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The Greek Model

-Louis Suárez-Potts

2004-05


People throughout the world will turn to Athens later this year for the 2004 Olympics, but the Summer Games are only the most publicized event giving Greece cause for pride. There are others, and they are perhaps, in the long run, even more important. Late last month, I participated in another: the ebusiness forum series of conferences and workshops on open source, held over two days in universities in Athens, Iraklion, Patras, and Thessaloniki, and put on by GRNET, FLOSS supporting group ELLAK, and others. The conferences and workshops were a great success, in terms of organization, attendance, engagement. My thanks to Constantinos Kotsokalis (Costas), Katerina Papakonstantinou, Kostas Koumantaros, Dimitra Kotsokali, and Dimitra Stathopoulou, who made my trip to Athens and Iraklion possible and who not only largely organized the events but made them immensely enjoyable and productive.

The National Technical University of Athens was the home of the first day of the conference, where a series of papers by leaders of KDE, Debian, FSF Europe, Mozilla, OpenOffice.org and other projects presented on the state and nature of their projects and on open source development in general. (For a full list of papers and panels and for URLs to the presentations, see the GRNET site and below for presentations and videos.) By popular acclaim, Scott Collins of Mozilla stole the show and personally, I believe, converted numerous in the audience to work on OSS projects. But it was an audience primed to the message. And that message was not about cost alone, though obviously we cannot help but mention that OSS products are vastly cheaper (often free) than proprietary products. Rather, the message, as we detailed in one panel, is that open source and free software give local communities the power and tools to leap beyond the limitations imposed by products issued under the gaze of monopoly power. Why? Because FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) is not dependent on remote market needs but on local needs. It is not built on arrogance but on community.

That is why, when I gave my presentation on OpenOffice.org, I turned for the last part to Dimitris Korbetis, the lead of the Greek Language Project, who has, along with co-lead Kostas Koumantaros, worked with a community of Greek students and developers to localize OpenOffice.org to Greek. His efforts have paid off, and on the day of the conference, people were raving about the vast improvement noted in the latest version of OpenOffice.org, 1.1.1 in Greek. But as DImitris enunciated, there is a still much to do. Each time there is a release, it must be localized; further, most people in Greece persist in using proprietary software--maddening, when a locally developed and locally maintained product that is for most users just as good is freely available. As Dimitris spoke, I watched the audience--most were nodding, agreeing. But we need more than just agreement; we need actual development.

There are two aspects to this problem. In the first, it is a question of marketing: we need to get the word out: On what OpenOffice.org is doing; on what OpenOffice.org the product can do. In most places in the world, FLOSS is a meaningless acronym, and OpenOffice.org hardly recognized. Second, we need to develop paths that make it easier for students, individuals, and employees to commence work on the source.

For the first part, Dimitris and I agreed that we need a program for marketing OpenOffice.org to Greece and other regional countries. The devil lies in the details, however, and so actually getting such a program moving is not going to be easy. But, fortunately, we have precedents and company. France, Germany, Italy, to name but three countries, have all shown great success in persuading regional organizations to use OpenOffice.org; we can use this history.

And for the second part, I discovered on the second day the depth of Greece's extraordinarily talented and educated student community. And they expressed, in a long workshop, both a sophisticated knowledge of open-source politics and technologies, but a desire to work with OpenOffice.org and other FLOSS programs.

On that second day, we--Scott Collins of Mozilla, Costas, Katerina, and -I-went to Iraklion in Crete, to lead a workshop on open source technologies for students and business people. The audience was, clearly, more technically inclined. And, as a result, the discussions were particular: on how they could work on OpenOffice.org, join a project, create a project, start something new. At one point, in my presentation, I asked for a show of hands, of all who could program in C++. Fully a third of the hundred and fifty attending raised their hands. C++ is difficult, though powerful. It is also the language in which OpenOffice.org is written.

In mid-stream, I changed my lecture. My desire now was to excite as much interest as possible in these students to work on OpenOffice.org. Of course, once again, Scott wowed them and made it clear that working on an OSS project is first of all fun and second, actually important.

That importance cannot be dismissed. For so many, the condition of modernity is anomie, a loss of community, the inheritance of a largely meaningless job in the service of an anonymous corporation. FLOSS, and OpenOffice.org in particular, offers a realistic alternative to all that: community that is making a positive difference.

By the end of the second day Scott and I were dizzy with exhaustion but had the great pleasure of having a wonderful dinner at a charming Cretan restaurant, whose name, I regret very much, I have forgotten. It was a perfect symposium, for we continued some of the discussions initiated at the conference, on how to integrate work on OpenOffice.org into class activity.

There are several ways, we discussed, and all confer benefit to the student as well as to the project. For the student learns not only how to collaborate in a real project, and to work side-by-side with very experienced developer, but also how to code from masters. OpenOffice.org source is deemed to be extremely well-written and clean, and its developers among the best in the world.

We are still working on refining the proposals and structure for integrating college courses in OpenOffice.org development, but when finished the Greek syllabi will be models for all FLOSS projects, throughout the world.

Presentations and streaming videos of the workshops:

"OpenOffice.org: Community, Code, Collaboration Louis Suarez-Potts,"

OpenOffice.org/Community Manager

"Building a full-fledged, standards compliant, modular and free web browser: Development roadmap and the fight for standards. Usage of Mozilla modules in embedded devices"

Scott Collins, Mozilla Project/ Principal Software Engineer

Closing discussion and questions

 

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