We all have issues we care very passionately about. For some it's the environment. For some it's free software. For me it's getting the studios to release all episodes of Pinky and the Brain on dvd. Passion often blinds us to the realities of our situation. We become zealots and forget the all-too-human nature of those we're trying to convert.
The problem is that activism doesn't work. Not in the traditional sense. Environmentalists have found this out the hard way. Theoretically, we could all save the environment a lot of damage by recycling, but how many people do? The problem isn't a lack of concern for the environment. It's just that most of those environmentally friendly actions are hard, and not very rewarding. Sure we get a feeling of pride from knowing that our car is more efficient and friendly toward the environment, but that doesn't quite outway the feeling we get from revving our engines.
Activism is the romantic side of fighting for a cause, but it's also the most impractical. The most successful forms of activism aren't what we traditionally think of. Shareholder activism and industrial ecology are two of the most successful varieties. In one, supporters buy stock in a company to sway internal decisions. In the other, activist work with corporations to develop more economical solutions to environmental issues.
McDonalds is a very good example of the latter. Although they were long criticised for their use of containers hostile to the environment, McDonalds continued to use them. It's hard to find a human who actually wants to destroy the environment, and McDonalds wasn't run by a circle of villians intent on destroying the environment. It was run by business men who used the most economical solution. That's where the environmentalists come in. Instead of picketing McDonalds, a group of environmentalists proposed a new container which was not only less expensive, but retained more heat.
I think that free software could learn some lessons from this. Don't fight the system. Subvert the system. The carrot and stick method is old and remarkably effective. Unfortunately, activism calls for the stick more than the carrot. In fact, the stick has been overused; it is effectively broken. Bill Gates and proprietary software have been burned in effigy far too many times. This has the negative effect of destroying the free software movement's credibility. The free software movement, like environmentalism, has often ignored practicality in favor of altruism. Those businesses that listened before are becoming wary.
First, we should be using shareholder activism. We need to establish a non-profit foundation to buy voting shares from proprietary softare companies. Then we can be sure that our opinions are heard on a level playing field. Linux already has gained support from the likes of companies such as IBM, but this is not an equal relationship. IBM sways free software. Free software does not sway IBM. If a company's only consideration is its shareholders then we must become its shareholders.
Secondly, we must be up front and honest with ourselves as to when Linux should not be used. Most of the world uses Windows. It is impractical to ask all others to use Linux, the flagship of free software. Asking a diehard Windows user to use Linux is akin to taking a corporate executive through a commune and crooning to him about how we can all live off the land. He may realise the technical advantages, but he's not going to just chuck the keys to his Suburban. Although he would be more efficient ecologically in a commune, he would be hard pressed to find any personal gain.
Linux is a tremendously powerful server OS. It is infinitely configureable and can be tweaked bit by bit for maximal performance. It can be used as a desktop OS, but that is not what is made for. Furthermore, Windows has millions of apps in contrast to Linux's few. I like linux, but I don't use it on a regular basis. Why? I have Photoshop, Opera, mIRC, and millions of other apps. I like Photoshop, and I want to use it on Windows. I wouldn't even use it on Linux if WINE were capable to the task. I could see no advantage to using it in a foreign GUI under emulation.
Linux will never gain a majority following on the desktop. That's not a wish or a desire; it's just a fact of human nature. There are far too many Windows apps available today. Furthermore, most computer users have worked very hard to gain a certain degree of proficiency on windows. They will only react with hostility if you attempt to forcibly take that away from them. Quite frankly, they shouldn't have to give up Windows. They have earned their ability to use that OS, often with jeers from the technologically elite.
Therefore, Linux is not the solution. Desktop users deserve their old worn-in shoe. It really isn't ever worth debating, because Windows will never fall from the desktop anyways. Anyone who cares to contemplate the sheer size of the the Windows-using population will realise how laughable Linux conquest is. I don't mean this as flamebait. It's just true. So, what does free software do. Take a lesson from industrial ecology. If the mountain won't come to you, infiltrate the mountain.
We must not only give users Windows, but we must give them a better Windows. The world needs a GPLed Windows OS. This is obviously possible. The WINE project is proof that the Windows api can be cloned. Many have come and many have failed. Freedows, Open Windows Project, and Alliance OS are all effectively dead projects. All made fantastic claims, and all failed to back them up.
About a year ago, I happened to find the ReactOS homepage. Here is a group of programmers with the goal of creating a WinNT clone. The thing that suprised me was that this group actually had code, whereas all the above-mentioned projects strutted out white papers about what they were going to do and then faded into oblivion. I downloaded the 0.0.15 source and gave it a try. It crashed marvelously. Occasionally, I would check back to the ReactOS homepage, but there didn't seem to be any activity. Obviously, I thought, another one bit the dust. Thankfully I was wrong.
The ReactOS team still hasn't made a WinNT clone, but they haven't stopped either. The 0.0.17 source was released February 9, 2001. There is no GUI, and it is not even very functional yet, but I'm putting my money on these guys for one reason. They don't shoot off their mouths about what their going to do. They don't print a thousand white pages. They just started coding and they haven't stopped yet. In fact, they seem to be sensitive to the death of other Windows cloning projects and have purposely avoided attention. Before you criticise their work, consider what the Linux kernel looked like at that release number. They've done some hard work. I only hope they will continue.
This is what free source needs. I mention this, because I can't code, but I'm hoping that those of you who can will be inspired to help the ReactOS project. If free source is to survive, we must really make the GPL viral. We must use Microsoft's embrace-and-extend tactics on their very own OS. No more nibbling at the empire. Let's make a direct attack. Together, Linux and a free Windows can form the perfect symbiotic relationship. One for the server, and one for the desktop. Two truly free operating systems.