Archive for March, 2008

Communication in Free Software

I believe the problem of communication is by far the biggest problem and obstacle in the adoption of free software. I believe we have solved all the major technical problems in the adoption of free software, and the ones that remain are either being worked on or in testing. What has yet kept us from becoming the dominant supplier of software is our way of communication and marketing. Oh, I hear my readers mumbling: “here comes another free software detractor”. Actually, this is my best attempt at gathering attention upon an issue I can not solve by myself.

Why can’t I solve it alone, and then present my solution? Because that would be my solution to my version of the problem, as I see it. It would actually be of little help for others, as their issues are not even addressed. And failing to get their support to my initiative, it would fail itself, as many others did.

This problem needs be advertised by people with higher mind share on the public than my own, as there are still (many) people that negate its very existence.

Where do I see instances of this problem: in support forums in discussions between “gurus” and “newbies”, between developers and (experienced) users. Examples:
“Winning Hearts and Minds” by Angry Admin,
“A tale of two worlds” Daniel Robbins, Gentoo project initiator,
“Why did I stopped reporting bugs on Ubuntu”,
“Why I quit: kernel developer Con Kolivas”,
“Family Guide to Digital Freedom” by Marco Fioretti,

These are all old participants in the free software world (or they claim so). Even if every one of this reports are false, this is still an issue that should be analyzed.

I have to give 2 examples and ask your opinion on it.
1) I believe there is an important distinction to be made between our campaigns to use free software and our answers in support forums.
Say an end-user shows up on a support forum saying “I am using your free software program X on some proprietary Operating system” or “in combination with other software that does not respect user’s freedom”. In the current support forums the end user is likely to be greeted with a knee-jerk type of answer. For example: “Use Linux” or “read the guidelines” or worse – no answer at all.

I believe the right attitude of the ‘support people’ should be: “while we do not support your proprietary operating system, but here is the best advice we can provide you given the circumstances…”. The support community should provide end users with the best experience they can, so that users will come back when they are unencumbered by proprietary products.

End users have their own reasons for using their current products and could probably not give up on those products without costly transitions. Best thing to do should be to ensure a smooth transition – smooth by their terms – to free software. If their first contact is positive they are likely to come back. If we behave badly and rude and speak only technical language they will take their business elsewhere.

2) Another big mistake that we do is not explaining the free software philosophy in end users terms and with examples that affect them directly. Explaining artists the same freedoms as to programming coders is wrong: they care more about culture and telling them free software can smooth their ride in free culture is much more effective. By free culture I mean artwork developed collectively, just as our software, and distributed under a free (copylefted) art license.
It is right to present the four basic software freedoms, but for them free software is a means to achieving an end, free culture, and starting with the means to reach the end is wrong in my logic book. We should rather start with the end they care about and help them understand how Free Software can get them to that end. This is where we should rightly show them the four basic freedoms. This is also where I hope to turn them in free software advocates to others in their profession.