Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

PC-BSD Day 16: Time for advocacy

Today I really have no time to play with PC-BSD. I will attend a workshop organized by Rednose ICT in cooperation with Holland Open, Gendo and Livre. And it has everything to do with what PC-BSD stands for.

A few months ago I noticed an announcement in Livre Magazine. It referred to a series of workshops to train a group of open source ambassadors. I liked the idea since it harmonizes with the idea I wrote about in the Linux Proliferation Agreement. The workshops aim to equip us with tools and skills to promote the use of open source software and open standards in various sectors (government, education, small and medium business, ICT). The approach is realistic, non-geek, non-technical and pragmatic.

The good news is that the Dutch government send a new policy paper to parliament about the use of open source software and open standards. The gist of it is that government institutions will be obliged to start using open standards as early as 2008 and migrate to open source software as much as possible and feasible. This means that I can request, no demand government documents to be made available to me in Open Document Format or -when it is deemed impossible- to get a very, very good explanation about the why.

Open standards do not lead to open source software

In this sense it becomes paramount to use some old-fashioned economic theory here. Without a demand there will not be a supply. Some economic theories also state that without supply there is no demand, but I don’t think that will apply here. The governments (central, state and municipal) can still opt to offer both closed and open standard documents. If they would only offer ODF documents that would create a wholesale migration to…. Yes, to what? Microsoft has more than enough time to create a perfectly working ODF plugin. By being very buddy buddy with both Novell and Sun chances are that the ODF plugin will work so well with Office 2003 and 2007 that it still blows away all of the competition. One example of the strength of Microsoft in this is Windows Live Writer. It is an offline program for writing blog posts. Windows Live Writer connects to a ton of open source CMS packages and even downloads the online theme for you. In doing this it is a mile ahead of open source implementations like Drivel and BloGTK.
The desktop penetration of Microsoft Office is extremely high and when offered a choice between installing a small plugin or a wholesale migration to OpenOffice.org what do you think most organizations will choose? Especially considering the immense archive of .DOC and XLS files that still need to be accessible in the coming years. Chances are that these organizations will continue to download the closed standard documents, both out of habit and because it doesn’t matter anyway under the new Office 2007 with plugin.

In terms of advocacy the new government guidelines are an important first step, but only the first step. From now on we have to create a solid demand for ODF documents, demand an explanation when an organization does not provide it and send our own documents to colleagues, partner organizations and government institutions in ODF format.

Secondly, we need a very strong and very solid alternative to Windows and Microsoft Office. The migration to open source software does not and will not follow in the footsteps of open standards if the real and perceived quality of both Windows and Microsoft Office surpasses the current open source offerings. The lower quality is a legitimate reason to postpone migration to open source software.

The only true contenders for the open source desktop

In order to do this we, as open source ambassadors, need a few solid packages in our toolbox to show the strength of open source software on the business desktop. Ubuntu Linux is a solid contender for this as is Novell’s offering. I am still waiting for Red Hat’s re-entry in the desktop market. Okay, I might be burned to the ground for this statement, but I believe that these are the only valid contenders for the business desktop. Most of the other distributions are either too geeky, focused too much on the home user and bleeding edge features or simply depend on one or two main developers and maintainers. In some cases the track record over the recent years is too erratic, alternating good releases with major disappointments and buggy releases.

PC-BSD’s position as open source desktop

PC-BSD could be the fourth contender. For one, it is firmly rooted in the *BSD tradition with a pendance for stability. Linux has been making headways in the server room, but the various Unix’s have been there for decades already. Hence, there is a foothold in a lot of companies and organizations that could be used to make a push for the desktop. As a third argument I would mention the more relaxed and professional attitude of the *BSD community, which gives access to more solid informal support should end-users start looking for it. The close link between PC-BSD and FreeBSD makes for one central source of information and problem-solving. The *BSD world has less problems with forks due to personal itches and personality problems. PC-BSD and DesktopBSD were created with similar goals in mind and exist in parallel now, but it is no problem to install DesktopBSD-tools in PC-BSD because it became part of the same package/ports collection. This means that advances in one BSD can easily be made available to the other BSD. Plus, the packages and ports collection is huge, only rivaled by the Debian repositories.

I deliberately wrote ‘could be’, because there is still work to be done. In the last two weeks I played with PC-BSD and I like it, but I also had to revert regularly to a skill set that simply isn’ t available for the average desktop user in commercial and government organizations. There is need for some strong polish in the area of software management, in making various desktop management tools more accessible and understandable by the casual user and some serious investments in the graphical interface of the most important desktop applications. I know, this isn’t the sole task of the PC-BSD team. But please, be aware that Microsoft knows how to do one thing very well and that is to create a user experience that looks and feels more naturally attuned to the way the users want to work with applications. Word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, PIM software, communications software etc. etc. should not only be functional and adhering to all the open standards, but should be pleasant and fun to work with. That doesn’t mean to emulate the experience Microsoft provides, but to outperform it.

The PBI’s can offer the ease of install that the current package and ports system might be lacking. But they could also offer tailor-made graphical interfaces to current software applications that make them shine and sparkle. I know this requires even more investment in terms of time and effort. It even requires the PC-BSD team to sit down with GUI specialists, artists and graphical designers to create that new experience. But once this is done PC-BSD should be able to make a strong contribution to support the push to promote open source software in the wake of the open standards adoption.

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