Easing into Open Source

16 September, 2019

This post is based on a presentation I gave at the Opensource.com Lightning Talks in Raleigh, NC on October 22, 2014.

There are many people out there who are interested in, and even eager to use, open source. Not just for one or two tasks, but for their entire computing experience. But, for a variety of reasons, they aren’t able or willing to make the leap from the closed, proprietary world to a more free and open one.

Even the more resolute ones hesitate. Why? A big part of it is change, which no one really likes. And they might not know a lot about open source.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned that can help you ease people into open source.

Don’t Toss People Into the Deep End

The temptation is there to toss new users into the deep end, and let them let them fend for themselves. That’s how a lot of us learned about open source. We grabbed a live CD or a live USB, or an installation package for an interesting piece of software, and just went to town. We reveled in making mistakes, learning, then repeating the cycle again.

That doesn’t work for everyone. Tossing most people into the deep end doesn’t give them a sense of confidence. Instead, you wind up with a lot of people fussing and whining. A bad experience will turn them away. And that’s not the outcome that we want.

Don’t Preach

Curb the urge to get up on a soapbox and preach the open source way to the masses. It rarely works. Many people don’t care about the Four Freedoms, or the ethical and ideological arguments around using open source. At least, not at first.

If you get up on your soapbox, the people you’re talking to will just glaze over. They’ll ignore you. They’ll walk away.

What do they care about? They care about what open source can do for them. What it can do to help them do what they need to do. It’s a selfish motivation, but a real one. And that’s what you really need to focus on.

Help People Confront Their Fear of Open Source

I’m afraid of open source. I can’t program

Someone actually said that to me. There’s a perception that open source is the domain of the developer, the system administrator, and the techie.

I don’t have deep technical knowledge, but I live my life in open source and run my business on it. I’m sure that goes for some of you reading this post, too.

It’s always useful to remind people that to use open source software they don’t need to know how to code, They don’t need to know how to compile software. They don’t need to know how use the command line or tweak configuration files. But if they want to they can learn.

It’s Not ...

I run into what I call the It’s not syndrome quite a bit. As in It’s not a Mac or It’s not Windows or It’s not Microsoft Office, or It’s not my favourite tool. Saying that implies that open source has less value, less merit, and is less useful than proprietary software.

That syndrome is hard to cure. But there is an answer for that. The answer? So what?

Open source has its merits. It’s useful. It has its strengths. As many, if not more, than proprietary software. Most people can do most (if not all) of their work using open source. They can do it comfortably, quickly, and efficiently.

Don’t Focus on Features

Don’t go into a feature-by-feature comparison of an open source tool and a proprietary one. That list can be long. It can be involved. It speaks to the technology fetishist more than to the average user.

For many people, a feature-by-feature comparison is boring. They don’t care about that kind of minutiae, and it will trigger an It’s not a … response. Instead, teach them. Guide them. Coach them. Focus on what software they use now, the features that they use, and how they use that software and those features.

Show them, for example, how to set up a document in LibreOffice Writer. How to crop an image in The GIMP. How to get photos off their cameras with DigiKam. How to play media with VLC.

Once you’ve done that, ease them into more advance features. You might not need to do that, though.

Open Source Isn’t Free

Remind them that open source does have a price. That price doesn’t have a currency symbol in front of it. It’s a price, though, that many people have a hard time paying.

That price? Time. Time to adapt to something new. Time to build new habits. Time to learn new or different ways of doing things. As I tell my coaching clients, you need to build discipline and habits. Once you do that, you’re on your road to mastery.

Start them off slowly. Take baby steps, not giant leaps. Don’t, for example, show people all the funky ways that they can use (say) Gnumeric. Instead, show them how to use it to set up a simple household expense spreadsheet.

Then, build from there. Cover more advanced topics, if they need that sort of thing. Remember that not everyone is a power user. Many people who sit in front of computers do a small number of specific tasks. Anything else is unneeded overhead to them.

Getting more people using open source, and embracing the ideas and values behind it, is the right thing to do. It’s not easy, but it can be done with very little pain. Who knows: by showing people the open source way, we might get some of them to spread the word.

In the end, that benefits us all.

Scott Nesbitt