Spontaneous outbursts can reveal much about group behavior.
Advocates of open source showed such a moment on the first day of the
Ottawa Linux Symposium, about which I recently
at length. But the incident I am thinking of was recorded for history
Newsforge article by David “cdlu” Graham:
He [Doug Fisher] wrapped up his presentation to the usual polite
applause and closed his slide show to reveal the message “Windows XP
has locked your desktop,” resulting in the single loudest and most
sustained booing by nearly everyone present I have ever heard,
followed by a member of the audience rushing to the front brandishing
a Linux installation CD to widespread applause.
I was present for this incident, and vouch that the noise and emotion
released was extraordinary. Wow! I felt like I was in the middle of a
scene from some Hollywood epic where the soldiers raise their spears
and roar their defiance to the enemy.
Graham makes a subtle but valuable comment on the incident while
describing the next speaker:
His laptop, in contrast to Fisher’s, ran Linux, but perhaps
demonstrated why Fisher’s didn’t. After a lengthy battle with X to
have an appropriate resolution for the overhead projector, he launched
his presentation entitled “How to talk to business people about the
value of open source,” which sparked the comment of an audience member
sitting near me: “not like this.”
So why was this audience of 800 hard-core Linux developers and
adopters so intolerant of a speaker who uses a Window platform? What
is the deep well from which such emotion comes?
They have legitimate anger, of course, at Microsoft’s illegal
anticompetitive behavior, which has been well established in several
courts, and the company’s continuing hounding of Linux by pressuring
governments, funding SCO, and spreading biased reports. The attendees
also have the same kind of familiar team spirit that breaks out
(sometimes quite violently) when different sports fans come together.
But that does not add up, in my view, to the display of anger I saw
that evening. Another ingredient needs to be added: insecurity.
Linux developers and users are aware that what they put together is
not yet convenient to install or easy to use. They resent Windows not
only because it has a dominating position, but because that position
is maintained by something more organic than the vaguaries of
computing history or corporate behavior. Microsoft (on the desktop, in
particular) awaits an open source challenge, and that challenge is not
yet strong enough.
I have prepared some fairly detailed slide presentations, trying out
Microsoft’s PowerPoint, OpenOffice.org’s Presenter, and KDE’s
KPresenter for that purpose. Presentation suites are either very hard
to develop or are the perennially neglected stepchildren of the office
suite, because I found all three products embarrassingly buggy.
PowerPoint bears the most shame because it’s been around the longest
and Microsoft promotes it as a professional tool worth a lot of money.
Still, if Doug Fisher has spent a career developing presentations with
PowerPoint, why is it a sin for him to use it for one more
presentation? It would certainly have been a smart move to feel out
the mood of his audience beforehand and to take the time to set up
Linux and a free software office suite. But if the Linux and open
source crowd felt more secure in the superiority of their product, his
gaffe would have been greeted with just a few snorts and giggles.
I see too much of this moralistic hypersensitivity among people whose
goals I respect. Environmentalists are telling us to replace our light
bulbs, take public transportation, and recycle everything we can–yes,
all wonderful goals. But some environmentalists also realize that
individual behavior change cannot be achieved on a mass scale through
moralizing; new technologies and institutional strategies must drive
The same goes for personal life choices, which contribute to the
health care crisis. It would be great for everybody to cut down on
tobacco, trans fats, chemical household products, and epic Hollywood
movies, but lecturing does little to help.
You can apply this principle even to nationalistic and religiously
close-minded political stances. These are tearing the world apart, but
we can’t get anywhere by telling people just to throw away their
commitments to these beliefs and to embrace a neutral, diverse
world. Those attempting change have to realize that people have
reasons for holding on to their stances.
Getting back to open source: the way forward is to build something so
great it compels everyone to use it, and to move institutions
(ironically, the topic of the second presentation that evening at
Ottawa Linux Symposium) to positions where they can make the switch.
The really great aspect of the Ottawa Linux Symposium is that its
attitude overall is in diametric opposition to the defensiveness
displayed toward the Windows-wielding presenter. The Linux developers
and their communities could easily waste time wallowing in excuses
such as “Vendors don’t give us their specs” or “Implementations don’t
conform to standards.” But they don’t do this. They say, “What can we
do to make this work?” And that’s the path to success.