Packing FOSS

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 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.

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