January 15, 2013

'Software Wars' the Movie: A Message to the Masses

 Software freedom may be a critically important topic for those of us in the Linux community -- distinguishing, of course, between “free beer” and “free speech” -- but for all too many mainstream PC users, it's a brand-new topic.

That's a problem, not just for users individually but for society as a whole, according to Keith Curtis, the man behind the “Software Wars” movie now seeking crowdfunding on Indiegogo.

“The average computer user is unaware there is a war for freedom going on that will determine the path of modern society,” the project description explains. “Software Wars is a movie about the battle for our right to share technology and ideas.”

Linux.com recently had a chance to speak with Curtis, who is now in the final few days of his funding effort, about the movie and what he hopes to accomplish.

Linux.com: What gave rise to your interest in free and open source software?

Curtis: I worked as a programmer at Microsoft in various groups for 11 years, and then just quit one day because I looked around the company and I saw a lot of ancient codebases and unprofitable ventures. I had been working on SPOT, Microsoft's watch, which is now gone. I got all the software at Microsoft that I wanted for free, but I tried out Linux a few weeks later on a whim. I bought a book with a Red Hat Fedora Core 3 CD and took it from there.

Software Wars Remastered

While I came to not be all that thrilled with Fedora itself, I was floored merely by the installation process. It contained a graphical installer that ran all the way to completion, it resized my NTFS partition -- which I considered a minor miracle -- set up dual boot, and actually did boot, and let me surf the Web. I didn’t have a clue what to do next, but the mere fact that this all worked told me more about the potential of Linux than anything I had read so far. You cannot, by accident, build an airplane that actually flies.

Over time, what impressed me the most about Linux was the power of it all. It came with tons of applications: Firefox, OpenOffice, GIMP, Audacity, Python, Tomboy, MySQL, and many more for me to discover. The UI was simple, responsive, polished and customizable. Installing the Apache Web server took just a few seconds and gave me access to a vast world of PHP. Installing the WordPress blog took me 15 minutes the first time, but I knew when I became more proficient at things, I could do it in one. I came to understand that beyond its poorly debugged device drivers, a Windows computer is a sad joke. I was in love with computers again.

I wrote a book about the good and the bad, and then a friend convinced me to make a movie. I am not really that much of a fan of movies because I enjoy the speed and flexibility of the written word, but there is plenty of text in a movie, so I'm finding my writing experience useful.

Linux.com: Why do you think your topic is an important one?

Curtis: "Software Wars" is important because it's about the idea that with more cooperation among scientists, we can build a better and fun world. People have been working on artificial intelligence (AI) for 50 years, but mostly in small groups. If they had been working together, we'd know their names the way we know of Linus and his lieutenants. Google is working on language translation by themselves. Their code for driverless cars (much written in C#, I believe) BioPicCroppedis also not built with the help of a community. IBM's Watson was proprietary even while it leveraged a lot of existing code. The biotech world has tons of proprietary software and closed and fragmented repositories of data. We have more than enough people to solve many problems, but we need to encourage people to work together effectively. Teaching Python to kids >= 8 will be one of the case studies.

Linux.com: What do you hope to achieve with your movie?

Curtis: We'd like to make something enjoyable to any average person who might put on "Star Trek" or "March of the Penguins" as 90 minutes of entertainment. The movie will have some technical ideas, but relatively little jargon. It will be inspirational, which hopefully can hold their attention through it. I'm biased, so I think the topic is interesting, but if you can't make a story enjoyable to someone who doesn't already know or care about your idea, then it seems like you've failed, so we will try not to do that.

However, we also want to make it worth watching for people who already know 90 percent or more of the ideas. If you can't make a movie enjoyable to someone who is already interested and therefore knows about the topic, then you have also failed. Because the movie is an explanation but also a critique of the existing world, this happily forces us to cover things that many geeks don't know. If they all knew what was in the movie, more crazy things would have happened. The trailer is a first attempt at achieving this balance. The final feature will be more polished in every regard.


The average user doesn't know these details, but in terms of turning the tide, I think the bigger problem is that not enough technical people understand, either. Why is Google Now proprietary? Why do so many people use Mathematica, Matlab, Maple, etc., instead of Python/Sage? Surely they know of Wikipedia and Linux and understand the point. There must be cognitive dissonance inside a company like Google, where they use Linux everywhere, but call their own code "secret sauce," as one person described his work to me.

Why does Dell make it so hard to buy a computer with Debian, Red Hat, Ubuntu, etc., pre-installed? Somehow Dell can offer you a thousand hardware choices for a laptop, but none for the software except whether you want Windows 8 Professional or Microsoft Office Professional. The more average consumers, government employees, etc., know about these ideas, the better, but ultimately it is a relatively small number of people who already know plenty about Linux who are mostly holding things up.

Everyone can watch the movie and then find their own way to make a better world. Even buying an Android device rather than an Apple helps move the world in the right direction, and there are countless ways. The list of things to be done is very large. It would be helpful to change the laws around software patents, DRM, etc. It would be great if more people were inspired to crowdfund.... ;-)

Linux.com: What are your next steps on this project?

Curtis: I've been running a fundraiser for 31 days, raising over $8,000 from more than 300 people. Once the dust on this campaign has settled, we will use what we've raised to keep working: more shooting, graphics, music, narration, making extended interviews, etc. It is possible to get money from people in the movie business, but that turned out to be a waste of time so far, so we decided to try crowdfunding. There is also interest from one sponsor, but it will probably take weeks to months to get something signed.