January 31, 2006

Interview: Ken Starks, Lobby4Linux

Author: Joe Barr

Ken Starks is a man with a mission: He wants to see Linux succeed on the desktop. To that end, Starks has been beating the drum for Linux on his Lobby4Linux Web site the past year or so. More recently, he has launched something called The Austin Project, which has since been renamed to Linux4Austin. The project aims to bring desktop Linux to the attention of the masses with a radio ad campaign.We managed to catch Starks' attention long enough for an email interview, in between his day job and his second life as a Linux advocate.

NewsForge: Is Lobby4Linux a one-man operation?

Starks: Lobby4Linux is my fault. After using Linux for a year, I wanted to know the specific reasons more people did not use it. That was easy to discover. Few people know it exists in an everyday, usable form. I started Lobby4Linux based on the premise that it was a lack of Windows-compatible software that kept people away. I withdrew $20,000 from my retirement funds and began Lobby4Linux. For the first 90 days, we had a small office, a staff of four, and an idealism that would rival Mother Theresa's. I took $10,000 of that money and spread it out among a few developers that I thought would do the community the most good. Ten thousand dollars isn't a lot of money in the scheme of things and we discovered that raising funds for Linux program developers was not where our strength lies. It soon became apparent that while software was an issue with new Linux users, getting new Linux users was the issue, so Lobby4Linux turned its focus on spreading the gospel of Linux. The Austin Project, now renamed Linux4Austin, is our grandest attempt to bring new users into GNU/Linux and the world of FOSS.

When L4L first started, we had a nice but plain Web site. Tracy Kuhlman stepped in and single-handedly revamped Lobby4Linux. He spent weeks learning Xoops and building the site. Tracy has moved on, but I have never met someone who could get so much done and with such focus as him.

Tracy is also the author of a script that allows Firefox and Thunderbird to interact when they are not the defaults on the system. This alone is a gift to the Linux community without measure.

Today, the wizard behind the curtain goes by the name of Gryphen, but we know him as Mike Moschini. Mike is responsible for the initial efforts at myfirstlinux.com and will be the architect of the revamped site, with the help of Tom King and others. L4LTitan is our technical director and chief know-it-all. Our friend Masta will unleash a new graphic for Lobby4Linux in the near future.

NF: In the announcement of the project, you said that the funds donated would be handled by a "finance committee." Who are the folks on the finance committee?

Starks: I don't know. Initially, Lobby4Linux formed a group of people outside our Web site to act as the finance committee. Because the financial aspect of this project must be completely transparent, we realized that hand-picking those to handle the money did not constitute transparency. Ideally, and the only way we will do it now, is for members of the Linux community to step forward and volunteer. See, with a project as important as this, there can never be a whisper or innuendo of corruption. Lobby4Linux picking the finance committee could be construed as us hiring foxes to guard the hen house. That cannot happen. Hopefully, our latest blog update will bring some people forward. As soon as we have a legitimate committee, we will set the PayPal link and get to work. We have contacted The Austin Linux Users Group and several other people from the area in hope of forming a committee for this task, but so far, no one has stepped forward. We have pledges for hundreds of dollars already but until we can establish a PayPal link to a legitimate account, Linux4Austin is at sea without sail. Being on this finance committee will require more than just a few minutes a day to administrate. Anyone interested in taking on this responsibility should contact us at theaustinproject@gmail.com. Even if someone wanted to administrate the funds until a committee is formed would be fine.

NF: How are you trying to raise funds for the commercials, other than the Web site? Are you visiting any of the LUGs in town, or their mailing lists?

Starks: Funds for this project need to come from the community. We have already had a taste of "sponsored assistance" and what it will do to this effort. Once you accept money from IBM or Samsung, they want to control the content and tempo of the campaign. The community at large loses control of the content and it no longer becomes a community effort. Their money is welcome but without caveat. They have had ample opportunity to advertise Linux. If the large "Linux-friendly" companies were going to do this, they would have done it by now. Fact is, this is a Microsoft world and others much smarter than me believe that these "Linux-friendly" companies do not want to piss off Microsoft. That may be a smart thing to avoid. Stockholders get nervous when Microsoft is angry at the company. If the community drives these commercials, who is Microsoft going to attack?

Just because the initial project is Linux4Austin does not mean that the entire effort stays here. Any money raised over the amount Austin needs for the project will get passed on to the next project. Whoever puts a program together first would get the funds. If LUGs want to get involved, that is welcomed; any exposure is welcomed. That is why I agreed to this interview. Once word gets out to the community, this thing will take off. It may take some time, but it should gain locomotive velocity in a month's time given the right exposure. As far as keeping the word out, Lobby4Linux will be the clearinghouse for information and schedules. Regardless of where the project is, as long as the project director gives us the information, we will handle the press releases and information. We will put 100% effort into every campaign, be it in Perthe or Podunk. That includes the local fish wraps and public service announcements to the local television and radio stations.

NF: How soon do you think the ads might start running?

Starks: As soon as we can raise enough money for a month's ads. In Austin, we anticipate the need to be between eight and 10 thousand dollars. Within this amount is written the cost for 1,000 packaged CDs for mailout. We are in initial talks with On-disk and may have a revenue possibility by selling the disks for a nominal amount. While people will be told how to download and burn the ISO image, some will not want to go to the trouble. We will offer the disks by mail. This way, some of the money is coming back to the community for future campaigns and we are not responsible for 100% of the cost. Once we have enough money for the ads, we can be on the airwaves in 10 days.

NF: What has the response been thus far?

Starks: Mixed, but rarely ambiguous. Many feel that the "pre-announcement" was unnecessary. Some feel that the announcement did not live up to the hype. As the comments to the first blog came rolling in, I could see this coming. People were speculating that this was going to be a huge Google thing. Others thought it might be a merger between the large "Linux-friendly" companies. There were some pretty wild speculations. I was careful to qualify the pre-announcement with statements saying this "could" be or "might" be. I even gave the whole thing an opportunity to fail completely. I was careful to mention several times that the success of the "event" would hinge on community involvement. It was soon evident that people were basing their anticipation on the speculation of others and not on the wording of the blog. There were more than a few that were angry that this was "just an ad campaign." Some people have no concept of the power of media.

Then again, there were were many more that recognized this as what it is, and was touted as -- the first ripple in a big splash. The more people talked about it in other blogs and forums, the more they began to see the simple brilliance of it. Not brilliant as in Lobby4Linux thinking of it -- I'm sure others have thought the same thing. Brilliant in its simplicity and concept.

Several people with marketing experience have contacted us and volunteered their time to actually write the commercial. We have been offered two to three hours of free studio time in several cities and one professional "radio voice" has volunteered to "bark" the script. Hardly anyone would recognize his name, but anyone who has listened to AM radio in the past 20 years would recognize his voice immediately. As far as the response for funding, that has been excellent. We just need a place for that money to live for a short time.

NF: What about people who would like to help but prefer other distributions?

Starks: In the first 72 hours of this blog's publication, the email inbox for helios@lobby4linux.com received 749 emails concerning the announcement. 281 of them asked the same question: Why PCLinuxOS?

In the first 90 days of Lobby4Linux's existence (when we had an office and money), we tested more than 90 desktop distros. When the smoke cleared, we had simply verified what I already knew. PCLinuxOS is the most "noob-friendly" distro that exists at this point. Everything works out of the box for 90% of its users and it has a stunning presentation, not to mention it functions as a live CD so you can test it against your hardware first. While Ubuntu has captured the spotlight, it is not new-user-friendly in many ways. It does not come out of the box with Java, multimedia, and Flash fully working. Not only does it not come "fully assembled," you must edit your sources.list in order to get the stuff you need for multimedia. SUSE, ditto. Now before I get cooked here, let me say that I purchased and use SUSE, but I along with other seasoned Linux folks can make it work. In order to get SUSE to function as a multimedia distro, you need to follow the directions. Once a new Linux user looks at that, they will run, not walk, back to Uncle Bill. Let's get them started on something they can use immediately. My business and personal machines began with Kanotix, but I evolved. PCLinuxOS is where I ultimately landed.

We choose PCLinuxOS because we think it represents the best of Linux, outside of compiling a Gentoo box. I seriously doubt if a project manager will recommend that, unless his goal it to scare them off.

NF: Will the ads be for PCLinuxOS, or for Linux in general, or...?

Starks: The ads will specifically mention and recommend PCLinuxOS, but also mention that there are dozens of Linux distros to choose from. This will be the tricky part of the ad, because the possibility of confusing people is at this point. That is the plan for right now anyway. Our main goal is to get them to myfirstlinux.com so they can learn more about "the Linux way" and the choices they have. PCLinuxOS will be their "first car," so to speak. It is an excellent live CD and they can get an idea of what it is and how it works before they commit to it. Obviously, myfirstlinux will list other new-user-friendly distros, such as Fox, MEPIS, Ubuntu, and Mandriva. The idea is to get them started on a distro that does not take tweaking to make it work 100 percent. So all of that to say, yes, PCLinuxOS will be the featured distro, but the radio ad will mention that there are many others to choose from. The CDs we offer via snail mail will be PCLinuxOS, but visitors to the site will be given links to other pages where other distros are available by mail.


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