foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world


The disconnect between Open Source advocates and the rest of the world

, posted: 13-Nov-2007 09:47

A recent thread in our Geekzone discussion forums illustrated a couple of interesting points about the way GNU/Linux proponents talk about their favourite OS and about the way other (non-GNU/Linux) users tend to react to this. This is about perception and also about an apparent disconnect between those two user groups, which continuously leads to unnecessarily raised tensions. I will try to shed some light on the reasons for this. Hopefully, I can also suggest ways to keep discussions from deteriorating in the future.

To quickly summarize without repeating all details: The thread started out by one user suggesting that everyone should try the new Ubuntu 7.10 so that we can all kick Microsoft out of our lives and off our computers and get into the world of open source. Several posters then took issue with this language, pointing out that the discussion should have instead remained focused on the benefits of Ubuntu vs. Windows, for example. Eventually, it was deemed that the original post was flame-bait and the thread was locked down by a moderator.

Those Linux fanboys, always soooo irrational...

I see this a lot about proponents of GNU/Linux: Other users tend to perceive them as pushy, sometimes arrogant and unnecessarily confrontational in their approach to GNU/Linux-advocacy. Why – they seem to wonder – is there even such a thing as Linux-advocacy? This shouldn't be a religion or movement or something. Why are Linux users often so ... emotional about their OS? Why can't they just be reasonable?

In the end, GNU/Linux users are seen as anti-Microsoft, criticising Microsoft at all turns, despite of the fact that for some users Windows might be the better choice. Should not a point by point comparison of pros and cons be sufficient to clarify which OS one should use? This list of pros and cons is likely to look different for every user, so some would benefit from using GNU/Linux, others from using Windows. A single person may also choose to use Windows for some and GNU/Linux for other tasks. This should be clearly apparent to every reasonable person, so why all the fuss?

I think I can explain.

Talking past each other

The main reason I see is that in this instance GNU/Linux and Windows users are simply talking past each other. What many Windows users might not understand is this: For many GNU/Linux users the fact that the OS is free and open source is in itself a major feature of the software. And sometimes, this feature is overriding in its importance. For that reason, I like GNU/Linux (which I use), but also FreeBSD (which I haven't used in a very long time), KDE (which I don't use) and many others, simply because they are open source. And I do not like Windows (which I have used) and Apple (which I haven't used) and others, because they are closed source. I don't hate them, I just like to avoid them whenever I can, because the use of free and open source software is important to me, even if it presents me with additional challenges at times.

Open and free software is a value to some, but not to others

I use GNU/Linux and open source software on a daily basis for all my work: Development, documentation, Internet access, multi-media, presentations, etc. There are some desktop applications for GNU/Linux in those categories that are truly amazing, and others which are still sorely lacking. Server software is usually excellent, but desktop software is not complete yet. Sometimes the lack of specific desktop applications or drivers for GNU/Linux can be very annoying, even though this situation is fortunately arising less and less often these days. In those rare instances I just make due with whatever I have, even though on some occasions it is less convenient or feature rich than what you'd get for Windows or Apple.

Why do I do that? Because I think that it is important to use free software. The fact that it is free and open means something to me and also to other users of free software. It is a value in itself, and this value will differ from person to person. For me, this value is great enough that I am willing to put up with the rare cases where some functionality is lacking in my desktop work. Why the openness of the software is of such a value is a topic for another blog post, so I won't get into it here.

For the open source proponent

The lesson to be learned, though is that if you are in the situation where you feel that open and free software in itself is of importance then you need to understand that most of the people out there do not see it that way. Therefore, stating that Microsoft is evil or that you even hate Microsoft is not going to get you anywhere. It alienates your audience right from the start. Instead, the vast majority of people can only be won over with fact based arguments about the merits, pros and cons of various solutions.

There might be a second angle you can take: Instead of continuously pointing out how good GNU/Linux is (or many of the other fine open source applications and OSs) it might be worth also – or instead - to point out the benefits of open source software in general and the risks (and dangers?) of closed source, proprietary software. As I mentioned, this is a whole different discussion, but one that has to be held much more often since there is still very little awareness about it in the greater community. And since your audience doesn't share the same point of view yet, let alone your passion for it, any discussion about this must be as reasonable and fact based as possible. Emotions here just get in the way and possibly turns your audience against you from the start.

For Windows users

For Windows users or happy users of proprietary software befuddled by the strange passion and intense emotion of some GNU/Linux users: It is worth keeping in mind that they might just see more in the OS and software they are using than a table with feature tick-boxes, listed side by side with the Windows or Apple equivalent. Or that if they see it that there is a #1 feature for which the two of you may not share the same appreciation: The openness and freedom of the source. And that this feature makes them put up with strange and arcane looking workarounds, for which you may not have the patience or inclination for a number of good or personal reasons.

In that case then, please recall why that person may be so passionate about something that to you appears to be 'just software, just a tool'. You might remind the person of that and that you'd love to hear some assessment of the pros and cons, and are open to a technical discussion of those merits. This can bring the discussion onto a level that both of you can agree on or understand from the beginning. At the same time, also be open to the argument about open and free software, and acknowledge that for some people at least this is an important value. The challenge only is that many of the arguments for free, open software may appear emotional to you, while the proponent 'feels' very clearly that there is more than just emotions, or hate of some vendors at stake. Contradictory as that may sound.

Conclusion

So, hopefully we can discuss these things in a more level headed and rational manner in the future, trying to see the other person's point of view. I will continue to blog about open source software, and maybe I can shed some light for you on why I feel that free and open software is important. And sometimes I might get carried away about a topic that I feel is very important. Please feel free to call me to order then and – should I get too 'emotional' for you – request 'just the facts' from me.



Other related posts:
UK government supports open source
25 open source projects for software development
Dabbling in OpenSolaris








Comment by freitasm, on 13-Nov-2007 10:47

This is a very good post with a great perspective on the issue... Well done!


Comment by Kaos, on 13-Nov-2007 11:15

Well said


Comment by Tyler, on 13-Nov-2007 15:22

> I like Linux (which I use), but also FreeBSD (which I haven't
> used in a very long time) simply because they are open
> source. And I do not like Windows (which I have used) and
> Apple (which I haven't used) and others, because they are
> closed source.

--------------------------

This narrow minded view is sadly prevalent in the OS Community. Open Source is regarded as something spiritual and if you use unpure closed its like a Jew eating something unkosher.

If you see a computer as an end in itself, sure, you can treat Open Source as religion. But if you use a computer as a _tool_ you should chose the best tool. But no, you suffer long years under bloated Mozilla instead of just using Opera.

Think about it: There is no Photoshop for Linux and very few commercial games, so the Linux-guys are bitching about the propriety evildoers. But even if Adobe would undertake the massive effort to port their Creative Suite you still wouln't use it and stick with Gimp. And don't buy games. Because its not pure enough.

I like Open Source and in many areas I depend on it. But I also love the vibrant shareware community of the Macintosh and you have to admit, that a _huge_ chunk of the IT Industry depends on Microsoft.

I also believe it is not important if the operating system or app you are using is open or closed or shared or whatever source. What is important, is that the _data_ is based on standards and that there is no lock-in other than the good design of the application.

Microsoft owns the office market, because they owned the .doc format. But if your file-format of your data is compatible it simple isn't political anymore if you are using MS Office, OpenOffice or Appe iWork. Or which image editor you use.


> the benefits of open source software in general and the
> risks (and dangers?) of closed source, proprietary software.

Don't forget the risks of open source development and the benefits of a commercial free market economy.

Also the Open Source Fans are denying/ignoring the hypocrisy, that the free software philosophy isnt translating into the web world: The web-companies use open source to provide proprietary services. Its impossible to export your pictures with all the nice comments from flickr.com to photobucket.com. Facebook is a walled garden. Google Mail is no less proprietary as a closed source desktop mail client. In fact you have even less control over web apps and Services.


Comment by blackbelt_jones, on 13-Nov-2007 19:44

Just try to listen, and to respect other people. When these discussions degenerate, it's almost because someone on either side behaves like a "fanboy", it's more likely because someone was dismissed as a "fanboy". Almost everybody on either side of the issue is more complex and rational than their respective stereotypes.

Remember that a lot of people have their livelihood tied up with the the status quo. You have to expect them to feel threatened, whether they admit it or not; that's only human.

Are we anti-Microsoft or anti-monopoly? Do we really need to play Microsoft's game of world domination? Are we out to crush the competition, or to preserve a quality choice? I always tell people that I think Microsoft has made a huge contribution to making IT accessible to everyone, and that for that they don't deserve to own the future of IT, but they deserve to make a lot of money. And then I add that, long term, I'm betting on them to do very well financially.

A little debate is fun, but if you want to help Linux make progress, your online time is much better spent helping someone who wants to learn than by tryng to convert someone who couldn't care less.


Comment by blackbelt_jones, on 13-Nov-2007 19:45

Just try to listen, and to respect other people. When these discussions degenerate, it's almost because someone on either side behaves like a "fanboy", it's more likely because someone was dismissed as a "fanboy". Almost everybody on either side of the issue is more complex and rational than their respective stereotypes.

Remember that a lot of people have their livelihood tied up with the the status quo. You have to expect them to feel threatened, whether they admit it or not; that's only human.

Are we anti-Microsoft or anti-monopoly? Do we really need to play Microsoft's game of world domination? Are we out to crush the competition, or to preserve a quality choice? I always tell people that I think Microsoft has made a huge contribution to making IT accessible to everyone, and that for that they don't deserve to own the future of IT, but they deserve to make a lot of money. And then I add that, long term, I'm betting on them to do very well financially.

A little debate is fun, but if you want to help Linux make progress, your online time is much better spent helping someone who wants to learn than by tryng to convert someone who couldn't care less.


Comment by tumb_sc, on 14-Nov-2007 01:01

Yeah, its to do with the values.

For someone with some sort of programming experience and are more technically inclined, they love opensource. It opens the door to flexibility without the redtape. When something goes wrong, you take care of it directly and share the solution with others. It also allows you to change the software to meet your needs more precisely. There's no NDA you gotta sign, or some restricted agreement you have to obey, etc.

For the person who just uses the computer, they don't care about that. They just want to use it. They don't even care until they realise the problems they encounter in Windows aren't experienced in alternatives (be it Linux, BSD, or Mac). Then they start having some doubts. (When a person's eyes are opened to something new, it really shakes their core. Some embrace it, others fiercely fight it in a form of denial...Varies from person to person).

People are willing to stay or defend Windows for a number of reasons: (Here's a few that I've indentified so far...From the top of my head).

(1) They are financially dependent on Microsoft's infrastructure. (Remember, they have invested time money and energy into it...So how else are they supposed to act when an alternative appears that completely destroys their livelyhood or concept of thinking?)

eg: Over at dailytech.com, if you look through the archive of feedback relating to MS articles, you'll always see a character named "TomZ" defending Microsoft, or saying how a MS product is better, etc. (If you follow this username, you soon realise he works or his business is highly Microsoft dependent).

=> http://www.dailytech.com/CommentUser.aspx?user=202666

(2) Much needed Windows apps don't run flawlessly or seamlessly on Linux. If you can make Windows apps work on Linux OR develop direct opensource alternatives, some people will question the need for Windows. (An OS is nothing without applications).

eg: If you wrote an awesome accounting opensource app that is completely compatible with Intuit's Quicken/TurboTax/etc series and offered professional support for business customers (far lower than Intuit's prices), how many businesses do you think would seriously jump off the Windows ship?

Its no different to gamers. Around the world, I always read responses like: "If Linux can play all my Windows games, I wouldn't bother with Windows anymore." (Or something similar).

(3) Some folks have used Windows for so long, that its a habit to them. They do NOT want to learn something new. Call it laziness, call it whatever you want. No matter how much you tell them how alternatives are better, they don't care. (Even if these alternatives match their requirements!)...Oddly, they're willing to learn MS Office's 2007 new GUI? Wtf?

(4) Others try to use Linux, but bring their Windows skills into it. Anytime they run into trouble, they get scared, run back to Windows, then post "how much Linux sucks", "Linux is not ready for the desktop", etc, etc on forums or blogs. The sad fact is, just because Linux runs on the same hardware as Windows, does NOT mean you can pass on the same habits your picked up in Windows to Linux. It simply just does NOT work. Why? Linux is not Windows, and Windows is not Linux.

(5) Generalist views of the past. Some people have had bad experiences with Linux or the community, so they never went back. They got hurt and angry. So whenever someone mentions opensource, Linux, etc they'll talk nonsense about it. (Doesn't matter if its true or not).

In all honesty, I'm not gonna force people onto Linux. I just show them what it can and cannot do (at this time), and let them decide. Whether they decide to use it is up to them. Its their choice.

On a side note: I don't like Microsoft because they have done things that are legally, morally, and ethically questionable. All in the vain effort to maintain their dominance over the PC users of the world.

What really angers me is that they keep "encouraging" (cornering) users into new versions of solutions...Even when the existing solution is fine. They use their marketing machine to publically humilate others (or use marketing spin to defend themselves!), and they even "bribe" countries to vote in their favour.

eg: Like in the example of fasttracking their OOXML for ISO with the sudden surge of countries appearing to vote! (and other various inconsistancies in a number of countries!). And the issue with Nigeria and the Classmate PC, where they "bribed" the local supplier to put WinXP even though Mandriva one the contract fair and square!

The result is, I try to stay away from Microsoft develop solutions as best as I can. Stuff like C#, .Net, Windows, Office, etc. For me, MS just crosses the line when it comes to integrity. They have proven time and time again they aren't to be trusted.


Author's note by foobar, on 14-Nov-2007 05:27

@Tyler: Wow, I really tried to explain myself carefully and clearly, but you still managed to completely miss the point of my posting. I would suggest to you to read it again, and to recognize how you are already making the very mistake I am asking everyone to avoid making in this discussion.

BTW, I fully agree with your view on the importance of open data formats. I planned on blogging about that one of these days anyway. See, I cannot possibly use a proprietary program for my important data, because of the proprietary data format. An open source solution by definition can only produce data in open formats, and that's one reason why I consider them to be preferrable, even if they should have less features in other areas.

About the 'risks of the open source development' you mention: I hope you are aware of the difference between open source development and open source business models, right? I hope you know that you can have the latter without the former, right? And, yes, I know that open sourcing your code is not appropriate for, say, 1% or 2% of all the various software development projects out there. Maybe less. But that's about it, you know?

Finally, your last paragraph addresses the 'hypocracy of the open source people in the web world'. If you would actually follow the industry a bit, you'd notice how totally off the mark you are with this comment. The open source world is very much aware of the issues, and very long and detailed discussions are being held about exactly this. There is even a modified version of the GPL to address exactly this. Before making comments like this, I'd suggest becoming a bit better informed.


Author's note by foobar, on 14-Nov-2007 05:33

@tumb_sc: Thanks for the long and detailed post. Yeah, I'd agree with most of your points. Some of the tactics that MS employs are enfuriating when you are on the receiving end. However, you really can't blame them. For a company it's about share holder value and about money. Everything else becomes secondary. Most successful companies will use these exact same tactics when necessary. MS are very good at that game, and that's why they are successful. There is a theory (don't have the link right now) that all companies eventually start exhibiting behaviour that would be classified as schizophrenic or otherwise crazy, because they are torn between supposedly providing value to the end user, but even more so having to provide value to their share holders.

The thing with open source is that an open source vendor can never lock in the customer, and can only make money off a customer if they can convince the customer to purchase support contracts. But the customer can always try and even use the software for free. If the product isn't good, the customer will not want to use it any further. Therefore, the open source vendor from the beginning has to provide software that is good to the point where the customer wants to pay for it, even though they could also just continue using it for free. As a consequence, the goals of the software vendor and of the customer are much better aligned: They are aligned around the customer value.


Comment by Doxaliber, on 14-Nov-2007 06:31

Good post. Can I translate this in my own language, or at least transpose your arguments with my personal feelings?


Comment by Mark Dulcey, on 14-Nov-2007 06:54

But what if you really believe that Microsoft IS evil? What I object to about Microsoft is that way that they use their dominant position to make themselves more dominant. For example, the fact that, for many years, computer system builders could get the best pricing on Windows only by agreeing to put Windows on ALL their computers. Or the way they used predatory pricing to destroy Netscape; give away their competing product (IIS) by including it in the pricing of an existing product (Windows Server) that people were already buying.

If Microsoft would content itself with creating the best products it can, and marketing them fairly, I would have no complaints, whether or not they dominated the market.


Author's note by foobar, on 14-Nov-2007 06:55

@Doxaliber: Thanks, and sure, go right ahead. Even though I might not understand your translation, could you post a trackback to it once you are done?


Author's note by foobar, on 14-Nov-2007 07:15

@Mark Dulcey: I think the problem is that any large company, which gets into a position of power like Microsoft, will eventually end up behaving in very similar ways. They have to, because their main purpose in live is to create shareholder value. As a proprietary software vendor, they can then use tactics (such as user lock in based on proprietary data formats), which certainly will appear 'evil' to anyone on the outside.

I don't think that this would be limited to MS, though. Google is quickly on its way there already, and any other large software company would love (!) to be in a position to use the same tactics as MS. Again, the culprit is that corporate goals are very different than the user's goals.

BTW, with open source companies, the goals are out of necessity much more aligned with the user's goals.

Still, though: You can start discussions about Microsoft's evilness all you want. The problem is that most MS users these days won't care, and will think you are weird for talking in such terms about MS. We see it here on our forums all the time. The response will be: What? Should Microsoft not have the right to take advantage of the position they have achieved with hard work? Or something to that effect. It's astonishing to read it, but that's the reaction you often get.

So, if you want to make inroads with that crowd, you can't bring up the MS is evil angle, since you will just loose their interest. You need to try a different approach, as much as you feel the urge to just shout down from the rooftops what you really think.


Comment by Mark, on 14-Nov-2007 13:37

Computing is a complex subject. Learning your first operating system isn't an overnight thing. The problem arises because people who stay with one O/S and fix their Aunt's computer think they're knowledgeable because their Aunt told the "you're a clever boy". They never want to leave their comfort zone, yet want to continue passing themselves off as knowledgeable. They know all about human languages, yet don't understand they only speak English.


Comment by Alex, on 14-Nov-2007 19:30

Foobar,

It's a very good and much needed article. Like many others I went through being too much dependent on MS software to later realize that things can be programmed and engineered in a better or at least different way (e.g. a single registry file vs. /etc/ files). But I also got very 'pushy' as well with telling everyone around me 'move to Linux' after I discovered the world of Linux and FOSS.

Only recently I started appreciated it all. While being very dedicated to FOSS, I started to see that we all can learn from each other and let the market decide on its own. MS may learn a few things about the power and a greater value of open standards to their customers and a more reliable architecture designs from the open-source, while FOSS community can learn from commercial counterparts about usability, interesting new ideas and features. And this list can go on.

Again, thank you for your good-hearted article.

I wish you all the best!

Alex.


Comment by Doxaliber, on 14-Nov-2007 22:51

@Foobar

For sure! Thank you! ;-)


Trackback by Doxaliber - Lo strillone del web, on 15-Nov-2007 02:58

L’altro giorno, navigando in giro per il web come faccio di solito, ho letto questo articolo in inglese sul blog di Foobar, che secondo me contiene alcuni spunti interessanti sull’eterna diatriba tra sostenitori di Linux e Windows, con il p...


Comment by Jose_X, on 15-Nov-2007 05:04

Reply to Tyler,

>> I also believe it is not important if the operating system or app you are using is open or closed or shared or whatever source. What is important, is that the _data_ is based on standards and that there is no lock-in other than the good design of the application.

Why do you care about the data being open? Is it so you can switch products? Well what if the closed application (because open apps have open formats automatically) doesn't implement the open format well, or the open formats allows proprietary extensions? Microsoft is notorious for "implementing open standards" except that they misimplement the standards and further add their own closed extensions. 95% of a file is no good if the rest falls apart without that 5%. In fact Microsoft's supposed open format for documents is structured just this way. In particular, missing a small piece of the puzzle can make the entire file unusable, and proprietary components are part of the "open" standard. So in this case, Microsoft actually has a blank check to do as they want rather than to secretly be mischievous to take the market by surprise. Some "open" standard all right. [Eg, see this discussion: http://www.consortiuminfo.org/standardsblog/comment.php?mode=display&format=threaded&order=ASC&pid=18189 , there the argument is that OOXML+MSO is worse than ODF+MSO. Naturally, each of these can lock you in based on misimplementations. ODF+OO is the best combo.]



I think closed is better than nothing at all, but among comparable goods, open source wins hands down.



>> There is no Photoshop for Linux and very few commercial games, so the Linux-guys are bitching about the propriety evildoers.



Speaking for myself, there is no comparison between open and closed. I think photoshop will be caught by the wider community. Gimp is already very good and there are other projects that complement gimp. With an assortment of interfaces for gimp (with the basic gimp or gimp libraries and plugins underneath) and with competing products (including some like xara that were closed at one point), I think Adobe will be eaten if they don't adapt. Microsoft would take Adobe down anyway once they focus on Adobe. Adobe's chance to fight open source and Microsoft is to join one or the other. Which they join will depend on whether they are thinking long-term (FOSS) or short-term (MS).



By the way, if you want to participate in a free software tournament (excludes proprietary games for Linux), including in building it, go to http://www.freedomware-gamefest.com/ [Note: the demo'd games look better if you increase the parameters and have a card to handle it; also small flash vids destroy the color and other details. Since it's free I guess you can check it out for yourself. Finally, fun games are fun games, graphics and other details notwithstanding. People still enjoy may older games today much as they did when they came out.]



>> Don't forget the risks of open source development and the benefits of a commercial free market economy.



Don't know what you mean here. Open source is a way to develop software. There are many business models compatible with it. There are even many open source licenses not all created equal. You don't get more free market than with open source (it's tough to monopolize when others have access to your code).



I thought this was kind of funny. Maybe we can all losen up http://blog.linuxtoday.com/blog/archives/071031-103438.html .



>> Also the Open Source Fans are denying/ignoring the hypocrisy, that the free software philosophy isnt translating into the web world



It's tough to know what you mean by hypocrisy. Those that share their web code share with the community and those that don't do not share. Even Microsoft uses open source tools and has definitely used open source code. They even opened up a lab stocked with people analyzing open source, but they give virtually nothing generally useful back. [They are now trying to produce some FOSS code to integrate with their closed system and in my opinion get FOSS devs to spend their time trying to hack on open pieces of what is a closed system as that gives life to their closed system and deprives open competitors of talent. Many people see through that I think.]


Trackback by Distratta di professione, on 15-Nov-2007 08:12

L’altro giorno chiacchieravo con il mio relatore, che è anche docente di Sistemi Operativi. Chiacchieravamo, appunto, di Sistemi e mi ha colpito molto una sua frase, che suonava grossomodo così:
Quotidianamente incontro persone, anche studenti,...


Comment by MikeFM, on 15-Nov-2007 11:24

I don't really care if other people use Windows or proprietary software so long as I don't have to and I don't have to support the people that do.

The people I hate are those that use proprieatry software and then whine that it sucks. Yes, I know it sucks - that's why I suggested an alternative.

Unfortunately much of my life is spent trying to fix issues with closed source software that I don't have the ability to really fix. I'm tired of talking to hapless support people that have to act as a go-between for their engineers. I'm tired of having to find work-arounds. At least the vast majority of the software I use is open sourced and doesn't give me any hassle.


Comment by Gary K, on 25-Nov-2007 18:02

I do believe in the open source model. It would be nice if all software companies went this route. Peer review is one of the best ways to make great reliable software. As a computer consultant, however, I am asked to provide practical solutions to my clients. Sometimes that's open source, sometimes "closed-source" freeware and sometimes it's proprietary commercial software.


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New Zealand


  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
  • Where I have been: Here and there, all over the place.




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