This is an article I wrote for the Chinese community website Dim Sum.
I’m on a train on my way to a conference. The day is just chasing away the night and the air is warm and humid with a rare English heatwave. It’s over twenty degrees and it’s just past 6am. This weather inevitably reminds me of Asia, and I am cast back to dawns in Shenzhen, Bangkok and Takamatsu. For a selfish moment I want to walk away from the conference, catch a plane and return to the East.
A second later my mind taps my heart on the shoulder and normality is restored. I have a job to do. Today that job is the promotion of Free (as in Freedom) Software and more specifically the promotion of an organisation that is working to ensure Free Software is advocated and protected in Europe: the Free Software Foundation Europe.
When people hear the term Free Software they usually think about price. Older computer users remember dodgy freeware given away on computer magazine cover disks. It’s an easy misconception. The word ‘Free’ in English has two meanings. We associate one with price and the other with liberty. Free Software is about liberty. It’s a type of software that ensures the end user can use, modify, share and improve software without restriction. Everything a person needs to do anything with Free Software is included in the package at (usually) zero cost.
This is not really a concept connected with computer science at all. It’s about social inclusion and empowerment. Free Software is basically a way of trying to ensure that technology is accessible to people. It gives people the keys to digital infrastructure and hopes they drive somewhere interesting with it.
You can get Free Software operating systems that are as powerful and as easy to use as Microsoft Windows. You can get office suites that offer comparable functionality to Microsoft Office. There are image editors that replicate the functionality of Adobe Photoshop. There are instant messengers to connect to MSN, AOL, iChat, Google Talk, Yahoo! and Skype. There are even some tools you might recognise like Mozilla Firefox, a web browser that makes computing both safer and easier.
I think Free Software is a profoundly important concept. The largest economic block in the world (the EU) and the largest nation in the world (China) agree with me. There is a massive investment in Free Software to try and ensure that the digital future will be controlled by the users rather than large multinationals. In the EU this translates into the adoption of Free Software products in national infrastructure. Birmingham and Bristol in the UK have been early and enthusiastic adopters. In China this translates into both the adoption and adaptation of Free Software to suit the local context. Beijing created and maintains Red Flag GNU/Linux, a Chinese Free Software operating system.
Free Software is part of a new wave of development that marks the point information technology enters day-to-day life. It is become very important to make sure that people will have access to computers and this access does not depend on the decisions and desires of companies. In a way computers can be regarded as the water of information. They have become a critical part of any national infrastructure.
I find this to be incredibly exciting. A world is slowly emerging where people can get a cheap computer and install a vast array of tools on it without needing money or expertise. At this very second I am running a GNU/Linux distribution on my laptop. It looks like a simple version of Microsoft Windows. If I click a button on a menu item called ‘Add/Remove’ my computer will connect to the Internet and let me choose between thousands of different applications available without restriction on-line. GNU/Linux is free (as in zero cost) and Free (as in Freedom).
Today I will be talking to people all day about why Free Software is important. I’ll be locked away in a small dark room in the corner of the conference without air conditioning. It will be hot. It will be sweaty. It will be exactly where I should be to try and sell the idea of empowering freedom to people.
Over the next few months I’m going to be writing about Europe, China and technology for Dim Sum. I’m going to help demystify the weird world of flashing lights, beeping computers and acronyms like WYSIWYG*. I’m hoping to explain why certain aspects of technology are having a profound effect on our lives, and why the emerging markets are bringing our cultures closer together. Perhaps most importantly I’m hoping to share with you why computers are much more than the sum of their parts and how the geeks have almost accidentally created a new way for the world to communicate.
Communication is a two-way process and I don’t want my writing to be passive. If you have questions, comments, suggestions or ideas email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll address your messages in future articles.
*By the way, WYSIWYG actually means ‘What You See Is What You Get’. It’s an idea that suggests design should be simple and immediately familiar. We all know how to use a cup, door bell and door handle. That’s WYSIWYG. Trust geeks to take that simple idea and turn it into another acronym.