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 Open​Of​fice​.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 Open​Of​fice​.org Writer