10 January 2007

Accessible computing

Periodically I write about Free Software (also known as FLOSS or FOSS): this is important in terms of accessibility to all and is closely linked in to openly published standards. From an ethical perspective, an advocacy perspective, and a community perspective I find the free software movement interesting to keep up with and a useful comparison to similar developments in advocacy and society.

I think it's particularly important for people to know a little bit about this at the moment as some worrying as well as some positive changes are taking place which may have a big impact on our use of computers over the coming years.

First of all, let's be bold:

Free software will benefit disabled computer users.
OK at the moment the software isn't up to scratch, but over time free software is likely to be the fastest and most flexible way to respond to the diverse needs of differently disabled people. A more positive (if a bit technical) story is here, but see below why we need to support these developments. I also expect that Linux (the free operating system) in its embedded form running phones, TV decoders and washing machines is also being used for various tools and machines disabled people use.

Free software will benefit the poor.
This is more directly obvious, but it is particularly important if we consider the growing poverty gap and the effect of people not being able to afford computers or the legal software to run on them. Microsoft at the moment is threatening much tougher action against people who copy cds or dvds, download music, or use pirated software. These actions are going to affect a lot of people and cost a lot of money, and it will disbar many poor people who become even more cut off from society. Of course there are projects like the $100 laptop to 'revolutionise the way we educate the world's children', amongst many other benefits.

Free software promotes accessibility.
Despite the fact that it's free, the most important meaning of 'free as in free software' is that it's accessible. For the developer that means you can open it up and see how it works, but it also has other important implications for the rest of us. One important example is the Open Document Format (ODF). This was ratified by the International Standards Organisation as the first international standard for office documents. Many governments and large organisations are transferring to this standard (check the links in my earlier post), and they are transferring largely because of the accessibility features of the software and the opportunities it offers to build effective and appropriate services around them. Other important accessibility developments include systems for archiving and retrieval of information, user involvement and collaboration in the new Web 2.0 (blogs, MySpace, Wikis, photo and file sharing sites, del.icio.us, etc), network and server operation and maintenance, and the posibility of reusing and recycling old hardware more productively amongst others.

Free software is built around a principle of community.
This is very important. Proprietary (non-free) software is owned and marketed for a profit by corporations who primarily want to make money. Most end users of computers just want to get by in life ok, have some fun, avoid too many problems. Quite a few people like to avoid problems by sitting in front of a computer and making themselves busy (or entertained or whatever). After a while you meet others like you and you start to communicate, to work or play together. Out of this has evolved an enormous resource of software and support that is involving more and more people every day. Helping each other out feels good, contributing to something which other people are going to use and appreciate feels good, and many people are able to make a living or at least keep themselves sane by working on free software projects. It is instructive to compare the experiences of these communities to the different sorts of communities we often work with, and they provide some hope (if you're selective).

Free software is the future.
I don't mean that in a grand way, more like I would say that we have to continue as advocates to support disempowered people to speak out and make their lives better... Free software, like advocacy, is something I think it's important to speak out for. It's available now for most of us, and getting easier to use. See the links at the end of this post.


And now the dark side!
Microsoft revolutionised computing with Windows in kind of the same way that Oppenheimer revolutionised war with the atom bomb. Things are certainly different and we have certainly developed a lot, but was it all a good thing in retrospect? I could go on for ages about the history of Microsoft but I won't, just remember the anti-monopoly ruling that was made against them by the European Court (which they pretty much flaunted as far as I can tell, see this Guardian article and just search google for many more examples).

Now Windows Vista is upon us and the situation is getting far worse. I was catching up on a few tech blogs this evening and it looks like there will be some big upsets in store in the near future (you may not even want to run a new computer).

I started on the blog of a moderator for the Ubuntu forums who said there is no escape from Vista, it's going to shake the world. This is complemented by this slightly more readable and comprehensive post which explains it's all about digital rights management (DRM).

Then I was reading various sites about OOXML, Microsoft's competitor standard to Open Document Format, which seems to be designed to confuse people into not using open source while providing a completely inappropriate alternative. Bob Sutor is Vice President, Open Source and Standards, of IBM, a company that has done a lot for open source and revitalised its once flagging business partly as a result. He provides a couple of shocking summary links to information about the impossibility of implementing MS's huge standard and the fact that MS has already released proprietary extensions that will maintain their monopoly.


There's a lot more than that, but the key thing as advocates or nurses or social workers or whoever you are reading my blog is that open source really is accessible and nice, and is destined to become rapidly more so over the next few years.

This is a very interesting time because many IT industry specialists are saying that the free software movement is now a viable alternative to Microsoft based set-ups, and now Microsoft, by releasing Vista in such a controlled and expensive form, could well be shooting themselves in the foot and helping us to move more quickly along the path to freedom and collaboration.

I personally have been using almost entirely free software for almost two years now. I have an old computer (2001) running very happily and playing DVDs much better than Windows ever managed as well as being able to do almost everything else I want. I've also got various other advantages from even my marginal involvement in the community, and I've paid them back in kind here and there.

The following open source software works and is free and easily if you have a broadband connection (and you can get hold of it in other ways if you need to), so make a start soon:

Ubuntu Linux - alternative to Windows, works similarly, community driven and beginner friendly

OpenOffice.org - word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, database, drawing, etc - more than an alternative to MS Office

Firefox - faster, more secure, community-driven web browser
Thunderbird - the email client from the same developers

There are literally thousands of programs, and many more in development. These are the main needs and you can start using some of them straight away - and do check out the Ubuntu Live CD...

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