Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Digital disenfranchisement

Normally when we talk about digital disenfranchisement we're really talking about poverty, about people, who for economic reasons, cannot afford regular access to a computer or to the internet. We see this with Calfornia's move to digital textbooks with the dawning realisation that poorer families may not have a computer at home, or may not have one that the kids can use to gain full benefit from - 'Mommy why do I have to wait until Katie's done her homework?'.

Not every family is in a position to worry about facebook disrupting breakfast.

However I happened across a more subtle form of digital disenfranchisement, and one caused by format creep. In other words people who tick the boxes, yes they have an email account, yes they have a computer, yes they have broadband. All good. And if you asked them they'd say they had IE6 and XP, and yes they had Microsoft Word. Sounds like they're pretty enfranchised. In fact it's my brother in law, who until he decided he'd made enough money was a lawyer and not only that, helped draft legislation, as in writing the words and sanity checking things to make sure they didn't contradict existing legislation. In other words not the sort of person you'd think of as disenfranchised.

Execpt he was. He only has Office 97. Can't read Word 2003 or Word 2007 files. Now there's an easy couple of fixes - Google Docs or Open Office. But of course he doesn't know about them, doesn't have a Google account, and everything has worked for him up to now. And this for a very simple reason.

He only uses the internet for ebay, online banking, booking flights and the odd email, and that's usually just plain text. Because for him the computer replaced the typewriter and the web is simply just useful, it's not central to his life.

And there's a lot of people like that out there, they go out, buy a computer, and use it until it breaks, then get another. They don't upgrade operating systems, or software, and quite frankly don't give a stuff about doc versus docx, open formats, long term archival formats etc. They've paid their money, why should they pay any more until they need to?

And given the longevity of XP and IE6 there's going to be a problem. XP and IE6 have been around long enough so that everyone knows about them, software works for them, and generally people are happy. And then along comes Windows 7. Windows 7 has every sign of not being the bloated disaster that Vista was, which means that it will get real traction in the market place, which means that either my brother in law will buy a new computer and find his trusty Office 97 won't install, or else he'll find the bank tells him to upgrade his browser to a later version. Either way he'll be less enfranchised than he was. And given Office Live Apps restricted browser support, as some Sydney Uni Students have found, he's pushed into either upgrading or exiting the microsoft space, and like I say he doesn't get the symbiotic google/zoho/open_office/firefox thing - "you mean I've got to use software written by a bunch of hippies?"

And for him the answer really is open source - tracks formats, upgrades sensibly and gives him gradual rather than sudden change. Except of course he doesn't see a reason to, after all 90% of the world are out there using XP ...

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