By Luke Reid and Jess Levy
A month-long publicity campaign is currently underway to draw attention to the official launch of Rhodes University’s only open-source computer lab. The lab was installed in the basement of the Student Union building in August 2005, but has only recently been declared fully operational.
The lab’s campaign includes advertising in local media, posters around campus and a promotion whereby students pay 35% less for pages printed from the lab’s computers. Efforts have been made to make the lab much more user-friendly with posters on the walls giving detailed instructions about how to use the open-source operating system and trained assistants on hand for any problems. This was never possible in the past as the system was constantly tweaked and updated. An important part of the campaign will be to emphasise the many programs and features that are unique to this lab, particularly its highly appealing user interface. This interface is comparable or even superior to Microsoft’s Windows Vista, and includes, among other things, a rotating 3D-cube desktop.
The Union lab was funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation under strict conditions that only open-source software would be used on its computers. It is the only project in South Africa where an attempt has been made to integrate open source operating systems into a larger existing network. “Essentially being in the front of the field you can’t learn a lot from anybody else,” says Andrew Grant, support systems specialist of the university’s IT division. The lab’s systems were developed over the last two years in the spare time of individual administrators. They increased their efforts at the end of last year because of mounting pressure to convert the lab into a standard Windows based lab. The open source systems needed to be fully usable by the time Rhodes’ contract with the Shuttleworth Foundation runs out in June and there is no longer a legal obligation to use open-source software. If not, the lab may have been converted to Windows.
Until now, students using the labs have been part of an experimental phase in which systems were gradually developed to integrate the open-source computers with the rest of the university’s network. “The lab is a really crucial test-bed,” says Grant. “Without the lab we wouldn’t have had feedback. You need to have access to the random user, and that’s where it’s been crucial in giving us experience.”
Grant explains that, “the functionality and performance of the lab needs to be the same or better than the alternative Windows offerings. There are still a few minor issues that we need to iron out, but the major ones are sorted and my guess is that by the end of the year they’ll be on a par.” He says their goal has always been that “You should be able to walk into the lab with your Windows knowledge and use an open-source platform. We are not trying to force it down anybody’s throat. We are just trying to show that there is a different way of doing the same thing.”
Grant says that it has taken a while for word about the Union lab campaign to get out, but that feedback has been positive and there is evidence that more people are using the lab than before. Two years of development have clearly left some negative impressions among many students. Mavundla Mhlanbi, last used the labs in 2006, and feels she doesn’t really understand the Linux system. Tara Walraven, a first year, used the labs during the first week of the promotion said “I like them because there aren’t lots of people and I didn’t have to wait. Its like Windows, the same buttons.” Edward Hazell comments that “the Linux system is perfectly easy to use, just as user-friendly as Windows.” However another student, Bonisiwe Mngoma, complained about slow log-in times, and having her Linux-loaded computer freeze midway through an assignment.