Sunday, September 21, 2008

Free for All

I’ve never quite understood the animus that many people have for paying for software. I mean, sure, I’m as much of a cheap bastard as the next guy, but I can think of a million other things I’d rather pay for less than software (cable television, all those arcane mobile phone charges, and don’t even get me started on health insurance). I have no serious objection (other than Jack Benny-esque cheapness) to paying for tools that I use for my business—or even for the things I enjoy outside of work (which do not involve software).

I mention this because yesterday was apparently Software Freedom Day, which I initially interpreted as meaning “turn the computer off and do something fun,” but my hopes were quickly dashed when I read that it is actually about switching to Open Source software. I confess I have mixed feelings about Open Source software; sure, it’s free, and my inner Jack Benny likes that, but I have found that it often requires a bit too much work, even just to download it. I have been using NeoOffice (and am writing this in NeoOffice), which is an Open Source alternative to Microsoft Office for the Mac, and while I don’t dislike it, it seems to do pretty much the same things that Word does only in a more confusing and convoluted manner (as if that were possible). After all, my beef with Microsoft Word is not that it costs money; it’s that it sucks. My favorite word processor thus far is actually Apple Pages, which even though it has its limitations, seems to suck less than Word does. (I have also used OpenOffice on Windows and it seems to me to have all the same things that annoy me about Word. Sure, it’s stable; but that reminds me of the old joke: “The food here is terrible.” “Yes, and such small portions.” Again, my problem with Word—or even PowerPoint—is not that it’s not free, but that it is annoying and unpleasant to use.)

On the desktop publishing front, I tried downloading Scribus—Open Source desktop publishing software—this morning and was confused almost immediately. These are my download categories:
  • Source tarball
  • SVN Snapshots
  • Templates and Sample Documents
  • Scripts
  • Color Profiles
What the hell is a tarball? Where’s the, um, program? Oh, and this headline caught my eye:
Scribus Stable Release Announcement
Oh, good, it’s a stable release. Thank heaven for small favors. Those of us who are running businesses based on the usability and stability of desktop publishing software really don’t have the luxury of dicking around with what is basically hobbyist software (don’t comment; that’s not the slam you think it is). I’m sure Scribus is a fine program, and I will give it a try one of these days, but for now, I am perfectly happy to stick with Adobe InDesign. And anyone—like a graphic designer—who bases their business and their livelihood on software can ill afford to have that software be anything but reliable. Why do you think it took eight years for designers to switch from QuarkXPress to Adobe InDesign? Because the former worked, it worked well (or as well as anyone needed it to) and the latter had to prove itself before entire workflows could be transitioned. This stuff has to work, it has to work consistently and reliably, and it has to work without a lot of fuss and bother. Few people in graphic design like updating software; that’s why we rarely do it unless it’s absolutely necessary.

I’m not trying to dis the Open Source movement (quite the contrary; there’s an article in the current issue of Scientific American about how a group of scientists and other innovators has adopted the principle of the Open Source movement to develop advanced prosthetic limbs, simply because the market for them is too small and the development costs too high to make them a high priority for traditional bioengineering research), and I think if you are a computer hobbyist who loves getting under the hood of software and constantly updating and tweaking programs, then Open Source software is for you. It reminds me of people who are really into cars and love getting under the hood and tweaking things—more power to ’em. As for me, I just want to turn the thing on and go where I need to go without a lot of bother. That’s pretty much my attitude toward software, as well.

More importantly, though, while I respect the hobbyist and, well, socialist nature of the Open Source movement, I also respect the fact that there are people who are trying to build a business around software development. How do we promote economic growth if we expect that more and more things will be free? How do we make money? Flaky stock market bubbles? All become consultants and explain to people how to use their free software? If we’re going to start socializing products and services, I can think of better places to start than computer software (don’t get me started on health insurance). (But then seeing how many companies and industries come to the taxpayers for a bailout when the so-called free market fails them, perhaps we’re closer to socialism than anyone cares to admit. Not that I’m necessarily opposed to that; let’s just be clear about it and do it right. The 20th century provided countless examples of it done wrong and disastrously so.)

It also strikes me that there is the expectation that software will be free simply because it is easy to copy and send back and forth. It takes minimal effort to download software, and very little effort in making it available. (This is why no one ever expected that CDs would be free, but apparently MP3s are supposed to be. Like all we ever paid for was the physical medium.) Physical items are much more difficult; so even though, by the logic of the Open Source movement, automotive enthusiasts could create their own cars and give them away for free, the logistics are much more difficult and the physical materials a bit too expensive for that to be practical. But in theory, that is how the automotive—or any—industry should work. What would happen to our economy if that were the case? Sure, there are few materials costs in software development, but there is an investment in time and “intellectual property.” Of course, there is a growing feeling that intellectual property should be free...but if that’s the case, what the hell are some of us supposed to do for a living? Manufacturing jobs don’t exist here anymore. And I don’t even eat at McDonald’s.

At the end of the day, I have no objection to paying a fair market price (yes, that’s a big qualifier) for things that I use and/or like. After all, that’s how our economy is supposed to work.


Tsoots said...

If only you could understand that it's not about the price. Maybe the SFD next year will show you some other aspects of open source mentality.

Joe W said...

Did you download the linux files? Sounds like it.

Scribus for Windows is at

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