State of Linux in NZ

This is the content of an interview that I was asked to give by Mark Rais, regarding the state of Linux/OSS in NZ. This information was used in his article “The State of Linux: Substantial Growth in New Zealand”.
I decided to publish this interview on my website, as I’m sure that there are various people who would be interested in it. Anyway, take a read and see what you think…

Mark: The article "The State of Linux in Asia" (that title may change) is focused 
      on how well Linux adoption is going in some Pacific/Asian nations.   
      I am intrigued especially by NZ.  Not only did you have a great conference 
      in Dunedin recently, but ICANN and many other related conferences are being 
      held there this year.

yes, many people in NZ have embraced new technologies and the IT industry in NZ is going very strong.

NZ quickly picks up new technologies, and many companies like Microsoft use NZ to test the market’s acceptance of a new product. Most likely we will be amongst the first countries to roll out Windows Vista installations on a large scale.

A population of 4 million is a good test size. No major loss if it backfires, and big enough to give good stats.

Mark: Can you give me your view of how much OSS [Open Source Software] is impacting business and 
      government in New Zealand?

I’m not an expert in this area, but I would say that OSS is defiantly impacting businesses/government positively.

There are a lot of small businesses that are using it for various projects, and many big businesses are running their infrastructure on Linux or BSD systems.

NZ has many small businesses, and naturally these small startups are very innovative, and try all the new ideas that are around. OSS saves them setup costs, and is very attractive to someone starting almost any kind of business.

An example is the internet kiosks that have recently appeared around Wellington. I recently heard (I can’t say this is correct, word-of-moyth) that it was a project by a small company, that developed a Linux solution, made a prototype and marketed it to Telecom, who rolled these boxes out.

The government is going for it in a big way. IRD (tax department) is currently evaluating switching all their systems to Linux desktops, which is great for NZ. It’s also great for people like me in Wellington where a lot of government departments are based, as it means plenty of job for Linux system admins (like myself).

Novell also recently signed a deal with the NZ government to provide Linux solutions to schools. Novell is in an idea position to provide this, as many schools currently use Novell solutions already, so it’s the next logical step for them to take.

Novell has done a lot of work to get Linux pushed into the mainstream. Once Novell endorses a Linux product, government departments tend to take notice and think “hey, this Linux stuff is being done by Novell. It must be good.”.

IBM is also doing their bit, and naturally their name also helps make Linux more respected and helps push it to the mainstream. And names like Weta Digital are helping to make OSS a house-hold word.

Mark: Do you find there to be a growing interest in OSS and if so, where would 
      you say is the greatest adoption/use occurring?

There is growing interest in OSS in various areas. The biggest has been backroom – servers, network infrastructure, etc, but home and desktop users are growing too.

In the home, many people are taking notice of projects such as OpenOffice, as people realise that they don’t have to pay absurd prices for a word processor.

But companies are beginning to see OSS as a desktop solution, and I predict that this will explode with the release of Windows Vista Companies will have to make a choice between buying expensive new software and hardware, or getting low-cost Linux solutions using the existing hardware, to do the same solution. OSS – It makes sense.

I believe that Ubuntu is doing a great job of getting Linux onto the desktops of home users. It’s simple to install and to get working. Debian is great, but not quite the thing I would give to a new user. Ubuntu has used the great work by the Debian developers, to provide a great desktop experience for all grades of users.

Mark: What barriers or issues have you found exist regarding Linux and OSS use 
      in NZ?

Various people don’t believe that Linux is mainstream or any good. These are often the end users (eg: “Jane The Secretory”) or students, and if you tell them it’s free, they instantly think “free=junk” or “free=pirated”.

Conversion is hard too. The people detailed above are hard to deal with, not for any technical reason, but because they have a certain mind set, and you need to “reprogram” that mindset.

I believe that the best way to deal with the conversion, is to treat it just like an upgrade (eg: from win98 to win2000). It’s not that big a deal. People are less scared by it. Don’t say “new system”, say “improved system”. New is scary. You can’t teach old dog’s new tricks. People just don’t like new much. But “improved”? Improved is good. People think of better features, easier to use, less crashes, etc.

I have heard of many places slowly converting people from proprietary solutions to OSS, by replacing programs one-at-a-time. One day IE is replace with Firefox, and the icon remains the same. Later the icon changes, and then MS Office is replaced with Open Office, etc. Eventually, replacing the OS is just the next step. Nothing scary.

Sometimes people don’t even notice that IE has been replaced. And that’s when it’s great – people are not scared, they just think that their Windows box has been updated or something, and gained new features.

I imagine you could convert most businesses right now to the latest of release of any major Linux distro, and claim that it was Windows Vista. Most users would not be aware that it wasn’t. After all – KDE & GNOME both look great, work great, and many users would think “wow, MS has finally made windows work how it really should. This is like going from a Corolla to a BMW”. You could probably trick them for a very long time, until vista is available on home machines, and someone realises. :-)

The old complaints about Linux being hard to use is long dead. It’s incredibly easy to use, and just as easy, if not more easy to install than Windows. After all, how many home users can actually get a good windows install? At least a Linux install program does everything at once. There are no extra programs to add or extra drivers to install. 99% is part of your distro.

But having said all that, there is no point replacing what isn’t broken. If MS Office is doing everything users need it to do, why change it? Only convert to OSS once it become necessary. Otherwise people will say “it was working, why did you change it?”, and these people will not respect you or the change, thinking that you are stupid for causing problems – and there will always be problems. Unfortunately, you can never not have teething problems. Computers like doing that.

The other problem is people installing modern distros on really old hardware. A modern distro IS NOT designed for old hardware, so the result is that it runs slow and gives users an unpleasant experience. You don’t expect winXP to run on a Pentium pro, don’t expect the latest Mandriva to do so either.

And another problem is people getting introduced to OSS in a bad way. An example is a school I know, which installed Redhat 7.3 on all the machines, when distros like Fedora 2 were being released. The installations were also not done well, and the systems required users to fiddle around with various settings to get it to work on every boot.

Instaid of installing a bootloader, to start the Linux installation the user had to use a floppy disk. Why should they have to do this? Everyone hates floppy disks. Floppies remind them of old “cruddy” computers, that their parents tell them about. On top of that, the Linux systems didn’t allow users to use their windows logons, so they couldn’t access their files, etc. It was terrible!

Students were not impressed with the systems, and basically got the impression that OSS is ancient junk. Which is incorrect. It was like giving someone windows 3.1 and saying that this represents the best that MS has to offer. Sure, it IS windows, but it’s a very, very old, outdated version, and is not suited for the modern environment.

I belive that students are very important in bringing in new ideas and systems. It is very important to impress and familiarize students with OSS. That way they are likely to use it in the work force. If you give them a bad experience with OSS, they will have a bad attitude towards it for a long time.

Microsoft knows this. That’s why they give away millions of dollars of software to schools. Students know Microsoft, they use MS, and most importantly, they buy MS. Brand familiarity.

Mark: Are there any new projects or initiatives you are aware of regarding 
      Linux and OSS?

Apart from the Novell Linux for schools and the IRD’s project, I’m not aware of any major projects/initiatives at the moment.

NZOSS is considering running adult education courses, to help introduce OSS, like OpenOffice to people, which is a great idea. There is also talk of marketing “professional” boxed OpenOffice sets and selling them for $60.

The reason for the $60 cost, is that when you give someone a free CD, many people will instantly dismiss it, and will quite possibly just bin it. Others think that it is pirated software. Your kid’s get free CD’s in cereal boxes. How could anything free be good?

By selling it for a reasonable price, you have a financially cheaper MS Office replacement but it’s still expensive enough to be respected as valuable software. Plus it would help to fund OSS groups.

We will see what happens in NZ. I believe that the next 4/5 years will be very interesting as MS tries to push Vista onto the market. In some ironic twist of fate, MS might prove to be our best ally, by forcing people to start looking for any cheaper and better alternatives. Vista is not going to be an attractive option for people.

After all, what would you like? The solution that requires expensive new hardware or the solution that provides the features, and works on the existing hardware? And is free? You do the math.

Mark: Give me any information you wish regarding LUGS in NZ, especially 
      WellyLUG, of course.  :)

LUGS in NZ are very interesting. Some are very well run, others are not. Wellylug just recently (and kind of still is) having trouble with organisational issues, working out the focus of the group, and how to appease both new users and seasoned gurus.

These sorts of issues are not unique to wellylug. This is happening to various groups, and each one is trying to work out what is the best solution.

There is also an unfortunate lack of communication between LUGS and between LUGS and NZOSS. This is working to be addressed, and hopefully, we will get there. Co-operation is VERY important. Fragmentation is what killed unix vendors. We (NZ Linux/OSS groups) MUST NOT get fragmented over petty issues, and should work together.

Mark: Where do you desire to see more growth regarding Linux use in NZ? 

In schools. Once Linux is in schools, students learn about it, and get to like it. They take it home, and install it on their PCs. They will take it to Uni, and eventually in a couple of years time, we could have OSS users pouring into the workforce.

Younger people are often the ones bringing new ideas into the IT industry, changing the old traditions. MS would get a BIG fright if a large amount of OSS users start pouring into companies around NZ, with bright ideas, and the drive and will to implement them.

I believe that schools are the key. Once in schools, it moves to the home, to the work, and then… it’s everywhere. World domination anyone? ;-)

And MS knows how important the schools are, as I said before. They having been “brainwashing” students for years with the MS brand. Many teenagers don’t realise that there is anything other than MS. Many believe that MS invented the mouse, and some even think that MS owns the internet! And after all, why shouldn’t they?

Bob Jones doesn’t care how a computer works, and is unlikely to research what Operating Systems there are. Instaid, they get continuously bombarded with the MS brand – MS Browsers, MS logo, MS software, MS this, MS that. And that is a form of brainwashing. And it works. And this is scary. Brainwashing only helps one person. The person doing the brainwashing. And I don’t think MS is doing the brainwashing to help anyone but their shareholders.

And after learning MS and knowing nothing but MS, what are you going to buy? And when your company tech mentions this weird “Linux” thing, are you really going to think that it’s actually good? Remember – you’ve never heard of it before. It’s probably just some current fad, let the tech have his fun, simile and nod, etc. You will not see it as a viable alternative.

We (OSS propagators) need to break this brainwashing.

Mark: What would you say is the most used flavor of Linux in NZ right now?

Hard to say. I’d list the following as some of the most popular and widely used at the moment, but I haven’t got any stats to give you:

* Ubuntu
* Suse
* Mandriva
* Knoppix

This is in the desktop market. In the server rooms Debian and RedHat are probably the biggest 2.

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