Monday, December 29, 2008

Software as a Subversive Activity, Part 7: Grappling With the Legacy

Grappling With the Legacy: Why Software Reform is Like Healthcare Reform

As we move into the health care debate, we'll hear that yes, single payer would be a better system than the current system based on employers and private insurance companies. Yet the simplicity of single payer appears to be a non-starter, and instead we're going to try to add the one fifth or so of America that's uninsured onto the present unwieldy system.

Thus it is in the open source software world. The barrier to leaving Microsoft World isn't so much the operating system. A casual user, browsing the net, using web mail, maybe playing some music, can switch to Linux world fairly simply. The niche we need to worry about is the typical office environment that defaults to Microsoft just because it's the path of least resistance.

The barrier for business users, and many individuals, is the legacy, and in any sort of bureaucracy, backward compatibility is where innovation goes to die. It's not hard to persuade people that the new system, single payer or Linux, is better. But instead of embracing the new, people fear losing what they have: their present benefits, or the years of customized apps, reports, macros and files they've built up and depend on.

My day job is in a fairly typical, not too techie environment: Government accounting. The kind of place ruled by Microsoft Office and Fear Uncertainty and Doubt, with a centralized IT staff worried about unauthorized screensavers. I only get away with using Firefox because I do the web site and need to check it for cross-browser compatibility. And “do the website” is kind of an overstatement. I'm not a programmer. I'm a writer and a statistician, and my Microsoft Office skill is about intermediate.

I'm also the lowest-level techie, the person who deals with the end users on a “go to the Menu, Edit, Select All, no, up one, no down one, OK that one” level. And on that level I know that the low-low end user struggles with even a version upgrade within Microsoft World. Some of them are never going to be able to mail merge again without help if the menu changes. There's a lot more folks like that than there are hotshots at startups, and these are the people we need to reach.

Because Microsoft lock-in ripples beyond the office. Since learning is a lot of work, it's easier to do it at home the way you learned it at work, which means one more user pays for one more OEM Windows license for a home machine, and one more person starting to get hooked with a legacy of Microsoft files. Sometimes that decision even comes with an official nudge from work, like a low or no interest loan, deducted from payroll or, at schools, tacked onto the tuition bill. But there's conditions attached. To participate, your machine has to be to our IT department's specifications. Linux netbook? No can do. That way, they justify this de facto Microsoft subsidy as “training,” just like corporations are now justifying attempts to fire people for smoking when they're off the clock as “reducing health care costs.” All your lungs are belong to us, all your desktop are belong to us.

I don't think everyday working people are lazy or stupid. Most of us will learn to use the tools we need to do our jobs. But Real People, non-geeks, aren't software ideologues. Computers are not a passion, they're just a tool, a means to an end, be that browsing at home or crunching numbers at work. Change for change's sake, or for the political reason that open source software is a blow against corporatism and for individual liberty, isn't exactly welcomed. The Free As In Beer argument doesn't help persuade people who aren't writing the check, especially if the end result is More Work For Me.

And, as anyone who's been through the double data entry hell of a system conversion can tell you, NOBODY likes to re-do work that they've already done. Instead, the attitude gets a little selfish, like a person with solid gold insurance faced with health care reform: “I like what I have. Can I keep it?”

How to persuade people in this environment? This post, for one. If you're getting here from some link on a Linux site, let me explain: this is primarily a local political blog, of long standing. The local decision makers are regular readers, as are many of the taxpayers, and the decisions are ultimately, on some level, public.

I've never worked in a private sector corporate environment, so I don't know to make the case to the pointy haired bosses. Maybe the bad economy will help, and maybe Microsoft will be its own worst enemy. Let's say you're the IT decision maker. Sales tells you it's not good. You're faced with a capital expense of upgrading old machines that are running XP just fine, because Microsoft is cutting you off and pushing Vista down your throat. You may want to say screw it. Slap Ubuntu and Open Office on those low-low end user machines. They'll be struggling with a transition either way, but with open source you're not out any short-term cash. You can even get a theme for them that'll make it look just like XP, and as long as they can print they'll be happy. If the experiment fails, put the hardware upgrades and the Vista licenses in next year's budget.

But if that experiment works? You've saved money, and several more IT pilot fish have learned that there's more to life than Microsoft, and a couple of them might embrace open source with the zealotry of the converted. And several more low-low end users have gotten comfy, and might be checking out that netbook at the mall. And that, my geeky readers, is a foot in the door.

Next week: I'll take my own medicine and check out my own legacy files.

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