Open source, proprietary and free software

David Wilcox's picture

Over at Opengender, Paula Graham has a great article Who's afraid of free software? which touches on issues we discussed at our workshop. Paula argues people in small organisations are frightened off the use of open source because they think support is a problem - and this is a gender issue:

"The question of FLOSS needing more tech support than MS Windows keeps being raised among people working to promote IT among NGOs. It's time to question this conventional saw.

"Why is this a gender issue? Because an awful lot of PCs used by small organisations are administered by female 'accidental techies' with very little support, training, or access to technical 'community'. This needs to change. One of the ways to tackle this is for more women to participate in the more open communities around free/libre software. Women are being put off by misinformation about the options available.

"Small orgs have been strongly influenced by the FUD (fear, uncertaintly and doubt) put out by Microsoft for the past decade — often reinforced and re-transmitted by consultants and organisations set up to advise them on IT strategy. They have been convinced that Microsoft is 'easy' and needs little or no tech support whilst Linux is 'DIY' — flakey and needing an army of expensive technicians."

Paula compares costs costs in detail and makes a strong case for open source on the desktop. Another workshop participant, Eric Lee, recently blogged here about his conversion.
I work with a lot of open source software, but not on the desktop because I like my Mac too much. However, I can see the issue is different in an organisation where you may not wish to (or cannot afford to) convert to Macs. Then there's the upgrade costs.
I do think that it is also worth looking at the use of Web Office products, as Miles Maier has done at the icthub knowledgebase.
These are "software on the web" offerings that enable you to do pretty much all the emailing, word processing, spreadsheeting, calendaring and so on that you might otherwise do using software on your desktop. You do need a Net connection, which may be a problem if you are on the move with a laptop, and you may not be happy to entrust your data to Google or other companies.
To my mind these discussions have at least two great benefits: first they show non-techies that there are lots of options. Second, they help people see that there are trade-offs between initial cost, maintenance, usability, time commitment ... and perhaps ethical preference.
At a circuit rider conference in January Matthew Edmonson argued that nonprofit organisations should view open source software in the same way as Fairtrade products.
Personally I wouldn't go that far. What do you think?

Steve Thompson's picture

I agree that from the outset

I agree that from the outset the most important thing is awareness raising and apart from having a broad list of many options perhaps people should be encouraged to spend a short period of experimentation, playing with as many different options as possible. Of course this depends on the time available to do this.

The reason I mention this is because once an individual or small org has settled on an app or platform it may be difficult to change as the learning curve for something new can seem steep when you've allready surmounted one mountain. Sometimes this has to be done when for instance your app of choice is suddenly no longer there or aquired by an operation who's ethics you disagree with or you find it's not as great as you thought it was.

For example PHOTOSHOP ELEMENTS. [ok it's not FOSS] Great digital image tool - cut down from big brother/sister Photoshop and cheaper too. However from version 2 onwards it got steadily more crappy until at version 4 many people hate it and fear the imminent V5. To jump to the FOSS equivelent GIMP is difficult because there are many differences in how the two apps are laid out. (somewhat addressed by GIMPSHOP but I only heard about that oen recently)

What I try to do in my own work is teach people generic skills i.e. "image editing" rather than "Photoshop" - etc etc

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