Saturday, May 03, 2008

More on FOSS (aka Muft and Mukt Software) for Schools

Is it just my imagination or is the FOSS movement for schools truly gathering momentum? Anyway, just wanted to share some more on the idea of FOSS and the rationale for its use, especially in schools.

The first is the much-talked about article by Richard M. Stallman ("rms" - the father of the GNU project) - Why schools should exclusively use free software - in which he lists the following reasons (in brief) -
  1. Cost - obviously the first good reason to go with software that is truly "free" (and not "donated" like some proprietary software is which has hidden costs and other strings attached)

  2. "School should teach students ways of life that will benefit society as a whole."

  3. Free software permits students to learn how software works. This is especially useful for older kids, and proprietary software rejects this thirst for knowledge of how things work.

  4. "To teach people to be good citizens and good neighbors—to cooperate with others who need their help. Teaching the students to use free software, and to participate in the free software community, is a hands-on civics lesson."
The second is an argument (in favor of FOSS) that I will borrow from Why Free Software by Nagarjuna of (and the Free Software Foundation of India). I think he explains it really well--
"The argument can be best understood if we focus on what happens when we digitize any document, whether text or other kinds of media. Digitization uses a computing model to write (encode) the data, and when we try to retrieve the data, the computer reads (decodes) it for us in a human readable form. Normally, we expect that the computing model used for encoding and decoding is part of computer science, and so we rely on it.

However, since code is by nature arbitrary, each company can invent (mind you an arbitrary invention is not necessarily an innovation) its own model of digitization and provides a computing service to its customers. The arbitrary computing model they use is protected under the various forms of IPR, and the current Governments not only respect this but also protect and promote the interests of the companies.

Free Software Movement (FSM) identifies this as the root cause of betrayal that happens in the digital society in various forms. The computing model used must be published, just as any scientific or technological models are published for use by the society. More important than providing access, by publication, is the freedom to use the computing model by other agencies. In addition to this, FSM also seeks the freedom to modify the model, as well as the freedom to republish the model either without any restrictions or with the restriction that other users cannot transform them into private property.

Considering that computer science is a strange mix of deep theory as well as sophisticated technology, it is very vital for any society to use this transparently. Else, we will let some agencies become monopolies. This is a serious danger to digital society because, the data that is digitized belongs to you and me, and not to the company. But, in reality today, our data has been handed over to the proprietary companies, since they alone have the license to decode our own documents. This will create a possibility for computer crime, which is happening all around our eyes. We let this happen."
(By the way, I've heard the expression "Muft and Mukt Software" to describe FOSS in India. I love the way it rolls off the tongue - it means Free (Muft) and Open Source (Mukt) Software in Hindi/Urdu.)

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