Winning war won't secure peace for open source

perspective Opposition to free software may have evaporated, but that does not make behavioral change inevitable, says U.K. open source advocate.

perspective According to Mahatma Gandhi: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."* So by that reckoning, it must be pretty much 'job done' for free software.

Over the past few months I have experienced the eerie sensation that no one is fighting us any more. Not only are audiences polite, enthusiastic and well informed at conferences, they are almost all using free software already.

What happened to the critics? Even the neo-proprietarists, Microsoft and--most surprising of all--the government go out of their way to pay lip service to open source software these days.

And therein lies the problem. What Gandhi failed to mention is that it is not inevitable that you win as soon as they stop fighting you. Put another way, advocacy needs to evolve once the argument is won.

Winning the argument intellectually is not enough. What we need now is real, honest-to-goodness behavioral change. And this only comes about once the emotions are engaged.

Cast your mind over examples of public debate where the social arguments have been won: female equality, global warming, passive smoking, MPs' expenses, apartheid, Gurkha welfare. In each case the opposing position is now largely untenable. Yet the consequences of winning the argument vary from marginal change to complete transformation.

What about free software adoption? Sadly, we still have a long way to go. Despite widespread support, too many people remain locked-in, apathetic, incentivized or ordered to stay with the proprietary status quo through the political decisions of those who know nothing about IT. And then there are the public-sector structural issues, where procurement still favors the proprietary model.

So, what can we do to change things? First, we need to discover what caused the behavioral change in the cases where the argument was won, and then went on to change the world. Here's a few to get you started:

Find your voice
The simple act of speaking up has fantastic power. If you do not tell people that being locked in to expensive proprietary formats is no longer acceptable, then how do you expect them to know? Gandhi's only weapon was his voice, and look what he achieved with that.

Closer to home, a few people saying to the BBC: "You can't do that" led to an iPlayer that now works over almost all platforms.

Make proprietary software socially unacceptable
Just as with smoking, it is time for passive proprietary software usage to be discouraged by law. Do you realize that the government spends more than 11 billion pounds (US$17.97 billion) on proprietary software every year? Can you imagine the good that money could do in the health service?

So, how about calling for resignations among the so-called public servants who waste billions every year on secretive deals with convicted monopolists for secret code that rarely delivers?

Get angry
The poet William Blake said: "The voice of honest indignation is the voice of God." Movements that led on to lasting behavioral change are those where people, and lots of them, suddenly found they really cared about what was going on and how unjust it was.

When you start to see how appalling it is that huge unaccountable proprietary interests are conspiring with an uninformed, uninspired and uncaring government to waste your money while making the world just that little bit nastier, you might find you care enough to do something. If so, you are in good company.

So there it is. The argument is won, but now the real work begins.

*Note: In fact Gandhi said "First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you." This is a paraphrase by Professor Michael N Nagler in his foreword to Gandhi the man by Eknath Easwaran.

As chief executive of Sirius Corporation, Mark Taylor has been instrumental in the adoption and rollout of open source software at some of the largest corporations in Europe, including a growing number of companies running exclusively on free software, end to end, server to desktop. A direct participant in some of the leading enterprise open source projects, Taylor is also a well-known authority on all aspects of the open source phenomenon..


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