September 9, 2010

904 words 5 mins read

Does free knowledge require free software?

Last night I was having a bit of a philosophical debate and I thought I’d externalize it. Everyone knows that the Wikimedia Foundation is a big proponent of “free software”, and similarly, “free access”. By that I mean audio and video is uploaded in formats like Ogg Vorbis / Ogg Theora rather than patented formats like MP3 & H264. This is, without a doubt, as it should be. You wouldn’t want The sum of human knowledge locked away because of one silly patent. Though there is another side to this “free software”: the software which is used on the desktop machines of the staff… and that’s where things get interesting.

I’ve been a long time fan of Linux. I started on Red Hat 5-something, later moved onto Debian and finally now to Ubuntu. I think Linux is great, but I don’t run it as my primary OS on most machines because of limitations at my previously job (my computers were theirs). Truth be told, I have a love/hate relationship with Windows. I love to hate on it because it represents all things evil, but at the same time… I actually like running it (especially Win7, which is quite nice). The point is, I run Windows now, because I like it, I work best on it and it has the software I want.

As much as I love Linux in general, I’ve started to learn that its strong suit is not that of the enterprise environment. There are a number of issues I’ve run into that make me wonder if it is worth it.

The first major issue that comes up is, regardless of the situation, the lack of software. Let’s face it, there is not an open source equivalent for every piece of proprietary software. Even those options that are there, aren’t necessarily as good. For something like Photoshop, there is Gimp. Really though, Gimp is nowhere near as feature rich as Photoshop. Sure, you could use Gimp to get the job done, but you could also do it in Photoshop in probably half the time or less. Some of the more specialized graphics software simply doesn’t have an equivalent.

Next, there is the issue of the open source software simply not providing the features that you require to get your job done. For example, In Open Office you are limited to 64k rows in the spread sheet application. It seems like a lot, unless you need more. Microsoft Office supports 1 million. The only way around this is running Microsoft Office under Wine — but you’re still running proprietary software, even if the OS is not. (Note: Yes, OO 3.3 will support 1mil rows also, but it isn’t out yet)

Then there is the issue of user friendliness. If you’re a true open source nerd, you will have to concede that Linux simply isn’t as friendly as something like OS X, to those who are not technically adept. Sure, Ubuntu puts a very shiny wrapper over Linux, but it only goes so far. For example if you pull up the network manager in OS X it says “Ethernet” and “Airport” whereas under Ubuntu it says “eth0” and “wlan0”. Sure, learning “eth0” means “my plugged in network” isn’t hard, but this is just the start. If anything goes wrong in Ubuntu, your fix is ALWAYS command line based. In OS X, unless you REALLY screw something up, you generally don’t need to go play in the terminal. Windows is much the same as OS X in this respect, there is a GUI for basically everything.

There are deficits, no doubt about that. On the flip side, you’ve got some nice pros to open source software. It tends to be more secure (since anyone can see the code). If you are a programmer, or have one available, you can generally fix the problems or enhance the software yourself. The price point is certainly much better (free). Finally, it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside (philosophically speaking).

But, and this is the big issue, is the pain to the users worth it? Any environmental change will require you to adapt and change your work flow. Adaptation, also known as a learning curve, is an annoyance to the users, but that is of little consequence. What about those jobs and tasks that require something where open source falls short. You can’t simply tell a user to use a spread sheet with less than 64k rows, if they require 200k, they require it — end of story.

In the end, I wonder if the process actually matters. If I want to compose free (as in speech) music, does the software mater? Be it Audacity, Garage Band, or Sound Forge. What if I want to touch up some of my photographs before I post them to CC-BY? Does anyone really care if I do it in Photoshop, MS Paint, or Gimp? As long as I license the end product properly and post it in a freely available format, who cares how I got there? Personally, I’d rather use with what I’m really good with (Like Photoshop) and be able to post 20 refined pictures in a day, rather than try to force myself to use Gimp and only be able to post 1 picture in a day.

So the million dollar question I’m struggling to answer: Is free software (on the desktop) required to provide free knowledge?