The Free Software Foundation: New Home Page, New Directions

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 27, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Ordinarily, a change in website design doesn't rate a mention these days. However, the recent change in the Free Software Foundation's (FSF) home page is an exception. It marks not just a change in aesthetics, but of organizational direction as well. Instead of being directed at the free software community, the site is now intended as an introduction to free software and the social and political issues that surround it.

Go to the site, and the change is immediately obvious. A few weeks ago, the FSF home page was a typical minimalist site, of the sort that content management solutions generate by the millions.

Now, it looks more like a a commerce site for web hosting or a travel agency, with colored-coded boxes that attempt to reduce free software issues to a headline or bullet points.

For instance, the one at the top left proclaims: "you deserve to use free software that is free from restriction, free to share and copy, free to learn and adapt, free to work with others. you deserve free software." (I'm preserving the letter case in the original, so no capital letters)

Next to it is a bright red box that asks, "New to free software? get started!" Below, a darker red box invites viewers to "meet the free software gang" -- which turns out not to be a series of biographies of people who work for the FSF, as I first assumed, but a list of major projects.

Other boxes are slogans, such as "FREE SOFTWARE FOR FREE SYSTEMS." One is a request to "SUPPORT FREEDOM" by donating ten dollars a month. Still another simply refers to LibrePlanet, the FSF's new effort to organize local grassroot support groups.

Then, just in case the wording on the boxes isn't clear, each one links to another page that gives more detail. Also on the right of the home page, a sidebar entitled, "WHAT WE DO" gives a more general overview of the FSF.

Only the menu bar at the top provides access to the FSF site for non-beginners.

Extending outreach

If you have been following the FSF's direction over the last few years, this change in website audiences is really the latest attempt by the foundation to expand its relevance -- an effort that I attribute largely to executive director Peter Brown, who has a social activist background.

Over the last five years, Brown and the FSF have tried a variety of tactics for spreading the free software message. They have tried to connect with the mainstream media. They have tried to get political parties and social action groups to make free software part of their agenda. They have started campaigns about issues that concern general computer users, such as Digital Rights Management.

All these efforts have had some successes. Unfortunately, none have made the general public much more aware of free software and related issues than they have before.

In fact, much of this effort has gone unnoticed or been dismissed in the FSF's existing constituency -- so much so that even a veteran observer like my former colleague Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier not only dismissed the campaigns as "negative" but urged the FSF to find "alternatives" as though the Foundation had not been trying to do exactly that. From such evidence, I think I can safely say that these efforts have not had the effect that the FSF hoped.

Now, Brown tells me, the FSF's efforts are being focused on LibrePlanet. Although the name is currently associated largely with the FSF's annual meetings each spring, the name is now being associated with the effort to create and unite local groups of free software supporters.

"Our purpose is going to be more about getting people to adopt to free software," Brown says. With a growing list of completely free software distributions (http://www.gnu.org/distros/free-distros.html) and the new focus on LibrePlanet, "We finally have the pieces in place for serious advocacy. That hasn't always been the case."

With this change of direction the change in home pages was a basic necessity. If more people with little knowledge are coming to the home page -- many with only a casual interest -- then its purpose must be to educate them as quickly as possibly, and to point out the available resources.

By contrast, the home page for the GNU Project site (http://www.gnu.org/) has undergone a minor face lift, resulting in more introductory material and a toned-down version of the FSF home page. However, the GNU home page is clearly aimed at attracting new developers -- or at least people with more technical knowledge. This difference between the two sites has been growing for several years, but now, with the change in the FSF home page, it has become more obvious than ever.

Does it work?

At first, the FSF's new home page seems garish and chaotic. With its assortment of colors and letter cases, you might be tempted to dismiss it as a middle-aged person's misguided idea of what might appeal to twenty somethings (but almost certainly won't).

However, that might be a hasty judgment, colored by the expectation of a typical CMS site. While I think some of the headlines could stand some tweaking -- for example, the LibrePlanet link might explain what it is -- on the whole the front page is surprisingly successful at summarizing free software in less than a hundred words. In fact, I can't think of anywhere it has been bettered.

Moreover, the combination of summaries linked to more substantial essays seems a balanced choice. Those who are mildly curious still have a chance of going away with a smattering of information about free software, while those who are intrigued can immediately move along to more detailed information.

So will the new page succeed at bringing free software to a wide audience's attention? At this point, I can't even begin to guess. But one thing you can say for sure: with the new home page, The Free Software Foundation has come a long way from the days when it tried to explain its purpose with the mantra of "Free as in freedom, not free as in beer."

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