With leaders like these, Free Software will never win

With leaders like these, Free Software will never win /img/moretti_non_vinceremo_mai.png

Nanni Moretti is an italian film director who caused quite a stir in the italian Left in 2002. During a public congress, and right in front of Center-Left top representatives Francesco Rutelli and Piero Fassino Moretti stepped on the podium as you see in the photograph to shout, among other things, “With leaders like these, the italian Left will never win!" That cry from Moretti came back to my mind last week, reading an interview (italian only) to Stefano Zacchiroli, the current Debian Project Leader.

Here is how that LONG interview begins:

How can software impact on our degrees of freedom?

“Software is free when the user has total control over it. Where this software runs (computers, tablet, phone, TV) does not matter. Freedom means being able to use the software without restrictions, copy it and especially to look how it was made, that is to see the source code and modify it. Every programmer knows how to decipher source code, but when only binary code is available there is little he or she can do. Having the source code means you can change the software and release to the world, as an act of collaboration, the changes you made."

Let’s try to give some examples related to everyday life…

“A typical example is a toaster. Fifty years ago a “geek” could fix a broken toaster… Today, if we take a toaster that runs on proprietary software, we no longer have that freedom.

the interview then proceeds for two screenfuls. All useless, since a debut like will have bored to death three-quarters of readers and convinced them that the whole subject is absolutely irrelevant to them. 99% of humanity does not know how to program and doesn’t give a damn about it. Every time you say “source code” or “license” you lose half of your readers. Everybody needs Free software, but how can you even think of hooking the majority of people starting with “hey, you can look at the source code”? Today, that’s something that needs to be said at the end, if at all. Ordinary people use software (often reluctantly) to do something. They don’t invent things to do just to have an excuse to mess with software, as they’ll think people like Zacchiroli do, after reading that interview.

A further confirmation of this immense mental distance comes from Zacchiroli’s response to this question: Why, despite all these advantages, Free operating systems are struggling to take hold among the majority of users?:

“Today there is no objective reason why a Linux-based operating system should be less popular than one based on Windows or Mac… Usually, what worries people the most is the cost of change."

NO! Today, in Italy, even if you do not mind change, with Linux you cannot do the things that normal people do, like seeing Sky Go on one’s PC, or filing your tax return. You cannnot watch “The Bunga Bunga Dictator” or the SilverLight-based TV shows on the website of RAI (the State-owned TV). Quite likely, you cannot [communicate online with your children’s public school (check the part about SissiWeb of this article). And you cannot open lots of public and private documents necessary for study or business, simply because they were saved in the wrong formats.

Source code my foot! Those are the things you should tell people first, if you want to spread Free Software. And you should do it in a balanced way, mentioning software as such just en passant. You should explain that problems like those above are tales of stupidity and incompetence that waste mountains of public and private money, at levels where it almost doesn’t matter what the license of the involved software is. Let’s help people to fight software-related wastes and proprietary standards, without caring at all if they do not give back to the “Free SW community”! This will create an environment much more conducive to Free Software than we could ever obtain by continuing to repeat ad nauseam the GNU Manifesto.

With “leaders” who speak like that, instead, Free Software will never win.

IMPORTANT: in cause you were wondering, this is not a personal attack on Stephen Zacchiroli! I am only attacking a general way to communicate that, in my opinion, is still too widespread but ineffective, if not counterproductive. The only thing that I think Zacchiroli got wrong in the whole interview is the relevance of “cost of change” as a cause for the low adoption of Linux. I do agree with everything else he said (including the things of which I criticize the relevance, or the mere presence, in an interview for a mainstream newspaper). For example, Zacchiroli is right on spot when he says that “if Free Software was more popular in Italy, many small companies could emerge [but for this to happen] the Government and Public Administrations should be the first to bet on it”. Last but not least, some practical suggestions on how to talk to several groups of people about Free Software are in How to turn into Free Software supporters people who couldn’t care less.