Slashdot it! Delicious Share on Facebook Tweet! Digg!

The Bubble


Dear Ubuntu User Reader,

I have been in the business of divulging Free Software technologies long enough to have a distorted vision of reality. This distortion makes me reel when somebody says, for example, that they have never even heard of Ubuntu.

It is easy to dismiss the ignorance of the general public when it comes to Free Software as the result of laziness and conformity. But, doesn't the very fact that most people don't have the faintest clue of what Linux, Ubuntu, and GPL licenses are indicate that we, the people supposedly in the know, are failing to get the message across? When one student in a class flunks, it's pretty clear who is to blame. If most students in a class fail, you probably have to look to the teacher.

It recently occurred to me that trying to make laypeople aware of the existence of the Free Software movement, whether through articles, events, or evangelism, is not enough. Perhaps we should also attack the problem from the other side – that is, by helping the Free Software community see what is happening beyond their LUGs, install parties, and tech conferences. With that in mind, I started collecting stories from both inside and outside "the Bubble."

Inside the bubble, software engineers strive to bring a more efficient semantic search to the Linux desktop environment. But, if you ask someone outside the bubble what a "desktop environment" is, they'll probably reply: "The flat part of my table where all the mess is." It's easy to get into a mindset where – when everybody you know is computer- and even Free Software-literate – you think that the whole world is at least as savvy as you.

Inside the bubble, usability experts implement gestures and "hot zones" into their interfaces to make interaction with apps and app switching more efficient. Outside the bubble, there's the elderly lady I saw the other day who, while puzzling over a mouse, turned it belly-up and was really pleased with herself when she managed to move the cursor around the screen by running her finger over the laser sensor. It's not that the general public is deliberately obtuse and worthy only of our scorn as clueless newbies. It's more that, what we take for granted, is not really intuitive at all. We have just forgotten how hard everything was when we started out.

Within the bubble, a new web browser war is brewing. Firefox is gradually losing market share, and Mozilla's mobile operating system doesn't seem to be taking off at all. Google's Chrome, on the other hand, a closed source solution, is on the rise and their own browser- and cloud-based OS is becoming a darling for the low-powered successors of the netbook.

Aside from the fact that most people are not even aware that there was a first browser war, for most folks outside the bubble, the web browser is "the Internet." Period. How can you get across a message about the nuances of open and closed source ethics if users don't even recognize the software in front of them? "Stop polluting the oceans and save a whale!" is a clear message. "Donate to Oxfam and feed hungry children in Darfur!" is a clear message. "Chrome is closed source! Don't use it!"… The which is the what and why?

What should we do? Even better: Is it worth doing anything at all? If you think educating the public is the answer, then surely it would be better if they were more educated in other matters first, say, first aid and CPR. At least that saves lives in a pinch. Less so the key combinations for saving files on Emacs. Or, what about teaching international politics, science, and environmental issues? That would help us make educated decisions in our daily lives that would improve the well-being of our species as a whole. One could even wiggle Free Software into the bigger picture here, as a more environmentally friendly and socially responsible technological option.

"Educating the public" is not the way and comes across as arrogant, especially if you consider that the people within the bubble may be the ignorant ones after all. We are the ones in need of a crash course in communication skills.

For techies, the development of bleeding-edge desktop technologies is great fun and all, but maybe dedicating some time to studying the real needs of the very end users is more important. Organizing conferences and meet-ups for like-minded people is stimulating for programmers and system administrators, but designing events that would appeal to a much larger audience, with engaging activities for laypeople of all ages and interests, not just computer nerds, would probably achieve much wider adoption of Free Software.

On a personal level, listening to the gripes of the people around you – not judging – but getting a feel for the general level of technical competence outside the bubble should prove an eye-opener and give you some clues as to how you can bridge the divide.

What do you think? Do you agree that the Free Software/Open Source community has got its collective head buried in the sand and should do more to understand the wider, non-techie, audience? What should those of us in the bubble do?

Send me your views and reasoning on the matter to

Paul C. Brown,

Editor in Chief

Buy this article as PDF

Express-Checkout as PDF

Pages: 1

Price $0.99
(incl. VAT)

Buy Ubuntu User

Get it on Google Play

US / Canada

Get it on Google Play

UK / Australia

Related content

  • Editorial

    Free software – everyone's a critic.

  • Ow! Ow! OW!


  • My Blue Status Quo
  • Welcome

    I recently wrote a piece for the 2016 Open Source Yearbook . My piece was called "5 Initiatives that pushed the free software envelope in Europe in 2016" (no, there was no subtitle like "Number 3 will make you cry!"). The piece looked at legislation and policies adopted in the public sector in Germany, Brussels (for the whole of the EU), the Netherlands, Russia, and Bulgaria.

  • Welcome

    And I am a developer. I guess. Of sorts. I have written code, especially for articles. Most of the time it was “pedagogical” code, in that I wrote it to teach something, such as how to control external hardware using a web version of Scratch, or how easy it is to write an apps for a given mobile OS. But, even stuff designed for teaching has real-world applications. Thus, the Snap! expansion that I created to be able to access the Raspberry Pi’s GPIOs actually works, as does the implementation of Conway’s Game of Life  for FirefoxOS – which even got into the store.