I have put off writing this blog for quite some time, as I don't feel as though I could do it justice. However, by keeping the thoughts in my head I'm not getting anywhere - so time to put them up on the internet for others to comment too.
Does FLOSS fit into a particular political camp?
The Free Software Foundation espouses some very strong and fundamental rules regarding free software. The 'GNU' utilies that come shipped with the 'Linux' kernel are probably the most well known in the FLOSS world as being the basis on RMS's Free Software movement. Unfortunately I am rather ignorant to the majority of his work, and need to get time to read on the history of the FSF - so will leave that to another post. However, let's take the basics of the FSF message.
The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Those are the fundamentals from the FSF WebSite.
My first thoughts on Free Software were the massive difference that it could make to the social world. The passage of information in digital form across borders is unprecedented. The ability for people in America and Europe to work alongside people from all the other continents marks a paradigm shift in global relations and communications.
One of the first things I did when I started to use GNU/Linux was to create an "Office Server." It processed email, had document storage, and had aRAID1 setup across two DATA hard disks. Now, I am ignorant of the underlying technology and the kernel programming - I knew absolutely no programming - having not spent even a day programming at school/college. I stopped being taught IT in school at Year 9 as the teachers were so far behind. Whilst I was maintaining multi-table databases, they were teaching me how to manoeuvre a turtle 90* on a screen. Without other peoples effort and contributions I could not have made such a server.
Edubuntu, Edubuntu, Edubuntu!
The next most astounding thing I found, was using the distribution edubuntu. Since its launch in 2004, Ubuntu has become the "golden child" of Linux Users. Under the leadership of Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu has started to gain reputable market share of the Linux sector, and is even now starting to break into territory previously dominated by Microsoft. Edubuntu is a distribution of Ubuntu which is aimed at providing a distribution which contains the main ubuntu desktop, but also a selection of educational tools. I will not forget the first time I had this set up and my two little brother came and played on it. Who knew the periodic table could be so much fun!
That wasn't what hit me though. It was the LTSP capabilities put in by default. The majority of PCs at my house were within 5 years old, and connected to the home network by Ethernet. In a simple configuration change (setting them to boot from the network card, rather than their hard disk) I was able to convert my whole house into a massive classroom. It's not just the advancement of technology and IT geekery that the FSF provides - but access to new information. Instead of paying £s per seat in order to have a Server-Client set-up at school (probably provided by RM) - a school could implement this edubuntu solution - and it installed straight off a CD. Now sure, there are some maintenance tasks that would require a Linux technician - but the tools and resources are out there.
This is where I think the argument in FLOSS's favour can sometimes get distorted - and rightly so because it's a complex issue. FLOSS applications can generally run on much older hardware than proprietary ones. Whilst the capitalist model of the proprietary companies have been to use every resource that was available and force a user to upgrade, Free Software held back and although there is a lot of software that benefits from the new and faster machines - there are many distributions that are tailored to get the maximum out of older hardware. Because computers are so toxic - preventing their decommission and extending their life is seen as "environmentally friendly" - however, this needs to be balanced against the fact that electricity usage in older machines is far less efficient that the modern models. GNU/Linux, however, can also run the modern computers at peak efficiency with Advanced Power Management.
People talk of the end of the Desktop - and that the Desktop doesn't matter. Some people even say that Desktop war is over - we're in Web 2.0 therefore it doesn't matter. I'd say that it's rather premature, given that some companies are making supposedly Web 2.0 applications that are linked not only to a particular company's operating system - but to a particular version of it. GNU/Linux has a massive part to play - however, in my view it's the 'networking' that will prevail. We've recently seen the growth of Facebook and MySpace - the two great Social Networking Giants. Google OpenSocial is planning to level the playing field by offering a standardised platform for network programming. In my opinion it will be these openly standardised networks (be that SIP, XMPP, OpenSocial) that will be the success story of the next ten years, rather than just one company.
Who will lead us?
In the UK, no single political party has taken the lead in the promotion/adoption of FLOSS. George Osbourne has probably been one of the loudest and most high profile exponents of a move towards Free Software - but the general political machine has yet to change. The much hyped e-Gif (Electronic Government Interoperability Framework) is about as useful as a chocolate teapot in providing a framework for public development. A published an open specification would allow some kind-hearted FLOSS engineers in the UK to contribute their time and effort to projects that the government could use. Whilst I don't expect to see FLOSS software used in all tiers of the government, it would be nice to see an acknowledgement of its prominence. The ability for the UK to regenerate its indigenous scientific and engineering superiority would be significantly enhanced by the uptake of FLOSS solutions, and would perpetuate the benefit to both the FLOSS community and the UK as a whole.
Call to Arms
To all politicians: please don't wait on the sidelines wondering whether or not your adoption of FLOSS is going to cause offence to any current software providers. Don't put second-rate project managers in charge of FLOSS solutions and expect it to perform like and Oracle Database Server in the hands of an Oracle team of engineers. That's not how it works. Encourage your current providers to utilise the FLOSS solution and let them feed their development and integrations back into the FLOSS community. I don't want to pretend that you can suddenly call upon a local FLOSS software house to run a project that is currently run by some outsourced company. Change the framework to support FLOSS, change it to provide FLOSS with a chance to succeed, and change it for the good of our futures.