April 20, 2002

Commentary: An idea for Free Software CD

- By Henrik Nilsen Omma -

It seems clear there are many hurdles when persuading people to
switch to Free Software. Most people will not change their entire
operating system just for fun; it's too unfamiliar, and they will
lose the use of all their favorite programs at the same time. (Yes,
there are free alternatives to most of these, and WINE should be working, well, any day now, but all this involves a steep learning curve for
the average user.) The key, as I see it, is to encourage people to
use the high-quality Free Software now becoming available in the
OS they are already using.
In my own experience, it is pointless to recommend Linux to my
friends with basic computer skills (although I'm hoping that Lycoris or
Xandros can change that), but it's quite easy to get them to try a free
program like AbiWord in their native OS. I have been giving them CDs
with a few such programs and encouraging them to try it out. So far, this
has been on an individual basis. Then thought I would set
up a standard collection, so I could make one version of a CD with a
broad collection of free Windows software and give it to
everyone (less work). This idea soon evolved to setting up a standard
CD that we can all give to our friends.

Many Linux fans (of which I am one) take a rather Linux-centric view of
the desktop issue: "Hey, we have this great, free, stable OS, surely you
will want to switch from yours?" To which a normal user would reply,
"Well, I don't care very much about the OS itself, I just want to run
application X,Y, and Z." A much easier sell would be: "You should try
this free alternative to MS Office. It can be installed on your current
OS, and run at the same time as MS Office if you like. And if you don't
like it, it's easy to uninstall, and everything will be back to normal."

At the moment, many are hoping that WINE and CrossOver Office will bring
users to Linux. But why should a business owner switch to an unknown OS
with the learning curve that implies, only to run the same
applications as before through a buggy and complicated-to-set-up
interface? She still needs to have licenses (and pay for them) for those
applications anyway. It makes much more sense to keep the OS that came
with the machine (because it's "free" then, right? Or at least, "I've
paid for it already, anyway.") and then install Free Software instead of
MS Office, etc. Perhaps WINE-like systems can play an important part
later, when individuals or businesses consider migrating to Linux
because they see that they can then use Linux versions of the Free
Software they are already using. Then they can WINE when "there is this one
Program X I need that only runs on Windows." If that one program can be shown to work with WINE, then the user has no reason not to switch.

So, if you who agree that this is a key approach to promoting Free
Software (many will disagree; fair enough), the next question is how do
we help promote it in this way? I suggest that we set up a Web site or
at least a forum for this purpose. The participants would then nominate
and vote on Free Software alternatives for each relevant proprietary
OS. The programs at the top of the list would then be compiled and
ISOed, so that anyone easily can download and distribute them. A new
disc could be launched each month and simply be called the "OpenCD"
or "The Free Software Collection." If such a compilation were to reach
critical mass, it would be possible to get hardware resellers to bundle
it with machines, etc.

It seems that the three projects soon to be released in version 1.0, namely
OpenOffice, Mozilla and AbiWord, are obvious candidates, but there is
still lots of room on a disc. I'm sure others will have lots of good
suggestions. However, I don't think that we should strive to fill up
the 650MB of a CD just for the sake of it; I would strive for quality,
not quantity. There are plenty of CDs with "free software" bundled with
computer magazines etc., but these often contain mostly shareware or
demos of proprietary stuff. Besides, a 200MB ISO image is faster
to download and burn.

This should all be relatively easy, but I also think great improvements
can be made on this idea with a bit more work. First, a Web site should be set
up which contains a description of each of the programs on the disc, and
these Web files should also be included on the the CD so that the user
can read about a program before installing. This should auto load when
the CD is inserted to make it easy, and it should look professional. It
would also be useful to have a friendly install shell where the user can
launch each installer with a click. There should also be up-front
information about what impact it will have on the system, such as the
required disc space and file association changes, and information about
how to uninstall. The CD might also include some classic Open Source
literature for the curious, and a collection of useful links.

Some have suggested that GNU/Linux should be marketed more
professionally, with glossy ads in Newsweek and Time. While that would
probably help market the OS, it requires large recourses and a centralized effort.
The free-CD approach, on the other hand, can be done in the typical
decentralized Open Source way, and should be well within our abilities
and resources.

"Commentary" articles are contributed by Linux.com and NewsForge.com readers. The opinions they contain are strictly those held by their authors, and may not be the same as those held by OSDN management. We welcome "Commentary" contributions from anyone who deals with Linux and Open Source at any level, whether as a corporate officer; as a programmer or sysadmin; or as a home/office desktop user. If you would like to write one, please email editors@newsforge.com with "Commentary" in the subject line.


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