget to support these folks from time to time if you have the means.

Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 11:07 am  Comments (1)  
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Open-mindedness

“Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open”

Sir James Dewar

Published in: on March 19, 2009 at 8:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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OpenStreetMap

openstreetmapChances are you’ve already got a favorite street mapping site; and most of those work just fine for common needs, like directions and so forth.  But what if you have a mapping project that needs raw map data?  Then things get a little more complicated…and expensive.  OpenStreetMap has come to life in the style and spirit of the open-source Wiki community.  The goal: enable a community of empowered users to build a comprehensive street map database, with the resulting source data also freely available.  How does it work?  Well, if you just need to grab a quick map simply use the search bar just as you would on any other site.  To contribute street data, grab a GPS device and hit the road.  After doing a little exploring out in the real world return to OpenStreetMap and upload your ‘GPS trace.’  It’s pretty neat to check in and see the street data steadily expanding, and a fun way to contribute – especially if you’re already tooling around with GPS anyway.

As of this writing, supportable export formats include XML, Mapnik, Osmarender Image, and Embeddable HTML.

Published in: on February 15, 2009 at 7:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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