10 January 2006

Open Source's Big Blunder

It is easy to be fooled by the success of open source software. High-profile applications like Apache and Firefox are routinely cited for their absolute market dominance or relative technological superiority. GNU/Linux is going head-to-head with Microsoft Windows Server, while many are predicting that 2006 will be the year GNU/Linux on the desktop makes its breakthrough (just like 2005 and 2004). The bitter fight over the OpenDocument Format in Massachusetts is an indication that for the first time there is real rival to Microsoft's Office formats, and the Eclipse development platform continues to gain support among coders, corporate IT departments and software companies.

So what's missing from this rosy picture of free software's inexorable rise?

The one area that everyone seems to forget about is education. While it is true that GNU/Linux and open source applications are popular among the more tech-savvy users at university, younger students are exposed almost exclusively to Microsoft's products (except in a few enlightened regions of the world).

The failure of open source to devote significant energies and resources here is a serious problem. As Microsoft learned from Apple, whose initial rise was largely thanks to the widespread use of the Apple ][ in education, if you get them young, you get to keep them (most of them, at least). It is all very well trying to put open source solutions on the desktop, but if the people coming through the educational system have been conditioned to use only Microsoft's products, they will resist any moves to force them to touch anything else. The users become Microsoft's fiercest advocates.

The corollary is that broadening the use of free software in schools will automatically lead to increased use in the home and business markets. Indeed, there is a double benefit if schools routinely deploy programs like Firefox, OpenOffice and GNU/Linux. It ensures that tomorrow's consumers, workers and leaders will be completely comfortable using them, and encourages today's parents to find out more about the software that their children are using at school. One of the huge advantages that open source software enjoys over proprietary applications is that parents can make free copies of a school's software, rather than "borrowing" office copies, say, of Microsoft's products.

Against this background, it is heartening that the UK government body BECTA is carrying out a review of the licensing programme it signed with Microsoft in 2003. Significantly, the report will examine the risks of "lock-in" to Microsoft's products, and "focus on ways to improve access to alternatives to Microsoft products to ensure that there is a freedom of choice". This review therefore takes place in a very different context from the one in which BECTA negotiated its previous deal. In 2003 there was no question about changing supplier - it was taken for granted that Microsoft was the solution: the question was the price reductions that could be won from the company.

As I've noted elsewhere, Microsoft is very adept at bowing to "pressure"” and making "sacrifices" during negotiations. In this case, BECTA could proudly announce that its 2003 deal would save the UK taxpayer £46 million. But for this sum, Microsoft not only retained it grip on the British educational system, but had that stranglehold more or less enshrined in official policy.

It remains to be seen what BECTA comes up with, but its two previous reports in this area, on the use of open source software in schools, and on the possible cost savings of doing so, were notable for their intelligence and even-handedness. This gives some hope that open source may at last be given the opportunity to prove its worth in the British schools.

Helpfully, BECTA has said of its work that "“recognising the increasing relevance of this issue to educators in the EU and indeed globally, an international exchange of views will be facilitated."” This "exchange of views" might provide those living in other areas where there is no significant use of free software in schools with a good opportunity to push for similar reviews in their own countries.

One thing seems certain: if something is not done soon, an entire generation will grow up around the globe that equates the Web with Internet Explorer, email with Outlook, productivity software with Office and computers with Windows. In such a world, open source will at best be marginal, and at worst, irrelevant.


Anonymous said...

Open Source's Big Blunder?

I don't think open-source, in general, cares for "markets" and such.

All they want to do is write apps and OSs for anyone to freely use or to modify. They offer choice.

Nowhere in their list involves specifically making their solutions to suit or target specific markets or people.

If a specific market wants to use their solutions, its up to them, and not the open-source community.

Open-source doesn't make solutions, they make software for their own needs. If your needs happen to be fulfilled by a specific open-source project, then that's great!

If not, there's no one stopping you starting your own project to fill this niche. Heck, if others agree with your goals, you may well get help from others.

In this case, its up to people in the Govt and such to see that open-source exists and be taken to consideration.

The problem here isn't open-source, but the Govt and Microsoft. Its not hard to figure out that Microsoft can easily "influence" politicians.

I wouldn't be surprised if MS does have a few politicians in their back pocket.

Its all about winning to them.

There is NO fairness, NO competition, and definitely little or NO innovation.

Anonymous said...

I do not think this is a blunder of the open-source community. It is a blunder of the educational community of which I am a part. I and some others have been using Linux in schools, mostly in computer labs, for years with great satisfaction. This year, I went to work for a school division that hired me with "Linux" plastered all over my resume and letter of application. My resume was sent as .pdf rather than .doc as the ad required. To my amazement, the powers that be would not let me use Linux in the lab! They wanted students to experience Windows "because it is out there". e-mail to all levels of the bureaucracy was to no avail. The educators refused to be educated. The techs did not want to support two OS systems, but could not keep Windows running smoothly in the school. It was a nightmare and I quit.

I had students surfing to naughty sites and I could not filter them through my Linux terminal server. I had Windows users come to me every two minutes all day long not being able to log in or print. They were even using a malware-filled PIII with Lose98 on it crashing frequently as a print server. The network had frequent 30s pauses. Still they refused to let me run the network, install Linux, or even use it in the lab. In the face of a mountain of evidence that Linux was a low cost, reliable, easy to administer (with LTSP) system, they still wanted Windows XP because it was familiar. They did not want to even try to become familiar with Linux.

This is the first time in my career that I have been asked not to use Linux. I tried to compromise by using a Linux web server as a course management system, and letting students use Windows to browse to the server, but most were not interested. I realized this locked-in mindset was a part of this large school and I could not survive there.

This is a failure of the educational community, not the open-source community. Taxpayers, students and stubborn individuals will have to keep up the fight.

Glyn Moody said...

A frightening story.

Of course, both sides need to work on this issue. The problem is that the educational community don't know what they are missing - whereas the free software community does. So it is probably optimistic to expect the change to come from the former.

I suppose all you can do in these circumstances is hope that constant dripping of facts about free software will wear away the stone of ignorance.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you're predicting doom and gloom for open source using the dominance of Apple as an example. Hello? Do you know how much of the market Apple commands today? Not much. That's a long way from demonstrating how important it is to capture the education market.

Glyn Moody said...

The model I was offering was Apple in its early days - over two decades ago - when it successfully used education to get its micros into the business market (the first machine I used was a company's Apple ][).

Of course, Apple later lost leadership, for a variety of reasons to do with its own missteps and the shrewd moves of certain companies who took Apple's best ideas (the personal computer, graphical user interfaces) and did them "better" in some sense - cheaper, etc.

And regardless of Apple's later fate, the fact remains that the vast majority of children (in the West, at least), grow up using Microsoft software. This seems very dangerous to me, since they will need to be "converted" to free software at a later date; if open source were more readily available early on, they would already appreciate that they had a choice.