Back in September, LWN ran an
article about the FUSS project
, which converted the entire computing
infrastructure for the Italian-speaking schools of Bolzano, Italy to Linux. When that
article was written, the FUSS staff had completed a major push to install
its own Debian-based distribution on over 2600 systems, but the true test -
the beginning of the school year - was still in the future. Now that the
new system has supported a few months of teaching, it seems like a good
time to go back and see how things went. Is Linux truly up to the task of
running a school system?
The FUSS organizers helpfully connected us with several teachers in the
affected schools. These people, in turn, graciously took time
out of their busy schedules to answer a long list of questions - and they
didn't even complain about your editor's difficult Italian. The answers
paint a picture of a not-entirely-smooth transition, but, in the end, the
system appears to be coming together. More importantly, the new system,
based on free software, would appear to have the strong support of the
people who must make use of it to get their jobs done.
School teachers everywhere tend to be busy people who are dedicated to
their work. So your editor did not expect to hear them praise the way free
software may have saved money for their central IT department or to talk
about the ethical aspects of free software. It seemed more likely that
these teachers would grumble about extra work, having to learn an
unfamiliar system, and the glitches which are inevitable with a transition
of this size. This expectation turned out to be only half correct.
There were indeed some complaints. Printing was at the top of
everybody's list; "cups" is indeed a four-letter word in Bolzano at the
moment. One teacher described its administration tools as "delirious."
Other peripheral devices - scanners, for example - were also problematic.
It's not just that there were problems, but that these problems often
required the intervention of the central FUSS staff (who received credit
for much hard work) to resolve. Many of the teachers do not see a
Linux-based network as something they can administer themselves. As one
middle school teacher expressed it:
The FUSS group has done a truly excellent job, they have been well
prepared and quick to come to the school to resolve problems, but
this is insufficient in the long term. The schools need somebody
who works just to keep the system running. If this work gets
dumped onto a teacher (who may lack, as in my case, a technical
background) the system will never work correctly.
(All quotes translated from Italian by your editor).
By most accounts, the key software - OpenOffice in particular - is working
well for both students and teachers. The big exception is documents with
macros; those macros must be rewritten to work on the new system.
When asked what they would most like to see improved, most teachers talked
about printers and related issues. There were also requests for better
ease of use in general, and an interface closer to Windows in particular.
A couple of teachers noted the relative scarcity of documentation in
Italian, and one complained that Linux was bloated and slow.
In the end, though, the transition appears to have been successful, and
most of the
teachers seem happy enough. Not one said that the schools should
go back to the previous, proprietary systems. And these teachers - some of
them at least - are beginning to see the advantages of free software.
Here's a few quotes from various teachers:
Naturally some things still need to be fixed, but we maintain that
the change is important at both technical and cultural levels. The
benefits are not just the savings, but the fact that it opens a way
of access to technology which is more honest and aware.
The biggest advantage is the fact that it is free (libero)
software. This has drawn a fair amount of interest from the
parents of our students. I teach in a middle school and our kids
are between 11 and 14 years old. They still don't really
understand what free software means, but their parents do.
I maintain that it's natural and obvious that the schools, as an
institution, should use free software. The sharing of knowledge,
the freedom of access to information, etc. should be at the base of
any instructional process. It seems to me that the philosophy of
free software rests on the same principles.
The fact that you're not tied to licensing problems lets you move
with a certain confidence; you're forever inspired to look for
something which works better, which is closer to your needs. It's
a great and beautiful thing.
Of course, not everybody is quite so pleased. As one instructor put it:
For a teacher there is no advantage [to Linux]; just problems using
documents produced with other software and only partially
recognized by free software (example: Excel and Word macros, which
I use heavily in my teaching work, must be reconstructed).
How do the students feel about it? As we know, children tend to be more
flexible, and, as a rule, they have smaller investments in old Word
macros. So they seem to have taken the change in stride. Some amusement
can be found in this
article (in Italian); one school opened up a forum where 9-year-olds
could post their impressions of the new systems. Here's a few:
Linux is cool it has programs which Windows doesn't have like
educational games...and it's also FREE (GRATIS
The names are changed and with Linux I have done well and there
have been some differences. And with Linux the CD's are free
(gratuiti). When is my CD arriving?
There's more things than we had last year. With Linux the programs
are free (liberi).
Changing the names of the programs gave me some trouble at the
beginning but now I'm starting to get used to it. The programs are
much better; there were good things in Paint but more good things
in tuxpaint! With regard to payments the fact that you don't have
to pay is beautiful. And being able to download it at home for
free is even more beautiful!
I think Linux is better than Ms Window because Linux is free
(gratuito) and it turns us into a community.
The theme should be clear by now.
As can be seen from these comments, the students are not yet, in
general, ready to think about where free software comes from and why it
exists. Don't expect any patches from the students in Bolzano in the near
One of the goals of the Linux transition was to give each student a CD with
the software; that way, they could use the same tools at home and at the
school. At this point, however, it seems that, while some students are
using free software at home, most of them have not made that change. Part
of the problem here is that the promised live CD distribution has not yet
been made available. This CD is evidently ready to go, it's just waiting
for the obligatory launch press conference with the education minister.
Once this CD goes out (which could happen within a week), there may be more
students using Linux at home.
Another obvious question which comes up is: will other school systems
follow the FUSS project's example? Bolzano has two parallel school
systems: the Italian-speaking schools (which moved to Linux) and the
German-speaking schools (which did not). If any group of schools were
likely to be inspired by FUSS, one might expect it to be the
German-language schools of Bolzano. Views on whether that might happen
soon were varied, but a number of teachers noted that there is some free
software use in those schools now, and that the German-language schools
were certainly watching to see how things go. Most teachers seem to expect
that change to happen sooner or later.
Finally, your editor asked the teachers if there were anything they would
like to communicate to the free software development community as a whole.
The answers ranged from the short and simple ("Documentation, people,
documentation!") to the lengthy, but most shared the same theme. Thanks
for the work that you do, please continue and make it even better and
easier to use. Oh,
and, if you could, make the printers work please?
Comments (45 posted)
One almost has to pity the crowd of mainstream technical journalists who
clearly follow the linux-kernel mailing list with the hope of obtaining a
good Linus Torvalds quote to write an article around. Working through 300
incomprehensible messages every day is a serious chore - trust your editor
on this. But those reporters found their prize last week, when Linus let it be known
that he was not
much interested in adopting version 3 of the GPL for the kernel. A
quick search on Google News turns up dozens of resulting articles, mostly
with headlines like "No GPLv3 for Linux." That may well be how things turn
out, but there's a few things which should be taken into account when
making predictions about the future of Linux.
One of those is that there will be no GPLv3 at all for another year. What is
being circulated is a draft, and, if the Free Software Foundation is
responsive to comments at all, there are likely to be changes. There is
little point in debating the adoption of a license which does not exist,
which is why most kernel developers have stayed out of the current
discussion. While a certain ZDNet columnist engaged in a humorous
exercise in wishful thinking:
More infighting among the Linux stalwarts and the formation of
polarized factions will turn the Linux community into open source
software version of the Mideast - lots of talk, posturing, and
The simple fact is that most developers are taking a quiet "wait and see"
approach for now. And, now or later, there seems to be little appetite for
a big licensing fight.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Linus can change his mind, even after
seemingly painting himself into a corner with an absolute statement. One
of your editor's favorite Linus pronouncements was issued almost exactly
seven years ago. In response to a query on how to set up an i386 box with
4GB of memory, Linus stated:
Oh, the answer is very simple: it's not going to happen.
You need more that 32 bits of address space to handle that kind of
memory. This is not something I'm going to discuss further... This
is not negotiable.
Less than one year later, Ingo Molnar's high memory
patch was merged for 2.3.23. The lesson is clear: even when Linus says
"never," the right argument can change his mind. And, in fact, Linus has
left the door open to just that
Quite frankly, _if_ we ever change to GPLv3, it's going to be because
somebody convinces me and other copyright holders to add the "or
any later license" to all files, just because v3 really is so much
better. It doesn't seem likely, but hey, if somebody shows that the
GPLv2 is unconstitutional (hah!), maybe something like that happens.
So I'm not _entirely_ dismissing an upgrade, but quite frankly, to
upgrade would be a huge issue. Not just I, but others that have
worked on Linux over the last five to ten years would have to agree
The door may not be open very far, but neither is it barred shut.
Then, there's the fact that, as Linus points out, it is not just his
decision. Much code in the kernel is explicitly licensed with the FSF's
recommended "or any later version" language; that code will be
distributable (separately from the kernel) under the GPLv3 in any case.
Relicensing the GPLv2-only code, however, would require the assent of every
developer who holds copyrights on that code. Given that copyrights in the
kernel are widely distributed and tracked by nobody, obtaining that
permission would be a significant challenge.
Or would it? Linus added the explicit GPLv2 language for the
2.4.0-test8 release. Another significant kernel contributor (Alan Cox)
is unconvinced that this language will get
in the way:
It isn't clear that this will be a problem. Very few people
specifically put their code v2 only, and Linus edit of the top
copying file was not done with permission of other copyright
holders anyway so really only affects his code if it is valid at
If this view prevails, the number of copyright holders who would have to
agree to a relicensing would be much reduced, and the problem might just
The relicensing discussion is premature now, and it can be expected to fade
away. But it will certainly come
back. The anti-DRM provisions found in GPLv3 resonate strongly with many
developers, and, to many of those, said provisions only clarify a
requirement which, they believe, is already present in GPLv2. To these
developers, locking Linux into a DRM-equipped machine takes away the
freedom that the GPL promised in the first place and is an abuse of the
software they have contributed to the world. The opportunity to end that
abuse with a license change will be appealing; expect to see developers
pushing for that change after the license becomes official.
Linus, however, has made it clear
in the past that locking down systems with signed kernels is just fine
with him. He reiterated that point
I believe that hardware that limits what their users can do will
die just because being user-unfriendly is not a way to do
successful business. Yes, I'm a damned blue-eyed optimist, but I'd
rather be blue-eyed than consider all uses of security technology
to necessarily always be bad.
So blue-eyed Linus is unlikely to agree to a license change on the basis of the
anti-DRM provisions. But it is possible that other factors could
eventually bring about a change of heart (and license). For example, many
of the changes in GPLv3 are motivated by the requirements of legal systems
in various parts of the world; if GPLv2 turns out to be hard (or
impossible) to enforce somewhere, a shift to GPLv3 could become more
appealing. Such a change,
however, cannot occur before the license moves out of the comment period and
is adopted officially by the FSF. Until then, any predictions on whether
the kernel will ever shift to the GPLv3 should be taken with a grain of salt.
Comments (15 posted)
Last week's Rockbox review
was reasonably well received. Since then, however, a couple of things have
happened - one good, one less so - which make an update in order.
Starting with the good news: the iPod port can now produce audio on the
iPod Nano and 4G Color/Photo models. That means that there is now a
totally free (if still a bit bleeding edge) firmware offering for this
otherwise proprietary, DRM-equipped player. iPods running Rockbox will
have all of the features described last week, including a much wider
variety of codecs. The iPod Rockbox hackers have put a lot of work into
this port, and congratulations are in order.
Support for a full-color "while playing screen" has also been merged since
last week - a development which should reduce the number of people
complaining that the Rockbox interface is ugly.
The bad news relates to the voice menu support which makes Rockbox so
appealing to blind users (and some others as well). The best set of voices
provided for Rockbox, by many accounts, was generated with a copy of ATT
Natural Voices. Recently, the Rockbox developers got a friendly little
cease and desist notice from the folks at Wizzard Software, the company
which distributes that product in the U.S. By distributing the output from
this program, says Wizzard, Rockbox was violating the end user agreement
for the software.
So the ATT voices were pulled from the web site while the EULA was
examined; further research seems to bear out Wizzard's claim. The
licensing for that software is set up to require extra royalties if any
voice output is redistributed or used in a product. So that set of voices
is likely to be gone forever, and the developers are looking for
Some efforts are afoot to generate a set of voice files the
old-fashioned way - by recording an actual human and editing the result.
Sort of like Tom Baker making
voice files for British Telecom. That is a labor-intensive way of
solving the problem, however, and keeping the voice files current in such a
fast-moving project involves quite a bit more labor. So an automated means
for generating high-quality voice files would be a welcome contribution to
the project. Perhaps a Festival expert
would like to help them out?
Comments (13 posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
Inside this week's LWN.net Weekly Edition
- Security: Looking forward to Kama Sutra; New vulnerabilities in drupal, gallery, lsh, mydns, thunderbird, ...
- Kernel: Network channels; Fast counters; Software suspend image writing.
- Distributions: What's New in SUSE Linux 10.1; NexentaOS Alpha 2; SUSE Linux 10.1 Beta2; OpenWrt review
- Development: The Sylpheed-Claws Email Client, Inkscape changes coming,
new versions of Firebird, Nmap, Ecasound, Rivendell, Sweep, Robowerk,
liblo, SeaMonkey, tcluno, GPE, GNU CLISP, SBCL.
- Press: GPL3 and anti-DRM, No GPL 3 for Linux, Novell survey for linux apps,
MS forces office upgrades, functional programming, Gentium font,
SSH as an IETF standard.
- Announcements: Nokia to release Python for S60, New Berkeley DB Java, EFF wants
to overturn patent ruling, iPods for Senators, Google Cache is Fair Use,
OO.o Developer Article Contest, LISA CFP, 2006 USENIX, SpreadKDE.org.