“What do you mean you can’t Skype?” (lecture by John Sullivan)
In his keynote at the Open World Forum 2013 in Paris, John Sullivan, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation explains why he and every other FSF associate ‘can’t Skype’. What he means is of course that everyone at the FSF could use Skype (or any equivalent proprietary software) but chooses not to.
Sullivan’s message is simple: don’t use Skype. Not because it is made by Microsoft or inferior to free/libre alternatives but because ‘one should not wait until proprietary software abuses its powers to switch to free alternatives’. It is unethical software because it prevents the user from being able to look inside and see for themselves that their freedoms are protected.
The main problem I see is that switching from the very convenient Skype to slightly to considerably more complicated to free/libre alternatives is not as easy for the average user as it is for the audience this keynote was addressed to. Personally for example I really dislike the fact that I have to pollute my otherwise entirely free/libre system with Microsoft’s Skype. But while webcam + voice calls over pidgin work with my IT-friends, it completely unrealistic to ask my parents, siblings and other, less IT-savy friends to do the same.
And in that regard, the Skype problem is a bit stigmatic for the general problem that many free/libre programs are still fairly hard to use for the average user. Thankfully, the FSF is aware of this fact and, according to Sullivan, has made the creation of an easy to use, free/libre (and secure) alternative to Skype one of its current high priority projects.
By doing so, the FSF is taking the first step in the right direction from the software-production dimension of the problem. What remains, however, are the decisive deficiencies in IT-literacy on the user-dimension. Were people generally more IT-savy, installing Jitsi, Pidgin, or other free/libre alternatives would not be such a challenge. Clearly the 30+ generation can not be blamed for this as this technology is still rather new. But for anyone under the age of 25, our collective education system is at fault. Even though they are the ‘digital native’ generation, too little schools (again, parents can’t really be blamed here) provide the education needed to teach them to engage with digital technology in a critical, cautious way. Consequently they are used to, and dependant on simplicity and digital empowerment out of reach.
If we want the free/libre software movement to succeed, both the software-production and the user dimension have to converge. The software has to become a little easier to use and the users have to become a little more sophisticated.