Opinion: Should the Gates Foundation support Mac, Linux PCs?

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from the Today @ PC World blog at PCWorld.com.

The Gates Foundation has done a commendable job for the past ten years installing Windows computers in public libraries around the country. These computers have been used by literally millions of people to find jobs, learn new skills, explore the Internet, and improve their computer skills. While the purpose of these donated computers was not to maintain and expand Windows market share, the net effect of this philanthropy has been to do just that.

When it comes time to buy a computer for your home, doesn't it make a lot of sense to buy the same kind of computer you're used to using at the public library? Why buy a computer whose screen layout and operations you're not familiar with? You would be a fool to do otherwise, right?

Which is why the Gates Foundation ought to consider supporting the use of Linux and Apple computers in public libraries for the next ten years. Give the public a fair chance to see what other computer platforms are out there. Let them compare, side by side, their experiences using Windows computers with using Linux and Apple computers. Let public libraries offer free trainings to the public on Linux and Apple computers. Literally thousands of volunteers would love to teach their neighbors how to use Linux--or Apple computers--in a public library setting. These volunteers remain an untapped resource today.

Let me tell you a little story about the imbalance of computer platforms in public libraries. The year was 2005. Fairfax County Public Libraries, in Fairfax, Virginia, started offering free audiobook downloads in Windows Media Audio (WMA) file format. These audiobooks could not be heard on any Linux computer, Macintosh computer, or iPod. Not only were the audiobooks in WMA format, they were under DRM (Digital Rights Management.) So if you happened to be blind and you owned an iPod, you could not listen to these audiobooks. Then again, blind people don't need to listen to audiobooks, right?

I engaged in a friendly dialogue with the folks in the Fairfax County Public Libraries, who insisted that these audio files could play on Macintosh computers. These audio files most decidedly could not play on Macs. I know. I've spent about 20 years of my life earning a living as a Mac trainer and consultant.

Here's the kicker, though. No Macintosh computers existed anywhere in the Fairfax County Public Libraries to let people test whether the audiobook files could play on them. Zero. Not one. The managers of Fairfax County Public Libraries had to take my word for this incompatibility because the Macintosh computer system was entirely foreign to this library system. How big is Fairfax County Public Libraries? Last time I checked, its annual budget was $29 million.

So the question becomes, does that library system value diversity? Not just ethnic and racial and religious diversity. Do they value diversity in operating systems? It's easier not to value diversity. It's tidier and requires less effort and less expense. It's also the wrong path, for many reasons.

Returning to my original question, should the Gates Foundation support the use of Linux and Apple computers in public libraries? From where I sit, the answer is yes. The Gates Foundation should announce today that Gates Foundation funding can be used to purchase Linux and Apple computers.

A long time ago a famous geek named Socrates explained that, "wisdom begins with wonder." The more we wonder, the more human we become. And for wondering to flourish, we must be exposed to a wide variety of thoughts, arts, music, theater, dance – and operating systems.

Interestingly, the human mind becomes stronger the more operating systems it is exposed to. People who use multiple operating systems develop a generalized understanding of computers. They develop a flexibility of thought. They are not locked in to one way of thinking about a computer task. And they develop a nuanced appreciation of the differences between operating systems. I'm predominantly a Mac guy, but there are some Linux features that far surpass anything on the Mac, and I love Linux for those reasons. And my favorite computer program of all time is Camtasia Studio, which for many years could only be used on Windows. (A Mac version was recently released in August, 2009.)

So we must wonder, and we must ask others to wonder--which is what I'm asking you to do today. Sometimes the answers aren't always clear, but we strengthen our minds and our communities by engaging with such questions.

Meanwhile, I'm left to wonder--am I the only person who has been wondering about all of the above? That can't be true. We need more wondering in this world. We sure do.

The author works as the public geek at a public library in the Washington DC-area and is an adjunct professor of education at American University. The views expressed above are his own. He can be reached at philshapiroblogger@gmail.com and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/philshapiro.

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