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Open Source Platforms and Disadvantaged Communities.

Collin Anderson
University of North Dakota Kiwi Project
Grand Forks, North Dakota
collina@gmail.com

ABSTRACT to immediately quit every semblance of anti-competitive be-


During the Winter of 2007, the University of North Dakota havior, its platform would dominate the landscape for at
Kiwi Project was established as an effort to put free com- least another decade. Most large enterprises are too heavily
puters into disadvantaged households with an open source invested, in terms of education as well as money, in such
platform and engage students on social issues pertaining to platforms to justify massive upheaval. Furthermore, it is
their profession. Two years later, the effort has introduced necessary to recognize that Microsoft products and concepts
hundreds of individuals to free software and improved ac- dominate the popular lexicon of computing. To most, Mi-
cess to the technological revolution that is too often de- crosoft Word is the entire concept of word processing and
nied to low income households. Despite statistical successes, will remain to be for some time. Similar popular, monog-
there remains a lingering feeling that the environment cho- amous relationships exist between concept and implemen-
sen has inhibited the project’s potential. While the adoption tation for many Redmond products, especially Excel and
of Linux in such projects is financial and legally free, imple- Powerpoint. While there have been substantive victories
mentation has encountered numerous hidden burdens and in forcing governments to adopt open standards and open
social impediments which have greatly changed our original software, experience in specific proprietary programs is still
equation. necessary for employment beyond manual labor.
In its current state, the wide-scale adoption of Linux would Defining a principle of transparency as proximity to the
reverse a decade’s worth of standardization and needlessly current design and usage norms (today, Microsoft norms),
increase the learning curve of computer education for vulner- then a decrease in familiarity is an increase in end-user bur-
able populations. In light of this, instead of solely heralding den. In practice this means: if the Kiwi Project introduces
triumphs, it is necessary at such ventures to address the “not-Office,” then at some point the concept of file types,
points of weakness endemic in the open source model and fonts and conversion will come up. This is a decrease in
how they pertain to computer science education. transparency, which means more to learn and more anxi-
ety. In being “not-Windows,” concerned developers should
therefore understand that every step away from Windows
Categories and Subject Descriptors norms increases the stress of converting to a different plat-
K.4.2 [Social Issues] form. People are remarkably adept at finding subtle changes
in what they are use to. Deviation from Microsoft inter-
face fundamentals, such as toolbar placement and function
General Terms names, should be balanced against the real possibility of
Design, Economics, Human Factors, Standardization scaring away less intrepid users. With this in mind, open-
source advocates should explore development issues as an
additional, alternative cause for free software’s shortcom-
Keywords ings as well as a significant constraint to the aspirations of
Linux, Computer Access, Interface Design the effort.
Firefox, the open source movement’s star pupil, is likely
1. BEING DIFFERENT an exception that proves the point. It seems probable that
the advertising campaign to label Firefox as the ‘safest way
It’s important to concede the obvious; Linux will always
to explore the Internet’ has been more responsible for its suc-
have the significant flaw of being “not-Windows.” Any weak-
cess than external application features. To its credit Firefox
nesses in the community and its model are only one part of
handles complex and wide-ranging types of media, yet its
the explanation of why Linux has not reached a critical mass
most important aspect is that it is a convenient, unimpos-
of users in the general populations. Even if Microsoft were
ing shell for content. In spite of this level of transparency,
∗Growing the HFOSS Community, Humanitarian Free and Microsoft branding has maintained Internet Explorer’s po-
Open Source Software (HFOSS) Symposium March 10th sition as the default browser, with many developers creating
2010 CC: BY SA NC Copyright Collin Anderson 2010 Hu- pages specifically for its poor implementation of web stan-
manitarian FOSS Project dards.
Considering the demands of the current workforce, to pro-
mote anything other than popular and uniform norms is a
gamble with the wrong group of people. Often, open-source used to copy iTunes, in the end none of these players was
advocates fall back on precept that individuals should learn complete or satisfying; none played audio CDs.3
general concepts instead of the placement of pertinent but- The open-source model’s mantra of free development is
tons. While admirable, this approach is much more instruc- rightfully heralded by its proponents as the modern vision of
tionally intensive, a luxury for those trying to learn job skills massive collaboration, however its invidious anti-authority
quickly. Computer education runs contrary to the common tendencies are rarely mentioned. When developers aren’t
analogy of learning to drive a car1 in that software applica- constrained by hierarchy, the potential for confusion, dis-
tions are orders of magnitude more complex and ambiguous sension and secession increases exponentially. Unlike the
in interface than any automobile. People have had a hun- commercial sector, developers are able to say “KDE 4.1 has
dred years to move past fear and awe of a car, as opposed taken KDE down a path I don’t want to follow. So, I have
to one or two generations with computers. a suggestion. Fork KDE,”4 and spend time on their alterna-
Standardization is not simply a product of openness and tive vision. In effect, this creates duplicate work, diverging
compatibility. Whereas, Microsoft presents a uniform plat- standards and a weaker community. This is also how a di-
form of the Windows Desktop, Office and Internet Explorer versity of window managers, such as KDE 4.x, KDE 3.5,
and Apple offers OS X, iWork and Safari, Linux is expressed Gnome, XFCE, exist and split the install base of the oper-
through a multifaceted combination of application which are ating system and decrease transparency. This partisanship
often completely distinct in appearance, name, configuration filters downward when developers are forced to pick toolk-
and functionality from each other. Firefox’s shortcomings in its and invest themselves in the success of one side. Similar
adoption, despite its enlightened development, highlight the predicaments exist for word-processing (OpenOffice, KOf-
problem of bundling and uniformity in distribution that is fice, Abiword), web browsing (Firefox, Konqueror), audio
endemic exclusively to F/OSS. Unlike its proprietary com- and photo management.
petitors, Linux has yet to, and is unlikely to ever, settle on
a singular user interface, much less a browser.
3. BEING USEFUL
For all these enumerated reasons, Linux pushes the Kiwi
2. BEING IDEOLOGICAL Project into being a user-support program to rectify educa-
More visibly, the issue of developer hubris and ideologi- tional deficiencies and lack of infrastructure. As is the nature
cal entrenchment has been a reoccurring impediment to de- with older hardware, components are much more prone to
livering a polished product to end-users. The open source failure, the organization has to be around to support tech-
community has embraced the notion that software develop- nical issues. It cannot be solely the responsibility of project
ment is meritocratic. In reality, this has created self-serving such as Kiwi to overcome the disempowerment created by
libertarian tendencies and provincialism. The open source propriety software and specific vocational training.
model breeds both a selective commitment to those features Still, were it feasible, the returns brought to the users
that are pioneering or popular, as well as a misaligned ex- in alternative models like F/OSS are intangible and, thus,
pectation of self-sufficiency. By acting in this way such de- there is a low incentive for switching. Concern over viruses
velopers have already disenfranchised users who are more and intellectual property is a luxury; a computer that is
concerned with learning basic productivity skills than com- rarely turned on is fairly immune to viruses. To a middle-
pilers, codecs, toolkits and versioning systems. There is a aged, new computer-user it doesn’t matter how open an xml
frightening scarcity of developers with the perspective to al- document-type is, if an employer can’t open it in Office.
ter this alienating direction. For this reason, open source’s There are certainly places where F/OSS offers competi-
most popular contributions are in areas far divorced from tive advantages for end-users, namely Firefox and OpenOf-
users. Developers too often create products with a target fice. For our audience, however, Linux cannot compete with
audience outside a set of highly-proficient users and fail to Windows when it is offered at low cost, free or pirated. Any
appreciate differing needs. When it comes to something like organization solely promoting Linux is then forced to resort
an implementation of dhcpd, this is perfectly fine. However, to coercive measures such as abandoning support if users
when direct user interaction increases, the importance of ac- switch away. Instead similar organizations should pragmat-
cessibility becomes clear as described before. ically be willing to consider making commercial software
A brief survey of help forums and feature-request tickets available, when it is offered competitively and compatible
yields a plethora of quotes from developers that are deeply with the goals of the organization.
unsettling. During the final stages testing KDE 4’s deploy- Continuing to espouse free platforms solely on the virtue
ment, the Kiwi Project noticed that the basic feature of of its collaborative origins and security is weak. To be sure,
playing an audio CD had disappeared. The most immediate many ideological battles are legitimate, some are even exis-
answer available, located in a forum, was at the time “we tential threats. It is absolutely fundamental to the longer-
developers don’t find this an important feature.”2 Appar- term competitiveness and survival of F/OSS that the com-
ently, in the course of the software being rewritten, a con- munity be actively engaged in fighting software patents and
sensus was made by the developers of one of the most pop- 3
ular Linux audio players that ‘everyone just rips CDs right While there is something to be said for copying iTunes as
being transparent, these players were still terribly incom-
away anyway.’ In fact, between half a dozen audio players, plete. This, too, is only partially the fault of developers due
whose differences seemed defined by which GUI toolkit was to restrictions of the use of the mp3 codec and connecting to
hardware such as iPods. However, there is no reason for all
1
This has been an analogy frequently brought up in F/OSS’s these players to exist other than the split between QT/GTK.
defense in various panels and electronic conversations. 4
Standing and productivity of author mean less than
2
Original quote has since been removed, however citation the support and sincerity thrown to the notion.
and debate is archived at: http://bit.ly/5VG5FU http://bit.ly/82VrNU
the proliferation of closed standards. However, it remains
the concern of the Kiwi Project that blindly promoting the
current slate of open source software, without acknowledging
the aforementioned shortcomings is reckless and irresponsi-
ble.
In the long term, there are clearly differences that educa-
tors and advocates can make to the problems that the Kiwi
Project has encountered. In the least there is a need to fos-
ter a sense of focus and trusteeship towards the needs of the
broader computing community, and not simply the needs of
self or employer. Interestly, such problems have been ad-
dressed in a previous interation of this conference.[2] What
the author found was a shocking lack of social awareness in
their community of computer science students. From per-
sonal experience, this detachment appears to be a common
flaw. The principle of the Kiwi Project as a student-led
community/software project[1] represents one model of ad-
dressing these issues. It is unlikely that any one concept
will force all students out of the malaise that is frequently
discussed. However, by forcing personal interaction between
future members of the developer community and neglected
portions of the public, students are forced to discover these
disparities for themselves, see the results and, hopefully, ad-
just their mindset for the future.

4. REFERENCES
[1] Anderson, C., and Stokke, T. Impediments to
ubiquitous, free computing. In Midwest Instruction and
Computing Symposium (April 2009).
[2] Horstmann, C. S. Challenges and opportunities in an
open source software development course. In Integrating
FOSS into the Undergraduate Computing Curriculum,
Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Symposium
(March 4th 2009).