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Chris Mostek [opinions]

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink [free-software] [advocacy] [beginners]

Not long ago, a family member's company discovered their former IT consultant had dealt with them dishonestly. The office had paid him for a number of MS Office licenses, but later found out that only one licensed version been installed on all their systems. Since this was a small business with a limited budget, I suggested they try OpenOffice. But, in the end, they chose to purchase MS Office again.

So I asked, “Why?” The answers were revealing into potential barriers from individuals when recommending FOSS.

Ignorance was the first barrier. There was a general lack of knowledge about the existence of FOSS alternatives. The marketing of proprietary software, especially from the larger companies, is ubiquitous. They have the budget and manpower to push a product at a person. While the small company was aware of the proprietary programs (ie: MS Office, Quicken, etc), the employees and owner had never heard of FOSS or OpenOffice.

By contrast, the many users find a FOSS application through word-of-mouth or an internet search. The free software structure doesn't necessarily lend itself to a structured marketing campaign. But this is changing. The Mozilla community has been a leader in establishing a marketing brand and image. Their use of newspaper and now TV ads has helped developed a brand name. However, I'm not discounting the power of word-of-mouth. There are people who would try an application simply because they trust you. Keep educating people about FOSS.

Another barrier was distribution routes. The company's first question was “Where do I buy the installation CD?”. People are comfortable with the idea of walking into a store and purchasing a brand name. It is what we do with clothes, electronics, toys etc. So there's no real surprise that people shop for software in the same fashion.

Typically, you can't acquire a FOSS program at a store while shopping for other items. Alternative distribution methods include: The OpenCD, WinLibre, emailing someone a download link or personally installing the program. All these options help circumvent this barrier.

License uncertainty was another barrier. Since many users accept software licenses without actually reading the license, I was surprised when the response was “this free software cannot be legal”. There was a real belief that the company would just be pirating a different program. Since licensing issues created the original problem, a sensitivity to licensing was understandable. However, more troubling was the concept that without a monetary exchange using the software was unethical. Despite repeated reassurances, this lingering uncertainty never went away in this situation.

The final barrier, in this specific situation, was employee resistance to change. The business did have a few employees look at OpenOffice. One key employee stated that she didn't want to learn another program and she would work only on MS Office. That statement influenced the other employees and quickly shut down the process. If you run into an individual who is the barrier, an appealing business case to the owner can get the process started again. But small businesses struggle if they lose some key personnel. In this case, the owner didn't want to chance losing this employee. In the big picture, I understand that decision.

However, sometimes you make a recommendation and the fit is obvious to the user. I worked with a different small business that was replacing all their PC's. This company chose to use FOSS productivity applications. They used the money saved to purchase more advanced hardware than originally planned. They were enthusiastic about the opportunities they perceived: free software, free upgrades and spending their limited funds elsewhere.

Every individual and company is different. I try to minimize these barriers as much as possible, but drinking from the watering-hole is ultimately their choice.


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