For Ken Starks, founder and director of the HeliOS Project, Linux isn't just an operating system. It's a religion. So when an Austin Independent School District middle school teacher e-mailed Starks, threatening him with legal action for distributing the open-source software, his natural response was the kind of righteous indignation one would expect from an earnest zealot.
It all started when a student passed out Linux disks in class. The disks were provided by HeliOS, a nonprofit that donates computers and open-source software to disadvantaged children. The teacher, whom Starks will only identify as Karen, confiscated the disks. Apparently having never heard of open-source software, she believed them to be illegal, and she wrote a strongly worded e-mail to Starks expressing her concern: "I am sure you strongly believe in what you are doing but I cannot either support your efforts or allow them to happen in my classroom. At this point, I am not sure what you are doing is legal. No software is free and spreading that misconception is harmful."
Starks posted Karen's e-mail, along with his own angry response, to his blog. The blog entry found its way through the information superhighway to the tech website Slashdot.com, where it then reverberated throughout the blogosphere, generating a firestorm of outrage from concerned tech geeks around the world. Within a day of the post, Starks had received calls from the Netherlands, Croatia, South Africa, and Russia, many calling for Karen's head. Starks' blog, which he says is normally read by about a dozen people, was suddenly flooded with nearly 800 comments from incensed Linux users, some angered to the point of violence – one post said Karen should be stabbed in the face with an ice pick.
After the post, Karen contacted Starks, and the two made amends. Starks apologized on his blog for attacking her personally and subjecting her to the venom of the international open-source community. He has since gone to Karen's house and installed Linux on her computers, at her request. She was curious, he said, about what could drive people to hate her so much, and he expressed regrets about the ordeal: "If that teacher had filled in the blanks a little bit more, this whole thing could have been avoided," he said. "This thing just got way out of hand." But, he said, it was ultimately a learning experience for all involved.
Starks had previously thought Austin ISD to be hostile to open-source software, citing a past incident where a school principal had approached an AISD software tech about installing Linux and was told that it would be illegal to remove Windows. As a result of the Linux flap with Karen, Starks was surprised to learn that open-source software is widely used throughout the district, and while the district uses Windows on 24,000 of its 36,000 computers, it uses Linux for many of its servers and open-source applications, such as Open Office, whenever possible.
When asked about the possibility of dumping Windows in favor of Linux, AISD technology director Gray Salada said that in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, it simply isn't worth it. Windows comes preinstalled on most computers, he said, so there is little savings to be realized from removing it and incurring the costs of retraining teachers and the district's 12 engineers, who are already proficient in Windows, to support Linux.
Always the loyalist, Starks counters that in the long run, Linux still saves money: "What happens when they have to update their computers? They're going to have to upgrade sooner or later, and they're going to pay through the neck." Also, he added that the price of Microsoft, which ranges from $50 to $100, is bundled in with the cost of PCs, which he refers to as the "Microsoft tax." One of the advantages of Linux, according to Starks' website, is that upgrades are free, and they're available as soon as they're ready.
Salada said that the district is keeping close watch for developments in open-source software and ways it can be used to cut costs, but for the immediate future, district computers will continue to run Windows and Mac OS. "Maybe when things move to more browser-based applications where a student or teacher can just open up the program without knowing the operating system [we can start using Linux]. But we're just not there yet."
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