If Rudd wins the Australian federal election next Saturday he'll focus immediately on 5 major policy items, according to an article titled Rudd's winning plan in The Sydney Morning Herald. I want to focus on the 3rd item, and in particular the plan Rudd announced earlier in his campaign about providing every child in highschool with access to their own personal computer at school.
I think every technologist and anyone who is even vaguely interested in our freedom to use technology in the way we see fit, or anyone who is passionate about the technology their kids are using and learning about in school needs to do something to encourage the potentially new Labour government to think seriously about investing in free and open technology.
Software is the heart and soul of the technology we are surrounding ourselves with. iPods, PCs, Media Centre PCs, laptops, handhelds and PDAs, digital cameras, smart phones — all these devices and the services they provide are about the software running them. Free software, which is open by definition, should be looked at seriously for a number of reasons.
- Education - Kevin Rudd wants to be known as the "Education Prime Minister". Free software supports education in a fundamental way, in ways that proprietary software can't. Every part of the system in truly "free" software is open to inspection and modification. The tools supplied on top of the system are as good as or better than any other platform — internet browsers, image manipulation programs, sound editing software, word processors, mathematics tools, graphing tools, programming tools, and the list goes on.
- Freedom and Openness - freedom is considered a basic inalienable right in most modern societies. Free software supports that right unconditionally. The central focus on this as a major tenet of acceptable computer use results in a flow on effect into other areas of technology use in our society. If we are serious about this right it makes sense we would want to teach our kids about it. Using free and open software in the classroom makes the importance of this right implicit.
- Usability and Utility - One laptop per child, the Ubuntu family of Linux distributions and the sheer number of open source programs available on GNU/Linux are all testaments to the increasing usability and utility of the open source platform.
- Community - openness fosters community. Vendor lock in and proprietary software wrapped in NDAs and other red tape does not. The right to use your software as you please, understand how it works and modify it to share with your neighbour results in the sharing and furthering of ideas. No single company owns the rights to an idea or implementation of that idea. Effectively the people using the technology have the freedom to modify or extend the idea. These people using technology for a particular purpose form a community. Free software encourages the formation of such groups and empowers them. The one laptop per child project is a great example of this. Children are able to modify any part of the system on their computers they wish to, and redistribute it to their peers. The potential for adapting software in unforeseeable ways like this is incredibly exciting.
- Cost - the ongoing cost of free software and the support for that software is very competitive compared to vendor supplied software. The reason for this is that free software creates an open market for support. Vendors don't own this service. Any party wanting to offer support for a free software platform can, and can compete against anyone else in this open market. The end result isn't 30 minute wait times on the phone, it's high quality service.
- Security - free software doesn't rely on security through obscurity. Anyone can understand how the technology works, and can point out weak points and suggest or proffer improvements. Security comes to rely on excellent engineering rather than closed source code and lack of information. Linux for example has an excellent track record in security, and in responding to security threats. Other vendors are catching up in that area, but Linux is a shining example of how free and open software works to help improve security rather than diminish it.
- Strategic considerations (e.g. vendor neutral) - Free Software is vendor neutral. By definition, investing in free/open software means investing in and building a flexible software platform. No one is contractually bound to use a particular version of software. Companies can upgrade when they see fit. They have the freedom to move to another platform whenever it suits them.
Investing 1 billion dollars in such a policy plan isn't just about buying thousands of personal computing devices for all students, it's about investing in a technology ecosystem. It's about building wireless networks, high speed internet connectivity, providing good security, building and customising software platforms for schools and classrooms etc. Free and open software has a place at any level in that system. Get writing and start talking!