On Friday I spent the day with IT Staff of a couple of different school districts in Connecticut. We were there to see how they were using Open Source in the schools, and what sort of future plans they have in that area. For me, it was a very eye opening experience. While you may “understand” how constrained our public schools are when it comes to resources, until you spend a day with them, you probably don’t. It is extremely notable if an entire school district has a programmer on staff (almost no one has that). A programmer is defined as someone that knows PHP. For an pen applications to take hold in this space, they must be graphical, and never require dumping out to a shell to configure. While many open source projects are headed in this direction, very few are really there today.
Over the course of the day, The Open CD came up a few times, being discussed by some of the open technology advocates within the CT system. The Open CD is a CD ISO of Open Source applications that run natively on Microsoft Windows, and are considered best in class applications. It includes Open Office (equiv of MS Office), Scribus (page layout), GIMP (photo editing), Audacity (sound editing), Inkscape (vector drawing), Gaim (instant messaging), Firefox, Thunderbird (email), Celestia (astronomy application). As all the programs are under open licenses you can install it as many times as you like, wherever you like, with no fear of violating licenses. This is still a bit foreign to Windows users, but something people can get over the hump on pretty quickly. Prior to this meeting, I wasn’t really aware of The Open CD, but a weekend of stewing on it made me realize it is one of the best things since sliced bread.
While I remain a Linux advocate, and am not planning on running windows on any of my home boxes any time soon, Windows remains a reality on the desktop. But the strangle hold on the desktop is more about the applications than anything else. If you get people over to an Open Office, GIMP, Firefox world, then sitting at a windows machine with those installed is the same as sitting at an LTSP terminal with them installed, at least from a user perspective. This is a huge lesson that Novell learned in it’s mass linux migration: migration the application set to open alternatives first. The transition to Linux is much easier after this. The application stickiness is the big reason that alternative desktops have grown slowly.
Another fact is that nearly every retail computer sold comes with Windows, but you pay extra for MS Office. Instead of going after that which the user sees as part of the hardware for an open replacement, go after the thing that costs that an extra $100 dollars. If you bought the most popular proprietary versions of the applications on the open cd, at retail prices, you’d end up spending a couple thousand dollars for the set: MS Office, Adobe PageMaker, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, etc. And just think, now you are also putting Cellestia and Blender into the hands of kids, and just letting their imagination take them away. How exciting is that!
As MHVLUG starts out on it’s fifth year, we’ve had a bunch of members start to be really interested about ways in which we can tap into this large group of open source experts, and expand into our communities; giving back where it matters most. It seems to me that advocacy around The Open CD is a good place to start, as it provides a very real, very easy on ramp into the world of Open Technology that the 95% of Windows users can participate in as well. We’ll work on getting them over to Linux for critical components later, but just getting people exposed to a world where people write software under open licenses and give it away for free helps a lot to understanding why Linux is special, and why it is often the right answer for the job at hand.
Over the next many months I think we’ll be getting together with this group multiple times to provide some volunteer assistance in navigating the waters of Open Technology. I have to say, after Friday I was seriously energized about all the things we could do to help schools in this area, and can’t wait to see how this plays out over time.