Interview : Popey the sailor man

Fighting hard against the forces of evil, Popey the sailor man travels the high seas of software hunting down pirates and cramming copies of the GNU public license down their throats till they bleed FSF.  Well…not really….Alan Pope is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met in the Free Software world.  He’s consistently been advocating free software and working on open source projects for many years now.  I first met him at a HantsLUG group meet about three or four years ago.  Speaking to him both then and online, I’ve always been stunned at how down to earth he is.  It made sense then to grill his brains over a roasting fire for the first ever interview section in GeekDeck.

So, I’ve known you for a good few years now, and I’ve seen you get involved in many projects in the OSS community, but, how did it all start?

Back in the mid nineties I was working in a local college, looking after some of the IT systems, when a student first mentioned Linux to me. I was aware of the concepts of Freeware, Public Domain and Shareware, having bought floppy disks through the post and downloaded software from bulletin boards, but I’d not come across Linux or the GPL. To be honest the guy didn’t sell it well, he told me about some new system that came on a zillion floppy disks and took quite a bit of effort to get up and running. I dismissed this as a silly idea. How things change.

Over the following years I’d seen mention of Linux in computer magazines and even saw books on the subject with CDROMs attached. I think the first distro I tried out was in around 1995 and might have been Red Hat or Caldera which came with a book I bought.

Eventually I started using Red Hat on a server in the garage at home and then moved over to Red Hat Linux on the desktop a little while before Windows XP came out. I don’t remember how, but soon after that I discovered the Hampshire Linux User Group, their mailing list and the IRC channel. I attended a couple of meetings, one at a college and one at a local pub, and as a result made some very good friends whom I still very much value today.

In about 2002 I moved from Red Hat to Debian, and in 2004 from Debian to Ubuntu. I now run Ubuntu on every desktop, laptop and server I own, with one exception being my home firewall which runs ipcop. Since using Ubuntu I’ve been supporting new users, helping to organise and sponsor events and generally help out where I can.

A journey like a few other Linux users I know, and I must admit I hit the “quite a bit of effort to set up” wall.  Do you think Linux has the same selling problems with todays distros?

I think Linux has a legacy with some people that it needs to work hard to shake off. I frequently get people telling me that Linux is hard to install, hard to use, requires intimate command-line expertise, and there are no drivers for it. None of that is true. We all know modern Linux systems ship with more drivers built in than any other productive supported operating system, but getting that message out is difficult when users still find their USB webcam, video card, printer, scanner, wifi dongle or whatever device doesn’t work out of the box with Linux.

“I frequently get people telling me that Linux is hard to install, hard to use…. None of that is true„

I recently bought an HP printer which worked out of the box in Ubuntu. I plugged it all in and turned it on. By the time I’d sat down in front of my PC it had already installed the drivers for the printer, fax and scanner. I was up and running with that printer faster than any other printer on any other platform. That shouldn’t be surprising, it should be normal, the standard, the way things work.

We have seen the proliferation of graphical tools to abstract away the command line on Linux, which makes use of the shell less required. Installers have become ridiculously easy to use, and the desktop managers look and feel as good if not better than any other computer system.

One of the biggest issues I think is peoples resistance to change. We have a hard time selling Linux to people as an alternative because they already have a system which (for the most part) works. People on other platforms have to contend with random application popups telling them they need to download updates, viruses and spyware, intensive system scans and obtrusive system other maintenance tasks which get in the way of using their computer.

Unfortunately most people seem to have accepted this as the norm, as if all computer systems are like this. We can keep telling them this isn’t the case, and with things like Software Freedom Day, LUG meetings and Free CDs we have some of the tools at hand to be able to achieve that. It’s an uphill struggle though, and it will take a long time.

Do you think that open source as a whole has progressed as Linux Distros have?

I’d say more so. Look at the usage of Mozilla Firefox, Audacity and VLC on non-linux platforms. Of course they’re all popular on Linux, but because they’re open source they can be ported to run in other environments and are pretty popular as it goes. Mozilla Firefox probably has a larger browser market share than Linux has of the desktop, so I’d consider that pretty successful.

Then there’s the open source libraries and “under the covers” applications which people don’t see but get used very heavily. Ffmpeg is a good example of this. It’s used in pretty much every video conversion utility you can find.

It seems that Open Souce does better when people don’t shout about it being so.  Many people use FF, VLC and the like without ever known what open source really is.  Do you think this is a secret key to success, or does it bother you that the real root of the “cause” is hidden?

I think most people flat out don’t understand or even care about whether code is open source or not. They just want something that works, works quickly and doesn’t get in the way of what they’re doing. Firefox and VLC are great examples of that.

I do think the term “Open Source” has gained a lot of traction over the last few years, and at least in part that has to do with common applications on Windows. However Linux and Linux based applications are also gaining mind-share too. Maybe the two-pronged ‘attack’ is the way forward. Get new users used to Open Source software on their platform of choice, then the transition to another platform will be smoother.

“I would of course prefer it if I could use entirely free software on my computer today, but I’m not about to bury my laptop in the sand and live in a cave until that day happens.„

I’m quite a pragmatic kind of guy. I use free software on Windows, and I use non-free software on Linux. I tend to use whatever is the best solution for the problem at hand. I’ll continue to use the right proprietary tools for the job until those tools are replaced by suitable open source ones. I would of course prefer it if I could use entirely free software on my computer today, but I’m not about to bury my laptop in the sand and live in a cave until that day happens.

Heheh, I know what you mean there.  Do you think there is anything to be said for the more “purist” attitude, or in fact does it do more harm than good?

There is a place in this world for Richard Stallman (GNU) and Matt Lee (FSF). I happen to agree with some of their politics, but not their approach. Whilst I would like to be able to run purely free software on my computers, the fact is that there is software I need to do my job which is not free and open. Should I change my job, perhaps, but currently the job I have pays for my mortgage and feeds my two children. I could force my entire family to make significant sacrifices to enable me to run only free software on my computers. I’m not about to do that, does that make me a bad person?

Not in my eyes.  I’ve noticed you’ve been quite involved with media in Linux, ie Audio/Video.  Do you think we’re at a stage now where this is supported OOTB, both playing back and editing?

Having not used any “real” audio or video editors on platforms it’s difficult for me to tell if we’re doing better or worse than them to be honest. Having said that, I’ve seen training videos about iMovie and other Mac based video and audio editors and they look pretty slick.

As far as audio editing goes, Audacity and Ardour are fantastic products. The Ubuntu Podcast from the UK Local Community team is edited using those two packages alone, and I think we end up with a pretty good result. We could no doubt do better, but I don’t think that’s down to the tools we use, more the people using them. “PICNIC” as a friend tells me – “Problem In Chair, Not In Computer”.

“I could force my entire family to make significant sacrifices to enable me to run only free software on my computers. I’m not about to do that, does that make me a bad person?„

In the video editing arena it seems we have a plethora of half-finished editors. Rather than have one solid product we have one thats good for grabbing DV from cameras, another that’s good for stitching together video and doing simple effects, and yet another that has a good preview option. Having seen a couple of screencasts about the video editor built into Blender I gave it a go, and I was blown away. Whilst the interface is somewhat obscure in places, once you’re familiar with it, the video editing capabilities are in excess of anything else on Linux that I’ve tried. Take a look at these screencasts and decide for yourself.

I take it by “real” you were meaning commercial/proprietary applications?

No I meant “professional grade”.

Ahh…I see.  What do you see as the next big challenge for Linux to overcome and is there anything us users can do?  Spreading the word springs to mind, which you do with the ubuntu-uk podcast.

I don’t think there’s one single silver bullet for increasing adoption of Linux. I see a three pronged attach, which starts with more OEMs supplying Linux pre-installed on a diverse range of their machines, and providing solid support for those systems. Secondly more software vendors need to embrace Linux as a platform for their products, whether Open Source or not. Already the very largest software vendors including SAP, IBM and Oracle have products that run on Linux, this needs to filter down to other software vendors. Finally hardware vendors need to ensure their devices are compatible with Linux out of the box.

None of them are easy for anyone, and with just one of them we won’t “win”, but with a combination of all three, I think we’ve got a much better chance than without.

Do you think that a greater adoption in the home market will inevitably lead to greater adoption in the business environment?  Does it matter?

Not tremendously, no.

It will certainly raise awareness. I like the idea that people have a diverse set of skills, knowing how to use a Windows PC, OSX or a box running Linux is a bit like being able to ride a bike, drive a manual (stick shift) car or an automatic. It’s a diverse set of skills which can be useful in numerous situations. I’ll let you figure out which one is which.

With Windows usage in the workplace certainly helped adoption in the home. The vast amounts of revenue Microsoft made from corporate customers enabled them to target home users also. Perhaps that’s the approach we should take.

I work in large companies that implement new business systems all the time. These systems have odd interfaces with strange navigation systems and bizarre terminology. What if the change wasn’t in a back-end system, but on the desktop? People would accept it, if it was deemed beneficial for the company, shareholders, customers and employees.

Look at it this way, if you worked for a company as an office clerk, and it was decided to replace Microsoft Windows with Apple OSX on the desktop, you might complain but at the end of the day it would be made to work by those in charge. You would hopefully be given training and coaching on the new platform and you might be less productive initially until you get over the different interface, paradigms and workflow, but you’d get it in the end because you’d be using it every day. People learn, they do change, and they will accept the new way of working, it happens every day in businesses all around the world.

Now replace “Apple OSX” with “Ubuntu Linux”. No difference.

Large companies seem scared of open source, is the support model largely to blame?

I’m not so sure they are scared of open source. They may be scared of change for change sake, where they can’t see an immediate change on their bottom line. The old “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” seems to have morphed into “Nobody ever got fired for buying proprietary software”.

There are huge global multi-billion dollar companies that use free and open source software in their main business systems. These systems are on the back-end and as such are rarely seen by the hundreds of thousands of users.

Fact is if you’re on the internet in any way whatsoever be that browsing, watching videos, sending email or instant messaging, you’re using open source software whether you like it or not. Take away the wealth of openly licensed software such as Apache, BIND, Perl, PHP, Sendmail, Linux & *BSD and countless others and the Internet – and a significant chunk of the worlds businesses – would take a step back to the 1960’s in an instant.

I guess it’s really a matter of knowledge. Many large companies probably run a fair amount of open source software that only gets known about when things go wrong. It’s been a great interview Alan, and GeekDeck thanks you very much for taking the time to respond to the questions. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Just thanks for the chat, and all the best with GeekDeck.

  1. April 17th, 2009
  2. April 17th, 2009

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