Free software, or just go online?

Following some of the points made on my post about Kubuntu and Linux yesterday, I’ve been wondering a bit more about free software and how it might help people make the most of their equipment.

After all, software is expensive stuff. One of the great things about Kubuntu is that if I want a piece of software to a job, say editing graphics, all I have to do is call up the application manager, type in ‘graphics’ and it comes  up with a list of applications I can download and use straight away.

Things aren’t quite so easy with the Mac, of course, but at least that comes preloaded with the iLife suite, which means you can pretty much get on with most things out of the box.

Poor old Windows users are of course left behind in this. They don’t have any decent software pre-installed, by and large, and nor do they have access to a great open source application manager like Kubuntu comes with.

Having said that, an awful lot of the best open source apps are available for Windows users as well as Linux. But they are spread about on their own websites – though many are downloadable from sites like SourceForge – and how is the average user supposed to know they are there? If I want to create a podcast on my PC and need an audio editor, how do I know that Audacity is the package I want?

A great way of tackling this would be to create a simple CD, with all the main open source packages that people might want to use on a regular basis. You could burn and print a load to give away, and maybe make the ISO downloadable from a website.

Some of the software I would include on such a CD would be:

All of which are freely available (and more importantly, distributable) for Windows users.

But then… is this really the right way to go? In the age of Web 2.0, cloud computing, Google Docs and Zoho, do we really want to encourage people to be installing loads of desktop software? Or should we just point them to where they can download FireFox, and then giving them a list of bookmarks?

Maybe it depends on things like web connection speeds. Perhaps desktop software works better for some people than others

I’d be interested to hear what others think. Would a CD with preselected, quality open source software really make a difference to the way people use their PCs? Or should we be encouraging folk to use online tools, and to compute in the cloud?

8 thoughts on “Free software, or just go online?”

  1. Many of the smaller organisations won’t have the availability of net access that would let them use online only applications as a primary tool, Where they could gain some value might be in using FOSS tools in conjunction with online collbaoration tools like Backpack, Huddle, etc. There are already some packaged FOSS CDs available, NGO In a Box is an example, but I’m sure there’s scope for more. The Portable Apps collection is also interesting.

  2. Thanks Tony – a good argument for continuing to champion desktop software. Will check out NGO in a Box – looks interesting.

  3. There are things like the OpenCD and GNU/Win already out there and yes, it’s worth doing, but it irritates the hell out of me that so many of these CDs are mostly free and open source software, but then stick something slightly-non-free like Mozilla Firefox (go Iceweasel) in there and don’t bother including the source code or any ways to hack it. Is it worth distributing free software that’s too complicated for people to help fix any bugs they find?

    Pointing people at online resources is OK, but networks are expensive for many and a lot of those are even less fixable.

  4. Hi MJ

    Doesn’t it depend on the purpose of the CD in the first place? My thinking here is that it’s a disc of software that people who struggle to find them online to download themselves might find useful. I dare say that they are unlikely to want to start hacking these applications once they have got them 😉

    So, in my thinking it’s the free-as-in-beer and free distribution that are the important bits, rather than having free source code. Not that free code isn’t important, but perhaps not for this audience.

  5. Another variation is the live CD.

    For example, i use dynebolic for multimedia stuff (i think the media flavour of ngo-in-a-bo is based on this). This take advantage of desktop processing power & doesn’t rely on a good net connection. You can just pick the kind of system you need, pop it in the cd drive, boot up and away you go.

    When i worked on a website for asylum seekers & refugees i used an indian language live cd which ran open office in bengali. so much easier than trying to internationlise a local system!

  6. Dave, if you never give any recipients of the CD the option to start hacking its applications, of course none of them will.

    I think many more people might *want* to hack applications than we realise: someone in a neighbouring office here was infuriated that identically-named options in a dialogue box and a menu in their word processor did different things and wished they could rename one. I suspect if they had the source and a build tool there, so they could search for that string, edit one of the two and recompile, then they might have done it and sent a patch upstream. If only we’d made it easy enough for them.

    I’ve also heard of a few people (usually women, curiously enough) taken on in non-developer roles who have become software developers because they were in an environment where the last resort of “hack it yourself” was possible.

    One drawback is probably that people who don’t remember the home microcomputers don’t realise just how flexible and fixable these programs are. Do some people not want to hack programs mainly because they don’t realise that hacking is possible? In this age of lockdowns and ever-more-criminalised copyright infringment, the idea is simply foreign to them.

    So, maybe there’s a danger of a sort of techie-snobbery being entrenched by these CDs if we think that freedom to modify isn’t important for some of this audience? Although we need to be careful not to force them to walk it, shouldn’t we make it obvious the path exists?

  7. Hi – you’re right, perhaps I was being a little condescending. If it’s open source, let’s include the source!

    With regard to IceWeasel rather than FireFox, I appreciate the naming licence issues – but isn’t this a Debian only issue? I could only find this page about IceWeasel for Windows and it’s only in Alpha.

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