Just for a sec­ond, put your­self in the shoes of an aver­age PC user. You use the soft­ware that came with your com­put­er, plus per­haps some oth­ers that you down­loaded, bought in a box or ‘bor­rowed’ from a friend. You’ve heard some good things about some­thing called “open source”, but you haven’t the fog­gi­est clue of where to get it or what appli­ca­tions to try. You aren’t a tech­ni­cal per­son, have lim­it­ed time and even less patience. Ulti­mate­ly, you’re look­ing for some­thing that ‘just works’ and is either free (of cost) or clear­ly bet­ter than what you’re using now. Why make the effort oth­er­wise? Hon­est­ly, you’d rather be down at the pub watch­ing the crick­et with your mates.

How would free soft­ware advo­cates best woo such a per­son into their camp? They aren’t going to imme­di­ate­ly repar­ti­tion their hard dri­ve and use GNU/Linux exclu­sive­ly. They would more like­ly be will­ing to try some free soft­ware on their exist­ing OS, pro­vid­ed that the bar­ri­er was suf­fi­cient­ly low. If you’re lucky, that toe-dip will lead to deep­er immer­sion in the world of FOSS, and hope­ful­ly also into some appre­ci­a­tion of the phi­los­o­phy beyond the practical.

If this per­son has a knowl­edge­able friend or pays atten­tion to cer­tain infor­ma­tion sources, they might get some ideas on what soft­ware to use. Appli­ca­tions like Fire­fox and OpenOffice.org are fair­ly pop­u­lar choic­es these days, but what about less pub­li­cised trea­sures like the GIMP or ClamWin? Sure, there are Web sites that let you search for FOSS equiv­a­lents to pro­pri­etary appli­ca­tions, but these still require some effort:

  1. Search for the appli­ca­tion you want.
  2. Go to the Web site for that application.
  3. Find the down­load page and pull it down.
  4. Run the installer.
  5. To unin­stall, use Win­dows’ Add/Remove Pro­grams.

These steps need to be per­formed for each appli­ca­tion you wish to install, so can become tire­some very quickly.

How could we sim­pli­fy this process? What I pro­pose is a soft­ware man­age­ment appli­ca­tion. Let’s for the sake of brevi­ty call it FOSS Pack, named after the clos­est ana­logue I can think of, Google Pack. The process is intend­ed to be as sim­ple as pos­si­ble for the end user:

  1. The user down­loads a sin­gle appli­ca­tion (FOSS Pack) and installs it.
  2. When they launch FOSS Pack, they can select from a menu of cat­e­gorised FOSS appli­ca­tions to install, sim­i­lar to how a GUI pack­age man­ag­er front-end works on (GNU/)Linux.
  3. The user selects the appli­ca­tions they want, and then they are down­loaded and installed in batch.
  4. Unin­stal­la­tion should be as sim­ple as instal­la­tion, all with­in FOSS Pack.

Here’s the killer fea­ture: FOSS Pack should be able to scan the user’s sys­tem for pro­pri­etary appli­ca­tions. These are iden­ti­fied based on an inter­nal list, which also con­tains infor­ma­tion on FOSS alter­na­tives to those appli­ca­tions. Those alter­na­tives are pre­sent­ed for easy down­load and install.

FOSS Pack con­tains descrip­tions of each appli­ca­tion, so the user does­n’t have to vis­it anoth­er Web site to under­stand what they do (although a hyper­link should be pro­vid­ed as well). The option should exist to be able to select only from appli­ca­tions that have Lin­ux ver­sions, as a means of facil­i­tat­ing an OS tran­si­tion. FOSS pack should also be able to auto­mat­i­cal­ly check for updates at reg­u­lar inter­vals, and offer to install them when available.

I’m not expect­ing any of this to be as clean as a real pack­age man­age­ment sys­tem. FOSS Pack will like­ly have to exe­cute the exter­nal installers. Per­haps in the future the appli­ca­tions authors could co-oper­ate with FOSS Pack main­tain­ers to deliv­er a more seam­less experience.

It looks to me that a lot of the pieces to cre­ate FOSS Pack are already there, and as is often the case in the FOSS world all that’s required is to tie them togeth­er in an appro­pri­ate way.

LotD: 30 Things That Are the Same In Microsoft Word and in OpenOffice.org Writer

Packing FOSS / Sridhar Dhanapalan by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.