Before the storm
by Jono Bacon
Despite the over-production of rubber penguins and increasing technorati blogging about Open Source across the net, Open Source still has a long way to go in achieving the kind of acceptance and use we as enthusiasts optimistically predict. As bods familiar with the workings of an Open Source community, it makes reverent sense why one should use the software; freedom, stability, security, quality etc. The real challenge that faces us is that although you may have a clear view of why Open Source may be the right solution, expressing and communicating this message can be difficult at best. Advocacy is a concept riddled with theories, beliefs and opinions on how it should be practiced - how can you best advocate Open Source software?
I am going to be writing a series of new articles about advocacy. In these features, I am going to write about the different issues involved in advocating Open Source software, and attempt to beat a path towards best practice. For quite some time, I have been advocating how Open Source can be right for some people. This evangelism was first expressed through my efforts creating Linux UK (one of the first UK editorial sites about Linux), on through my work as a journalist and resulting in my current full time position at OpenAdvantage (http://www.openadvantage.org) as a professional Open Source evangelist. Although there is still much to learn, the body of experience I have collated myself and from other people can act as a useful map when choosing which path to head down. The goal in this game is to be as productive as possible with your advocacy; anyone can randomly advocate, but here you want results.
Step back and re-evaluate
Before you set forth and explore the different avenues of advocacy, you need to step back and evaluate exactly what you are aiming to do. Sure, this nugget of advice sounds like one of those self-help audio cassette courses, but it is particularly important in the context of Open Source. The reason for this is that Open Source is first and foremost a culture, and like any other culture, it can be perceived and understood in inherently different ways. As an example, some people are inspired by Open Source due to the ethical and philosophical concepts, some are inspired by the technical benefits and some are plainly in it financial benefits. Even within these three loose groups, there are variations in tone and colour. If you support Open Source due to its ethical nature, you may approve of certain rights (such as access to source code and freedom of innovation), but not approve of other rights (such as selling Open Source, or including closed source components). What do you feel about free media - do you believe Open Source should be applied to sound/video? What is your take on software patents? Do you feel that Open Source should be advocated to businesses who will use it for closed source solutions? Are you happy running closed source software on Linux? Each of these questions has a variety of distinct answers that vary among members of the same Open Source community.
In marketing parlors there is a general rule that you should know your product inside out. This common-held view preaches that if you don't understand part of your product, you won't be able to answer *every* question and query about it. Open Source advocacy has a similar, albeit, less critical rule of thumb; "to help Open Source, you need to know Open Source". With such a range in views of Open Source, you need to firmly understand your own position, and more importantly, understand how flexible you are in promoting Open Source in areas that you are not personally familiar with. Throughout your experiences advocating, it is likely that you will face challenges that will test your ethical and technical views, and it is advisable to set yourself a policy regarding how far you can bend on these issues. With the policy set early, you will gain more confidence in pushing forward.
While you are sat back, re-evaluating your perspective on Open Source, you should also re-evaluate your perspective on facts. Although we can be safe in knowledge that the O'Reilly Network does not resort to ridiculous headlines that mis-represent a story, it is likely that you will hear stories that may be perceived one way, but are entirely wrong in how the story was actually played out. As an example, a while back I was at a conference in London designed to help public sector organisations and schools understand what Open Source is, and a number of councils and schools gave a presentation at the event. One such school, Orwell High School, a specialist school for technology, made the leap over to Open Source. With over 1000 students, the school found upgrade costs quite prohibitive due to expensive hardware requirements for Windows XP, as well as high administrative costs. The school made the move to a LTSP thin-client setup, and this resulted in cheaper hardware, less landfill and a centrally administered system. This solution was by its very nature, a standard cut n'shut case; the need was there, and a solution was proposed. The result of this case was a saving of £13,000 a year in license fees; a worthwhile but not exactly ground shattering figure, given the millions saved in cases such as that at Beaumont Hospital where they saved over EU4million with Open Source. What is interesting with the Orwell High School case is how that saving is relevant to their context. A teacher in the English department stated that each child in the department had a budget of £1 per head. When you are dealing with such low figures, £13,000 can seem like an awful lot of money being saved each year.
The key point here is that information is relative to context, and context is relative to information. Before you even begin discussing how to push the merits of advocacy in different ways, you need to be prepared to sit back and think about the information you receive, and how that information is relevant to the bigger picture. The goal here is not to con people into using Open Source, neither is it to suppress some elements of Open Source. The goal is to be as honest and up front as possible, and to try and dispel some of the large quantities of hype.
The new series of articles will be online soon on the O'Reilly Network.
Thoughts and ideas? Scribe them below...