Free Software in the UK
I wanted, on an impulse, to find out about the prominence of Free Software in the UK. Political support for Free Software occasionally makes the headlines, but how much of a presence does it have in everyday IT?
How would anyone try to find out about Free Software? By turning to the internet, of course! So I want to know what they would encounter. I used a well-known search engine to look for Free Software activity in the UK, and this is what I found:
My first search was for "Free Software UK". As you might expect, this turned up many links to Freeware - software available for free, but with none of the freedoms of real Free Software. Top of the list was something called the "UK Free Software Network". This is a provider of internet services that apparently uses its profits to support Free Software - an interesting idea, though it gives the impression of being inactive since 2007.
But beyond this venture, nothing much turns up in the search results. There are some links to old news articles, including this amusing 2006 article. The rest is links to freeware.
I turned in disappointment to another well-known search engine. This did slightly better, producing the site Free Software for Students as well as some news sources. But still, most results led to Freeware.
So I tried searching for "Open Source UK". This was more promising. The search came up with various relevant news items, as well as the following projects:
- the open source academy, an admirable government project that at the time of writing hadn't progressed beyond setting up a default Apache installation
- BBC Open Source
- OSS-watch, an Oxford-based organization for furthering Free Software
- a support site for Free Software in primary and secondary education
- a site for academics that apparently hasn't been updated for 10 years
The divide between "Open Source" and "Free Software" is deceptive here (as it usually is). All the sites use the terms interchangeably, and take care to emphasise the freedom of free software.
Even though there isn't the least bit of rigour behind my approach, there are two salient points. First, anyone searching for "Free Software" in the UK is more likely to find Freeware than Free Software. Second, Free Software appears most prominently in education. Teachers, students, schools or universities are involved in almost all those sites.
Is this satisfactory? It's good that students are being introduced to Free Software. But it's disappointing that the Free Software Foundation doesn't appear in the results. It's disappointing that there isn't a prominent UK site dedicated to explaining Free Software. And it's disappointing that areas outside education - above all businesses - aren't obvious as users of Free Software.