Can an iPad be used to promote free and open source software?

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People arranged in the shape of FOSS

I have many Linux-using friends who have no plans whatsoever to buy an iPad, and I respect them for having that stance. They are opposed to closed, locked, proprietary systems. I share their general values, but have chosen to buy a third-generation iPad and plunge headlong into creating iBooks using iBooks Author. I see the iPad as a exquisite tool for getting the word out about FOSS - free and open source software.

Apple is expected to sell 65 million iPads (or more) in 2012, according to analyst Canaccord Genuity. That's 65 million people I can inform about FOSS opportunities, such as the amazing Inkscape vector drawing program and OpenShot video editing program. Inkscape already runs well on Mac and Windows, and OpenShot is coming to Mac and Windows, so why not seize the chance to inform people about these programs?

Being informed, they might well choose to start learning more about these programs. And if they end up adopting these and other FOSS programs, they will be one step closer to making the decision that they can do quite well in their life without any proprietary operating systems.

Archimedes said, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world." In my eyes, the iPad is that fulcrum. I wish I could say that Android or some other FOSS tablets are the fulcrum, but they're not. That's just a fact today. (It might be different in the future.)

Inkscape drawings look stunning on the iPad. If you're a FOSS believer, find yourself a friend who owns an iPad and check out the evidence (although you can view the PNG graphics on your desktop, laptop, Android tablet, or smartphone, too) :

  • Inskcape exampleI created the image to the right in less than two minutes using Inkscape. To become a quick Inkscape believer, check out some of the gorgeous drawings at
  • This is one of my favorite graphics created with Inkscape, designed by a very talented artist in England. 
  • Would you like a general overview of graphics created using Inkscape? This YouTube video I created back in 2007, "Why I Love Inkscape Drawing Program," shows a broad range of graphics created with Inkscape.

Imagine if dozens of people in your community started creating art using the free Inkscape drawing program? How about if that number were bumped up to hundreds or thousands? How about if your local public libraries started offering Inkscape classes rather than PowerPoint classes? (They will do so only if you ask for the classes.) How about if some of the people using Inkscape in your community used free, donated computers that would otherwise be heading to landfills?

Can we use FOSS to create artistic value, social fabric, and new economic opportunities in our communities? My belief is that we can. And for me, it's not an either/or world. FOSS can live quite well side by side with proprietary systems. Let's not shoot ourselves in the foot by eschewing all uses of proprietary systems to communicate the value of FOSS, though.

I'll be using the iPad as a fulcrum to move the world. At the same time, I can't wait for the emergence of a free software tablet that I'll be able to throw my weight behind. I'll be moving the world plenty before that happens, though. Carpe diem—seize the day. While you're at it, seize a tablet.

And I continue to tip my hat to my Linux buddies who choose to go the pure route. The world needs these pure souls just as much as it needs the pragmatists.

Phil Shapiro

(The blogger has been a computer trainer and commentator since the early 1990's. He focuses most of his time working on digital inclusion issues. He is particularly fond of screencasting and is hoping to be doing a lot more FOSS screencasting this year on his YouTube channel. He is reachable at and on Twitter at

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Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 35 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use 27 Linux stations.


Alright, I'm sure this will show my ignorance about OSS, but "At the same time, I can't wait for the emergence of a free software tablet..."

Is this not Android? If you can't root and don't want to deal with Samsung's TouchWiz crap, the Asus EEE is stock Android.

No one is making you charge money for your app on iOS.

I have no objection to open source any more than I do monasteries, convents or communes. It is a personal decision to be generous with our time toward our neighbors.

But, why do people who value open source despise other people’s deviant choices? Why are they so doctrinaire? If we humans own ourselves then we are allowed to devote our time where we choose. I must conclude then that some of the open source community do not agree with one’s freedom to choose commercial software and hardware.

Where did they get the idea that we are their minions? Why are they moralists? Why do they exhibit such snobbery? Shouldn’t they be called on such pecksniffery?

I'm not quite sure what you are trying to say.

If the question is simply "Can I use X to promote FOSS?" then the answer is 'of course'. X could be a stick, or a clay tablet for that matter.

The question is unrelated to the ethical and philosophical issues of FOSS/FLOSS.

If the question is "Is it ethically consistent to use closed source and proprietary software to promote FOSS?" then the answer is no. It isn't.

The rest of the article has no bearing on the first part. You could create e-books using a FOSS application and then arrange for it to be uploaded to iTunes. You can even install iTunes using WINE. Creating something on an iPad does not mean other i-thing users will be influenced to try FOSS. You can easiy reach the same people using FOSS and not have to buy i-anything.

In response to your comment about the availability of Android devices. I note you preface your comment with 'in my opinion'. While it's fine to have an opinion, it's certainly not my view and there are enough reviews out there which say the same thing: there are perfectly good Android tablets. In fact, the Asus Transformer is far better than an iPad as a 'creator' rather than 'consumer' of media, partly as a result of the attachable keyboard. It also has a longer battery life.

The article reads like a post hoc attempt to justify a purchase, comprising patently transparent and irrelevant claims as a means to achieve this purpose.

I can easily do the same things you are claiming you wish all while using FOSS and Android capable applications.

I quote, and may I add, it is a platform that AFAIK does not permit installing software which is distributed under several FOSS licenses.

Don't get an iPad, but if you do, jailbreak it and transform it into a better device. I have installed emacs, latex, c++, lighttp, perl, php, issh, OpenSSL, rsync, and other Free software that makes my iPad 1, 5.0.1 iOS somewhat comfortable. I treat it almost like a laptop - it's 10 hour battery life is the biggest plus.

But, if you want a device to create on, I would recommend a laptop. The effort that goes into making an iPad useful is enormous, and then apple releases a new iOS version, jail breakers follow it ... and my installed software becomes out of date as they release new stuff only for more recent iOS versions. An endless "upgrade" cycle, until they abandon the iPad (fill in your version).

Apple's apparent motive is to not provide a better computing environment, but rather attempt to thwart the jailbreakers.

If someone wants to promote non-smoking, they should not themselves smoke. If you want to promote free software, don't use proprietary software. It might sound like you can reach more of the sinners, but no one will listen to you ... Just as a child ignores the smoking father telling him to not smoke.

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