Monday, January 10, 2005

Winning with Style

A recent, well-written article appeared on newsforge that raised some issues about Freedom and Free Software and the context was something to the effect of "What's it worth to you? Are you willing to go through some sacrifices to maintain your Freedom or get it back?"

I think the author is missing a valuable selling tool, one that is long term, and one that GNU/Linux has to offer. I try not to tell people it will be easy to use Free Software, or rather, easier to learn than Microsoft. Truth be known, a bit of time using Windows and beginning users learn (and have to later un-learn) quite a few hard won tricks to get things working. It's an inertia thing -- one that masses of GNU/Linux desktop adopting people will help overcome, when it's time.

I think that time is fast approaching, and have said so on many recent occasions. More important, in other words, than the philosophical constructs of the Free Software movement, in my not so humble opinion, is the context of relevance. What could be more relevant to a user today than things like protection from malware, and the fact that ever-increasing attention is needed to keep a Windows box free (there's that word again) of privacy-threatening compromise.

Don't get me wrong, the concepts presented by members of the Free Software movement are values that are important in the long haul. But we're here, in the moment, at one of the most dangerous times ever to connect a computer to the Internet, and we have the best tools to help secure the connection -- GNU/Linux.

Which do you think matters more to the user? The fact that it's Free (As in Freedom), the fact that it helps them protect their privacy, or possibly the fact that it gives them better odds of keeping the cash that's in their bank account? Maybe 2 years ago, it would be a stretch to get any of these point across, but today, I'll wager that it's easy to sell them on the second or third point easily.

Worrying about whether people will ultimately drop proprietary software for their own good -- and their freedoms -- is a good thing, but it's a distraction in this context.

Free Software, in other words, could not be more relevant than it is now. My point is simple, and I'll end this conversation shortly after: The average computer user simply needs to check their email and surf the web -- and this is no longer a simple venture with Microsoft products.

The usefulness of a typical install today is "good enough" for what most people need to do. If they're a more advanced user, so be it, they can maintain 2 computers, they can see the value, I'll wager, in the long run. A scenario like that is better than shunning them for not holding up to your own high values. I have to work with Windows XP at work -- big fat harry deal! I treat it like an extremely sluggish, buggy device driver for Cygwin, which in the context of the type of work I do, is the cost of doing business.

Anything new -- Longhorn, Service Pack 2 for Windows XP -- heck, even anti-virus software installation, is going to be fraught with new concepts for a user to learn, and software they had to leave behind. Microsoft has just released a new malware scanner. Users are going to leave behind other products to use it. I recently spoke with a PC user that had adopted XP, only to find that all of his old DOS-based games wouldn't work with it ( oh yeah, I did point him to some free alternatives, so he's not totally lost yet -- but the switch happened over a year ago).

This past year, we've seen something like a 38% increase in broadband usage. I've met over a half-dozen people -- some retired -- using broadband and they're suddenly familiar with concepts that I would never have imagined them coming to grips with in the past.

So keep that in mind when you're "selling" GNU/Linux. I reduce the whole Free Software speech to the phrase "It's like democracy for software." and don't get into any philosophical debates -- it's not worth it usually. The users will do the research and find out the fact for themselves. It's my not-so-humble opinion that right now, the political debates are somewhat in the way. Again, that's not to say that they're not important -- they deserve mention -- but that users have real, honest-to-goodness value just from the whole privacy and security dimensions of Free Software. When the come back (after using it, you know they'll be back, right?) you can explain the whole Free as in Freedom thing in more detail.

Keep it simple, stupid! "Yes, this is different, dear new (or potential new) user of GNU/Linux. But it's far safer for your personal data, and that makes it more than worth your while learning some new programs and menus."

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