James Mawson

James makes FOSS and takes our Twitter mic from July 29 to August 05. Thank you, James!

Tell us about yourself

I was obsessed with computers from a young age. My father was a computer programmer in the ‘80s, when there were many competing platforms. Whenever he needed to port his software to a new platform, he had to buy it, so I grew up with a whole lot of old computers all around the house. When I was 7, I got my grubby little mitts on a second hand BBC Master Compact and started coding BASIC. I also played a lot of games. Through my teenage years, I got into DOS PCs, bulletin boards, and then the internet, and kept coding as well. I ended up studying a bit of computer science, and for a while I worked as a developer. For all my youthful passion for coding, in the end I wasn’t all that motivated to do it full time. For much of my twenties, I was more excited about playing in rock bands while doing as little work as I needed to put food on the table. I was also building a website about guitar, which for a while got ranked for some valuable search terms and made a small amount of money. It turned out that I was quite good at blogging and driving targeted traffic to websites, so (with numerous detours along the way) that’s ended up being my work.

What are you working on right now?

Well, my real work is create website content and marketing materials. I mostly freelance to large technology businesses. You can read about this at my website. What probably more interests your readers is my involvement in MAKEITLINUX. We’re a small group of volunteer content creators on a mission to drive awareness and interest in desktop Linux. What’s cool about this group of people is that everyone has a different background and contributes different skills, but we all have a similar vision. Most of the other contributors are very focused on video content, I mostly contribute text and articles. I see some really good ideas from outside of the IT world that would help drive desktop Linux adoption. Advertisers, behavioural economists, copywriters and Nobel prize winning psychologists have already shared some great ideas about persuasion, human decision making and market share. I’m keen to apply these ideas to Linux and bring them to the parts of our community where they can do the most good.

What is most interesting about that?

In discussions across social media, there seem to be two dominant attitudes to the adoption problem. I believe they both make good points but ultimately miss the bigger picture. The first is a very pessimistic view that says if the Year of the Linux Desktop were going to happen, it would be here already, that there’s no commercial basis to drive it and no real reason to desire it anyway. A few of these people even hate the idea of normies latching on and stinking the joint up. I think this is shortsighted, because the larger the commercial ecosystem around desktop Linux, the more salaries there are for developers, which ultimately benefits every Linux user. There are also many technology businesses at real disadvantage by Microsoft’s desktop monopoly, and some of them are huge. Then there’s the “outstanding issues” narrative. This sees that desktop Linux is pretty great, but there are still things to improve in the software: hardware support, compatibility of games, graphics drivers, installation gremlins and so on. This is very persuasive, because clearly it’s just true that these are real opportunities to further improve what Linux offers. This also speaks powerfully to our own experience as Linux users, because we’ve all had our own little peeve with one thing or another. The glaring problem with this view is the immense progress on these issues that’s already happened. If this was really the main thing at play, we’d be seeing big gains in the market share already. The thing is, when you actually talk to non-users, they’re not in touch with the software at all. What they are in touch with is all contextual – reputation, media buzz, surface level cures and the intuitions they form from them. This context needs to be vastly if the software is to get any hearing. Because this work has been largely ignored, very modest efforts here could deliver outsized returns.

How did you first discover FOSS?

My first use of Linux was actually Unix at the University of Melbourne, where we had to use a bash shell to compile our C code. We were heavily encouraged to explore the shell, but I wasn’t very fond of it and used it as little as I needed to submit my assignments. I can distinctly recall thinking that the bash terminal seemed incredibly old fashioned compared to the feature rich graphical IDEs I was already familiar with like Delphi, Visual Basic and Dreamweaver. It amuses me to think back on how wrong I got that. I installed Linux some time in 2002 or 2003. I’d already heard about open source for quite some time and the idea appealed to me, so I bought a magazine with an installer CD on the front. I can’t remember which distribution it was. After a few attempts, I managed to successfully install it. I could never connect it to the internet though. I played the games that came with it, which were all very simple but still quite fun. After that, I wasn’t really sure what use I had for it, so I decided it wasn’t for me. This was around the time of Windows XP, which was one that Microsoft didn’t do too badly. From here I lived a largely Linuxless life for most of my adulthood. I was still using a lot of FOSS on Windows, notably GIMP, OpenOffice and Firefox. In 2015, I bought a Raspberry Pi to play old console games. For a few weeks, I struggled with shell commands and configuration files that made no sense to me. I swore a lot about what a terrible mistake it was to use Linux again. But I became more comfortable and started exploring more and more projects over the next 3 years. I started playing with Linux in the cloud as well, for little things like building my own VPN. And for the whole of this time, it never actually occurred to me that I might like desktop Linux. I think I just assumed that using a modern Linux desktop would be just like using the Raspberry Pi – a primitive GUI as a thin wrapper for a world of shell commands and config files. I’d come to enjoy nerding out on that for hobby projects. But for a daily driver machine which I rely on for my income, it was unthinkable. The thing that made me actually try desktop Linux again was that I had been messing around with some synthesizer software on the Raspberry Pi, and I wanted to try the same thing on my laptop. Even as I was installing Ubuntu Studio 18.10, I had no intention of switching to it as a daily driver. But as soon as I had it installed, I never wanted to boot back into Windows again. Everything was so much nicer, easier, faster and more beautiful in Linux.

What prompted you to start contributing to FOSS?

I was already writing blog content for a local IT services team, and always in need of new topics. So within a week of switching to Linux on the desktop, I started writing about it – about how great the software is, but also how poorly that’s communicated to non-users. The first thing I published got some good engagement I still think these early contributions make some good points, but I also fell into the “outstanding issues” trap I outlined aboved. I was far too focused on finding ways that further improvements to the software could win over a mass audience that isn’t even looking in that direction. In response someone sent me this Bryan Lunduke video, where he was quite emphatic that the one thing missing was the marketing. Was it really this black and white? As I spoke to more and more non-users about desktop Linux, I was struck by how universal it is to know nothing about it. This goes for computer savvy people, even for those who use Linux on servers or embedded systems. I’m doing my bit to help by bringing in what I’ve learned from working in marketing-related roles for the past decade or so, and from the reading I’ve done along the way – some basic principles of persuasion, and of how intuition differs from conscious, deliberate reason. A lot of these concepts are considered utterly rudimentary among copywriters and other marketers, but are entirely absent from the conversation around desktop Linux adoption.

Why should others get involved with FOSS?

It’s better.

How should they get started?

The first stage is to just use it. Where you go from there is up to you.

What difficulties and limitations do you see with FOSS?

I’m not sure about FOSS in general, I’ve only really thought about how to grow desktop Linux. It drives me nuts that there’s no published market research to inform our discussions. The only real data is a bunch of janky market share figures gathered from website traffic. We’re trying to win over audiences without any solid idea at all of where their knowledge and perceptions of desktop Linux are even at. The best that I have been able to do has been to just strike up conversations with non-users, which I suppose is better than putting it all together in my head, but it’s hardly adequate. Desktop Linux also suffers by having no real media strategy. If I put “Linux” in the search box of an ultra high traffic technology website like The Verge, the most visible desktop operating is Windows 10. One of the biggest reasons why most people don’t even think about desktop Linux is that they’re just not seeing anything about it while scrolling on their phone. The tragedy here is that so much has happened of real interest and relevance to their end-user audience. Minor point releases to web browsers get infinitely more coverage in these places than Valve Proton or Ubuntu 20.04. If you get most or all of your tech news from the world’s most popular tech websites – and plenty of people do – the only thing visible to you about desktop Linux lately might be that it’s become easier to use on Windows.

How can they be solved?

There needs to be some specific marketing body in charge of desktop Linux as a brand in itself. Who is specifically tasked to commission the market research we need, and engage a badass publicist to feed stories to the technology press. The obvious question that then arises is how you fund it. That budget actually seems quite modest when set against how many businesses could benefit. Obviously there are businesses who directly cater to desktop Linux users. Beyond that are the many businesses facing disadvantages or risks from the Windows monopoly; some of these are HUGE. They need to be persuaded why it’s to their own benefit to sponsor this much needed market research and publicity effort.

Where do you see difficulties in contributing?

Some of the articles I’ve written have been answered with a boat load of hostility – not specific disagreements with the actual points made, just personal attacks and mockery. Most people in open source aren’t like that, but it’s really demotivating to deal with it - especially when you’re performing work for free that businesses normally pay for. Another difficulty that I had in the beginning was that there wasn’t even a platform for the kind of conversation that I was trying to contribute to. I’d work really hard on highlighting the most useful ideas that I knew, and there was just nowhere to publish that work where it would get seen. It was nowhere near technical enough for the Linux blogs but waaay too Linuxy for anywhere else. So I would end up just posting it somewhere lame, like my LinkedIn account.

What does a perfect day off look like?

It’s summer, I’m wearing shorts and flip flops and enjoying a small gathering of friends. We’re slow cooking a leg of something on a fire pit. We might play some backyard cricket, or just drink beer and listen to heavy metal.

Do you want to tell us something else we didn’t ask?

MAKEITLINUX is looking for help with an open science project to measure the visibility and sentiment of desktop Linux on the public internet. Read more about that here. For a more detailed version of why and how I think we can grow desktop Linux, check out the Sunlight Manifesto. For those who read Linux Magazine, keep your eyes peeled for my article in the next issue too!