Gregory Dawes, of Dunedin, sees the use of ''open source''
as the best way to bridge the deepening digital divide.
The world of technology is changing dramatically. Smartphones
and tablets have transformed the ways we communicate and
connect to the web. There are now serious discussions about
whether the traditional PC - the desktop or laptop computer -
has a future. Even if it has, it will be just one of the many
forms of information technology that will populate our
With this new technology, however, comes a danger. Like
ultra-fast broadband, which will be available to those who
can afford it, it might merely deepen the digital divide, the
gap between those who can pay for the technology and those
who cannot. In particular, these new devices are in danger of
locking people into a proprietary system they are unable to
leave. This will condemn them to a treadmill of software and
hardware updates which many individuals and organisations
will be unable to afford.
Let me illustrate the danger by reference to Apple products.
Apple has become one of the most successful companies in the
world. It has done so not only by offering attractive
devices, but also by building these into a digital ecosystem.
Users of Macbooks, iPhones, and iPads are encouraged to buy
their music from iTunes, to store their data in the iCloud,
and to co-ordinate their activities using the iCalendar. But
while this may seem wonderful, it is difficult to transfer
any of these activities to a non-Apple device. What Apple has
created, in other words, is a ''walled garden'' that is both
beautiful and difficult to leave.
Nor is this unique to Apple. While Microsoft programs could
traditionally been installed on a great variety of machines,
this situation has begun to change. Microsoft is now
producing its own machines and beginning to restrict what can
be done on those devices. They have learned all too well from
Apple's success. Locking people into your system is what
Added to this is the problem of planned obsolescence. It has
become increasingly difficult for owners of older devices to
upgrade to newer versions of their programs. Computers might
still be upgradeable for four or five years after purchase,
but mobile devices (such as the iPhone or iPad) may be
upgradeable for only 18 months or two years. After that, the
only option is to purchase a new device, at least if you want
the latest applications.
The key problem here is the operating system. An operating
system is the software that communicates between your
hardware (the machine itself) and your programs (such as
Microsoft Word). (If you can kick it, it's hardware;
otherwise, it's software.) Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X
are both operating systems. New versions of these operating
systems often make increased demands on their hardware so
that they run sluggishly (if at all) on older machines. What
happens as a result? Users very quickly decide that they need
a new computer.
This may be harmless enough for individuals or organisations
who can afford to finance this rather expensive habit. But
those who cannot will quickly get left behind. At least one
school in Dunedin requires its pupils to have an Apple
Macbook computer. That's fine for the families who can afford
to pay out $1900, perhaps twice during their children's time
at school. But many families cannot. The same is true of the
schools themselves. Schools with wealthy parents can have
wonderful IT facilities. But many of our schools are littered
with old computers that scarcely operate and that they cannot
afford to replace.
Is there an alternative? There most certainly is. My main
home computer is nine years old. It runs beautifully. The
reason it runs so well is that I'm using Linux Mint, which is
an open-source operating system.
What is ''open-source'' software? It consists of programs
that do not come merely as pre-packaged bundles, ready to
install on your machine. They also provide access to the
source-code that was used to write them. Most of us cannot
read or alter that code, but many people can. They are free
to adapt the software, to fix it when it goes wrong, and to
share their solutions with others. In addition to this, most
open-source software is available free of charge. It can even
be given away to friends. In the open-source world, sharing
is not regarded as ''piracy''. It is encouraged.
Why, then, are more of us not using it? Well, most of us
already are, at least when we go on the web. The majority of
websites, including Google and Amazon, use versions of the
Linux operating system. If you use Firefox as a web-browser,
you already have at least one open-source program on your own
computer. But most people use open-source programs on
machines running the Windows or Apple operating systems. Few
of us have broken free from the domination of Apple and
Microsoft. Why is this?
The main reason is that most computers come with Microsoft or
Apple operating systems pre-installed. It takes an effort to
replace them with Linux. It also takes a little effort to
find your way around this new system. Many familiar programs,
such as Word, can be used on Linux, although it takes a
little work. But there are excellent open-source
alternatives, such as LibreOffice, which I am using to write
this column. Once you have become accustomed to open-source
programs, you will be astonished at how well they perform,
often better than their proprietary counterparts.
More importantly, open-source software is our best hope for
bridging, rather than deepening, the digital divide. Our
local Warrington school has led the way, by almost entirely
abandoning proprietary software. They use the Ubuntu Linux
system, which has a version specially designed for
educational use. Wouldn't it be wonderful if other
organisations and individuals were to follow their example?
- Gregory Dawes is an associate professor in the
department of philosophy and religion at the University of