Fellowship interview with Myriam Schweingruber

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

(Interview by Stian Rødven Eide)

Myriam Schweingruber is a devoted Free Software advocate with a flair for convincing people. Having worked as a translator, a school teacher and a pharmacist, Myriam is quite experienced in the art of communication, and gives a clear impression of trustworthiness. She has been especially active in the Swiss community, and helped found FSFE’s associate organisation, Whilhelm Tux, where she also served as the President. I had a nice chat with Myriam and asked her about some of the projects she’s involved in, as well as her experiences promoting Free Software in Switzerland.

Stian Rødven Eide: Amarok is often praised as one of the best music players, which I assume is one of the reasons you have contributed so much to it. What makes Amarok so special for you?

Myriam Schweingruber
Myriam Schweingruber

Myriam Schweingruber: Oh, there are many aspects: I love this player because it really is the most advanced in its field. Also, there is a vibrant developer community behind it and we all try to know each other more than just over the internet. So if there is an opportunity, we meet, like we did at Akademy 08. Of course, it is Free Software, which adds to its attraction. And the last, but not the least reason; my boyfriend is one of the developers, and I met him through Amarok.

SRE: As was the case with KDE4, a lot of people had high, and sometimes very particular, expectations for Amarok 2. Did you feel any pressure regarding the development of Amarok 2?

Myriam Schweingruber: Of course, there is a lot of pressure, and sometimes the loudest voices are not the most pleasant ones. We clearly communicated that Amarok 2 was not just an evolution of the 1.4.x series, but was a whole new codebase, which takes its time to get as polished as the previous version. But, everyday we have people asking “why can’t I find feature x or y any more? This makes it unusable for me!”, which is almost a joke, because I have been able to use Amarok 2 for almost a year, while it was still in a pre-alpha version, and it has worked really fine. Also, a lot of people think it should look and behave exactly like the previous version, which is simply not possible, and we do not want it to be so. But those who have had a look at the code know it is far better than any previous versions, the code has evolved to something more professional and polished. Of course, Qt 4 was also very helpful to achieve that.

SRE: With so many opinions on how a program should behave, how do you choose which ones to listen to?

Myriam Schweingruber: Well, the first opinions we listen to are our own. Jokes aside, all serious wishes are considered, but the last word is the developers, and if something doesn’t fit in the picture, we don’t do it. To give an example: Some users would like to play videos and burn CDs, etc., but, from our point of view, Amarok is a music player first, and a very good one. We try not to overload it, and want to avoid turning it into some sort of “Jack-of-all-trades”. There is a word in German that coins it well; we do not want Amarok to become a “eierlegende Wollmilchsau“.

SRE: As a pharmacist, you are obviously more familiar with patents than most people, and have been engaged in the fight against software patents. Do you feel that your profession has given weight to your stance against software patents?

Myriam Schweingruber: Curiously no, I don’t think so. People are more astonished to find a pharmacist in an environment considered to be far away from the original playground. What they miss, is that patents can be a problem in more than one field, and the worst problem in the pharma business is the patents which are granted for a too long time. This is especially true for drugs aimed at “emerging” diseases like AIDS or orphan drugs, where the lack of ability to grant more patents turns those vital drugs into something nobody wants to produce, as there is not much money to gain from them any more. But public pressure exists, maybe even more in the pharma business than in the software business, to shorten the patent life in order to make important drugs available for less money. This is good not only for third world countries, but also for the health cost in the first world. The biggest problem I see regarding software is that many people out there still think software patents are necessary, because they stick to old business models. Most of them simply don’t see that software patents are a hindrance for progress, and that there simply is no possibility for innovation if every single thought can be granted a patent. I re-read the Tom-Tom patent thread this morning and almost laughed out loud, though I should probably rather be crying about general software patents like “internet based car devices”.

SRE: Do you see any indications of an overall patent reform in the foreseeable future?

Myriam Schweingruber: Well, if I have understood this right, already, quite a few trivial patents didn’t hold in the USA. This might be the first signs that there is indeed something wrong with the patent system. Maybe even business people wake up and get aware that “big buck” is not everything, and that there are other business models which provide a far more sustainable ground. It’s a bit like the micro credits; everybody laughed at the idea, calling it “trading peanuts one by one”, but the success shows that this is indeed the way to go, especially in emerging economies. And the Nobel Prize confirmed it too. So, who knows, maybe we someday will see a Nobel Prize of Economy for the Free Software business model.

SRE: You have also worked as a school teacher for 18 years. Has this helped you become a better Free Software advocate?

Myriam Schweingruber: Sure, there is a lot of teaching involved when you try to convince people. Of course, one has to be careful, as adults don’t like to “be taught”, and some ideas are difficult to overcome. It’s mostly a “by example” method, where you can show that it does indeed work, but of course, a little bit of teaching still is involved. It’s easier to convince people at fairs, at least most of the time, as they come to learn about us. But we sometimes forget that it’s not only a matter of teaching but also of selling, and I don’t talk about merchandise. Rather it’s about selling an idea, and that is where my experience as a pharmacist in a public pharmacy has helped me a lot; convincing people that my advice is good and will help them. There will always be people who are difficult to convince, but that’s the same in a pharmacy; if we can prove by example that this is the way to go, even the most reluctant will understand one day.

SRE: You were a co-founder of FSFE’s associate organisation, Wilhelm Tux, and have served as its President. Can you tell us a bit about your motivations for starting the organisation and what its primary activities have been.

Myriam Schweingruber: I got involved in my local LUG, the Linuxbourg in Fribourg, and soon became aware that we have to go out of the LUG meetings if we want to convince people of the validity of the Free Software business model. Also, there were a lot of different LUG’s in Switzerland, and most of the members were not necessarily interested in doing political work. So the idea was to create a Swiss-wide group that would gather those Free Software users who wanted to invest some time into political work. I wrote a mail to the various Swiss organisations, and, not really astonishing, the Bernese LUG had the same idea at about the same time, which led to the founding of Wilhelm Tux. Almost immediately after the founding there was a publication on the Swiss Government IT Services’ website from Gartner, which promoted the use of Microsoft software almost exclusively. We wanted to have a more broader point of view to be expressed, and got in touch with the people responsible for this website. This created quite an earthquake like wave in the cosy offices in Bern, as they never expected people like us to react and protest. This lead to quite some publicity for Wilhelm Tux at its very beginning, even if we were only a few active members, and the Swiss Government IT services organised a meeting about “Open Source in Administration”, to which we were invited. This very first meeting opened quite a few eyes, and the government was made aware that there already was Free Software in use, only introduced bottom up by IT admins.

I think the time was right for things to change, even if there is still a lot of work to do in Switzerland. Now, IMHO, as the FSFE has an office in Zurich, instead of continuing to work on two organisations, Wilhelm Tux should collaborate more actively with the FSFE in Switzerland. One of the first projects I got on rails when I was president of Wilhelm Tux was to become an associate member, for obvious reasons.

SRE: While FSFE often focuses on international issues, Wilhelm Tux is inherently a national campaign. In what ways can local activities best complement the work of organisations like the FSFE?

Myriam Schweingruber: I think that the FSFE needs local people to act on local issues, but this can either be an associate organisation or a group of fellows. Maybe an organisation can better be of help where political work is needed, as politicians seem to listen more to organisations than to individuals (unless, perhaps, those are their direct electors). Currently, like many other organisations, Wilhelm Tux lacks manpower for field work, and we are discussing the future. One possibility could be for fellows to get involved in Wilhelm Tux. Another idea that came up was to integrate Wilhelm Tux as a work group into ch-open, the local FOSS business alliance. Personally, I would like to see Wilhelm Tux either remain independent or become the Swiss Fellows “weapon”. I’m not really comfortable having it integrated into a business group, even if they do quite some work in the field. But this is a decision that will be made by the GA of Wilhelm Tux, we (the board) only suggest possible future steps. The main problem with Wilhelm Tux is that all the work is done by the few board members, and there has never been a big group of active members. To be honest, I don’t find much time to be involved either.

SRE: In addition to your work for Wilhelm Tux, you are also the coordinator for the Swiss FSFE Team and have been heavily involved in the Swiss Ubuntu Team. How would you describe Switzerland regarding Free Software adoption and advocacy? Does the multi-lingual nature of the country pose a challenge?

Myriam Schweingruber: Oh yes, it does! A recurrent issue in all Swiss groups I am involved in is the language question. I have always been in favour of English as the “lingua franca”, but this seems to be a problem for others. Unfortunately, as the languages are not evenly distributed, and almost 80% is German, this would end in a German only discussion where all the others would be excluded. So, even if it sometimes is difficult because people don’t feel comfortable or fluent enough in English, I think we have to insist on using English on the nationwide lists.

Another typical Swiss behaviour is non-communication. People tend to act locally, whether in their town or region, but hardly ever communicate to others what they are doing. So it’s very difficult to know what is going on for the rest of Switzerland, and we are often surprised by last minute emails inviting us to meetings to be held the next day. Most of the time we find out after the event, if at all, and the organisers are disappointed about the lack of participation. I think Switzerland still has to learn to behave as a “nation” and do things nationwide. On the other hand, this is also a strength, as you can make people act locally, only we should find a better way of gathering information and publish local events and actions nationwide. It’s certainly not the lack of nationwide structures, there are probably even too many, but how do you coordinate this? Asking people to notify each other is not enough, we need people who gather information too, as the communication tends to die if it’s only onesided.

As you can see, there are quite a few problems to be solved in Switzerland. And regarding Free Software use in administration, there is still a very long way to go. To name but one example: I was in touch with a very dynamic guy in the French speaking part who was all enthusiastic about Free Software, but insisted on sending *.doc files. His reason was that other formats were not widespread enough. Hence, the origin of my signature in mails: “please, do *not* send me proprietary file formats”.

SRE: You have been using Ubuntu since its very first incarnation, Warty Warthog, which was released in 2004. Why do you think it has been so successful in attracting new Free Software users? What do you regard as Ubuntu’s most important strengths and benefits compared to other GNU/Linux distributions?

Myriam Schweingruber: I was a bit unhappy with Debian, as I could not use something without a newer kernel, and there was none, unless I’d switch to the unstable branch. I am used to trying other distributions, and when I was told about Warty I just tried it out and liked it from the beginning. Also, the very few times I tried to get some help from Debian didn’t exactly encourage me to try asking again. At that point, Ubuntu was this new distribution, still based on Debian, but with helpful people who did not tell you RTFM! after your first question. A real pleasure! I always wanted to be more involved with Free Software on the software side, and there it was.

And why do I think it has been so successful? Well, the friendliness on the mailing lists, forums and in IRC, and of course the charisma of its founder, the fixed release cycles (remember how long we waited for Woody?), the Code of Conduct. Certainly all of it makes the whole distribution a success. And it ships KDE 🙂

Our thanks to Myriam for giving us this interview. You can find her blog entries on the Amarok website and on the new Fellowship blog.