The limits of evangelism

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jan 10, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I should know better, but every now and then I make the mistake of trying to explain why people should use free and open source software (FOSS). Often, the effort occurs at end of the year gatherings when someone asks me what I do for a living, and almost always the ensuring conversation is torturous.

For one thing, I'm not a natural seller. I can make a case, but if it doesn't convince, I respect people's rights to their own opinions too deeply to continue pushing for very long.

Even more importantly, figuring out the approach can be frustrating. The fact that you can download FOSS for free seems trivial at best to my average audience. Making an ethical case is usually more successful -- but presents a difficult problem: How do persuade people that they want something when they don't know it exists?

A free price, of course, is not what FOSS is supposed to be about. Still, I wouldn't see much wrong with using it as an initial lure -- if only it worked. Unfortunately, it doesn't.

The trouble is, software that is cheap or free is already widely available. Anyone who has been a student -- even a night school student -- can buy deeply discounted software from the campus store. Others get ready-loaded computers as part of their job. Still others pirate, either from warez sites or, more often, from a friend, just as people have done ever since the arrival of the personal computer. Saving twenty or thirty dollars at best just isn't going to seem worthwhile, especially since it often means using unfamiliar software.

However, a surprising number of regular users don't even know that they are paying for software. You or I know that the cost of a proprietary operating system is usually part of a computer's price, but the average user doesn't know that.

So far as they're concerned, they're already getting software at no cost. Another offer of free software isn't going to excite them.

Beyond cost

But, if many users are unaware that they are paying for software when they buy a computer, they are equally unaware of the ethical reasons for using free software. Not being coders, they don't care that they can alter the source code. Many are already sharing code by circumventing registration and activation, so that's often not a draw for them, either.

For similar reasons, I can't use the open source justification that the software is superior. the average person doesn't use most of the features of their Internet or productivity now, so why would they want new features?

Occasionally, I run across someone who is interested in features like KDE's Folder View than can improve their work habits, but such people are rare. The majority are accustomed to their work habits, and don't care to change them, even when you point out inefficiencies, such as manually formatting a text document instead of implementing templates and styles.

Instead of such arguments, I usually try to focus on control of your own computing. I mention things like GNU/Linux's security features, and the absence of registration and activation requirements, or Windows 7's end-user agreement, which basically cedes control of your computer to Microsoft.

Here, I observe a flicker of interest at last, but in most cases it quickly fades. Thirty years of personal computing via proprietary software has clubbed many users into mute submission. Yes, they respond, it's interesting and vaguely troubling that you can legally share a book but can't share a piece of software, but that's just the way things are. Nothing can really change.

As for the idea that your choice of software can limit the damage done by a virus -- well, that's just propaganda. Everyone knows that viruses and regular virus scans are one of the prices you have to pay for running a computer.

At this point, I remember why I generally avoid evangelism. How, I wonder, can I possibly convince people of advantages that are inconceivable to them -- whose existence they are unaware of, and which seem so mythical that they believe I must be exaggerating or trying to con them?

An idea ahead of its time

The most receptive audience, I usually find, are activists. The idea that you should take control of your computing seems a natural extension of beliefs to people who already believe that you should take control of your government by getting involved, or of your environment by recycling and encouraging green technology solutions.

Yet, even here, difficulties arise. For the most part, activists are not technically oriented, and are as accepting of proprietary lock-in as anyone else. The idea that they should apply the beliefs that they operate by in the rest of their lives to their computing is new to most of them. Here and there, you may find a Green Party that has a pro-FOSS policy, or a Pirate Party whose ideas may echo those found in FOSS, but such groups are rarely in any position to promote -- let alone enforce -- FOSS ideas.

Still, perhaps I am expecting too much. FOSS has always had to struggle to provide an alternative, and, looking back, I understand that it has succeeded better than anyone could have imagined twenty-five years ago. So perhaps I shouldn't be impatient when confronted by how much farther it has to go before winning wider acceptance.

But I don't want to wait. I want to see it succeed in my lifetime. So, at the end, I am left in the position of someone promoting gourmet food trying to a crowd nurtured on Big Macs, trying to persuade them not only that the alternative is better for them but that it exists at all.


  • Funny, no one mentioned my angle

    Of course almost everything written here is good, but I think the root of the problem is the confusion between free as in "free beer" and free as in "freedom." I almost never directly, or soon, mention this. Instead, I focus on "two economic models." I say things like this:

    "If you go to a store and buy a toaster, the toaster is gone from the store. Another toaster has to be manufactured and shipped to the store to replace the one you bought. A lot of companies sell, or 'license' software, attempting to force a 'manufacturing model,' on the software industry, but it's not a good fit, because software, unlike toasters, can be copied a no cost. If you're in the toaster business, you can give away a few free samples, but to be successful, you're got to charge for most of the toasters you manufacture.

    "If you're in the software business, you can give away a vast number of free samples for advertising, and be very successful, charging only charging a fraction of the people who use your programs. But I'm not simply suggesting that software companies should give away more free samples. I'm saying this is just one of many distortions that occur, when a 'manufacturing model' is forced on the the software industry.

    "You may have heard of 'free' or 'open source' software like Linux or OpenOffice. There are several ways to understand this software, but one way, is to realize that it more follows a 'service model,' instead of a 'manufacturing model.' The very fact that software can be coped for free allows for productive sharing and collaboration not possible with software licensed proprietarily. With free software, you're 'standing on the shoulders of giants.' People in open source software businesses are often paid for the service of the improvements and customizations necessary for specific usages and installations.

    Of course software is neither like toaster, nor purely a service, like maid service, so it's complicated, and the situation is in flux, but many people think the 'service model' is a better fit than the 'manufacturing model,' which might help you understand it."

    I often offer to help them try some free software, but rarely does anyone take me up on the offer. And the conversation doesn't progress to debating RMS and the his theories. But I at least feel good that I've planted a seed, and headed off the usual, "suspicious, too good to be true, weird hippy communist" line of criticism.
  • Readiness

    I think when someone ask a question, they're ready for an answer to it.
  • Dumbing down computers

    Proprietary and free software approach users from opposite directions: the free software community is trying to make users smarter whereas proprietary software is dumbing down its software to meet users' current knowledge level.
  • The Cave

    Not to discourage, but read the story of the cave by platoon. Lots of parallels.

    But seriously, in 6 or so years of using Linux and FOSS, to convince someone they have to already have an interest. My tactic is to simply point to FOSS software to solve a problem when they arise.
  • Applications -- no, really!

    Nowadays I tend to think that a bonus for Linux is applications. Well, unless you're talking to a gamer, then forget it.
    But here's the thing. It's true that people can get most Windows apps for free or not much money. But it's a bit of a pain. Every time you want to try doing something different you have to hunt up an application for it on the web, then either buy it or find a warez site or get hold of your friend who does that stuff and see if they have it. Then you have to install it and if you're experienced with Windows you'll know to be careful while you install it to make sure you'll be able to find it and get rid of it later. Then you have to cross your fingers and hope it didn't overwrite anything with incompatible versions of .dll files or what have you, and if it's a minor app hope it doesn't turn out to be some kind of spyware or other annoyingware . . .

    On nearly any modern Linux, from Ubuntus to Mandriva to Fedora, to install any software you go to the "install software" GUI, look at the appropriate category, find something--or a few things--that look useful and click on them. Done. No muss, no fuss, no real decisions, no ethical niggles, and they'll update automatically from now on. There may still be less software for Linux in theory, but for my personal purposes I end up with lots more. On Linux, if I think "Hmm . . . I wonder if it'd be worth learning a bit about desktop publishing software, or checking out whether it'd be worth using accounting software to balance my books," or whatever, I just grab a couple of programs and poke around in them a bit. On Windows I never used to get software unless I had a need for it, 'cause it was a pain and I had better things to do.
  • Computers are tools to help people perform work

    A tactic I have tried when asked about my linux use, is to point out that when I listen to people who work in IT departments, they always discuss how they fix problems directly related to getting a Microsoft OS computer working again. When I listen to people who use OSX, they gush about how they are _using_ the computer. When I listen to *nix users, they are discussing how they deployed an application to help the company or user to achieve a business goal. Why do you want to waste time trying to make the system run instead of actually using it and being productive?

    While <insert name of latest version of pre-installed Microsoft OS> might be really 'solid', why are you bothering to make such a statement ? The fact that you are making said statement means that you have accepted that previous versions were not always solid and why you would put money down on a product that is not ready to be released?

    The Mac world appears to release fairly stable OS's. The *nix world appears to have testing vs stable releases. The pre-installed Microsoft OS world should have just as few problems since is has its RC versions; but apparently that isn't quite the case since I hear people say how they need to wait until the second or third Service Pack before 'upgrading'.

    I usually end stating that choosing GNU/Linux (and BSD) means choosing to invest company money in people and their knowledge. These people will create and support systems that are tailored to the company's environment instead of investing in infrastructure and applications that force their company to run like every other company in the same business. That means supporting your people with proper (not just enough) staff so as to ensure that people are not burned out on development and have time to either document or work with staff hired to document. Off the shelf applications have such support mechanisms, so should your in house applications. The difference is who gets to dictate the rule-set of how your company runs, and keeping IT dollars within the company instead of flowing out to yet another vendor.

  • Help us help each other and be "free"

    I'm glad I stopped over at this discussion. Here is what now comes to mind of what someone might say (after a brief intro to what FOSS is):

    "I would rather live in a world where more people can solve more problems for other people. This would create a more friendly, interesting world, and one where more people could make a living independently of large corporations that call all the shots.

    "The Internet as we know it today exists because a small part of society has been applying this philosophy to computing; however, there are still many areas with computers where not everyone collaborates, and here we constantly find that people break their heads now and again with frustrations.

    "What the Internet is doing for creating communities of like-minded individuals that contribute to solving problems amongst each other, FOSS does as well for those that want to make the computer do more than what it could do if we only had corporations to depend upon. As one example, Firefox is FOSS that introduces many features and solutions to surfing the web, and it makes these solutions available for free. Firefox has even forced a very wealthy corporation to start huffing and puffing to try and keep up with Internet Explorer rather than simply sitting back counting its money.

    "FOSS even allowed Google and many other web companies to have a successful business. It is why Android exists and is part of the reason why the Mac was able to grow out of its niche. Many corporations use FOSS to come up with better products, but then they stop sharing this philosophy with their customers in order to make them dependent on themselves so they can make lots of money.

    "The more people that join supporting this philosophy, the more people that cut out the middleman corporations whenever possible (or at least force them to earn their money), the faster and better and cheaper everything will be since computers hold the key to solving just about any problem in the world (communications; productivity; medical, science, and technological advancements; entertainment; and much more)."

  • see what matters to them first

    >> in this rant I wrote about three years ago at

    Let me highlight one summary point:
    "start from the actual deep passions, beliefs, interests and practical needs of the people in front of you and go backwards from there"
  • It may be too late...

    I've worked with computers for 30 years now and have used Linux almost exclusively for 10 years. I've taught courses at the local community college, done DB driven web development, done IT work for local companies, blah, blah, blah, like most everyone else.

    Mr. Byfield has hit the nail on the head. I used to evangelize too and finally gave up. The ugly truth is that very few people want to learn anything new and they are not willing to change anything. It's unbelievable what people will put up with to stick with the devil they know.

    As much as it kills me to say it, bottom line, Microsoft just has too big of a head start. All people know is the Windows lifestyle and, no matter how bad it gets, they're seldom interested in an alternative. If there is an inquiry about alternative operating systems, it's about the Mac OS. Joe Blow computer user typically doesn't know Linux exists. These are typically the same people that don't know that Windows is an operating system, that think that Windows and other applications are all the same thing and that believe that the Internet resides in their computers (I'm not making that one up).

    I'll give Microsoft marketing juggernaut credit. They've spent the last 25+ years turning an entire generation of computer users into helpless drones. Twenty-five to 30 years ago, you actually had to understand something about computing in order the use one. Now, that's still the case in 2011, but Microsoft has spent that time dumbing down the computing experience, convincing everyone that a computer is just another appliance and creating the mindset that if you have a computer that the whole computing universe consists of Microsoft. Ask any long-time computer professional and they'll tell you basically the same thing.

    Everyone has an opinion of what to do to advance the adoption of Linux. Here's my 2 cents worth:

    1. There needs to be one or, at the very most, 3 or 4 Linux distributions. Yes, I know the purists will scream and so would I, but when you start talking Linux to a Windows user and make the mistake of mentioning the choices they have, you loose them right there, every time. Even though there are different versions of Windows, they're all called Windows some-version-name. People are comfortable with that. Start talking about different versions of Linux and they just shut down. The secret is probably not to tell them anything other than Linux exists as an alternative to Windows (assuming they understand the concept of an OS at all).

    2. The only thing I've ever found that will actually get people's attention is that Linux is immune to the malware that plagues Windows. Usually they don't believe it but if you can ever get the concept across to them, then there's a chance they might give Linux a try. None of the other arguments will have the slightest impact.

    3. Though this is highly unlikely to happen, since no one 'owns' Linux, it will have to be marketed in some way to realize any gains in users. Very few computer users even know it exists. Those few that have heard of it have no idea it could be just what they need.

    The good news is that, of those whom I've converted to Linux, probably 90% of them continue to use it. FWIW, I've found that the best strategy is to plant a seed and see if it grows. If it does, then you have chance.
  • Selling Linux

    Casting pearls before swine is the phrase that comes to mind, for me. There's no point in attempting to generate interest in people who barely understand what you're talking about, so I have stopped trying to "sell" Linux. Anymore, I simply tell them about it and how it has improved my computing experience, and let them think about it, (At the same time, I remind myself that I first heard of Linux about 3 years before I actually tried it, so you may consider me a former swine...). If a person believes they are perfectly happy using Windows Vista, for example, who am I to tell them that they're wrong?
    I usually wait until these users come to me for help or advice with their computer problems, that's when their interest in Linux as a solution is at it's highest potential. I give them a live distro, and tell them how to fix many of their own problems without having to install Linux at all, and that at least gets them to try it. I sometimes offer them a "loaner" computer running Linux to use while they are between computers, to give them some real risk-free Linux experience, and I don't charge them anything since even the hardware is usually made from "junk" that others have given to me.
    One point that usually strikes a nerve in them, however, is when I point out to them that Proprietary Software Companies are NOT in business to make software, they are in business to make MONEY, and software is just the vehicle they drive to the bank. I explain to them that software is like music, food, or anything else. If they want to experience the very best that is available, they need to get it from people who love to make it, and not from people who love to make money.
    Simply telling people that Linux is "FREE" falls into the "Too good to be true" category. Telling them that it offers genuine "VALUE" for what little they have to invest in it is something that everyone is looking for.
  • Library (cont)

    Forgot to mention, as with libraries it's important (to me) that it's free software and stays free (like a library) as opposed to some story about a teacher who told students that they had to destroy their notes because of copyright belonging to the teacher. Well, that in itself is a good discussion for free software (you get to keep your notes and can leanr and improve general knowledge in whatever subject) and against any other (copyrighted teachings with destructions of your notes).
  • Those willing to hear...

    I have found that those most open to Linux as a desktop are in two camps:
    1. those suffering current virus induced slowdown/damage
    2. Android users.

    1. Selling a more secure, faster system makes sense.
    2. Oh, Android is Linux? hmmm and I like Android... I can try it out with a livecd or usb? I could do that!
    The learning curve is still a negative to overcome, but if you have time to answer questions, or offer them a teaching session is even better.
  • Library

    When the people you talk to ask why they should be interested in free software, ask them if they want the libraries to exist and why. If they do want to have libraries they probably serve you the arguments themselves. (Good for just free reading, if you are studying in nightschool or whatever you have tons of information etc and the libraries help educate the whole nation or whatever arguments you/they come up with. Free software are libraries for coders that anyone can use, even non-coders (precompiled/binaries))

    A computer with windows or not, why should they care? Ask them if they would want books when they buy a bookshelf. If they ask the price for the books, simply say they come with the bookshelf. If they press you and want to know if they actually pay for the books or not, instead of a simple "they come with the bookshelf" yo can always ask why they are so interested in that, when they don't ask when they buy a computer. If they have a choice, wold they buy a bookshelf filled with books, a bookshelf without books or a bookshelf filled with books at no cost that they may learn something from?

    Of course, you can go on with the great library in Alexandria and how it affected the surrounding and what happened when it was destroyed.

    I hope this was of some help, just an (untested) idea I had.
  • Not free, but pre-paid

    One message that people need to hear is that FOSS products are not "free" of all costs - corporations and governments are some of the largest financial contributors, enthusiasts and (state-funded) scientists or educators are some of the longest-serving developers. FOSS products are built and maintained using real resources, and will get better with more resources.

    Photographer? Go use products designed, built and paid for by enthusiast photographers. The same with astronomy, video, art, novel-writing.
  • Similar arguments are...

    in this rant I wrote about three years ago at No?
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