In my job – and in my life – I use open source software. I advocate for it. I defend it. I promote it. Sometimes I win converts. Sometimes I lose battles. But I will keep on using and promoting it.
I wasn’t always that way. I used Apple hardware and software for years. I liked Macintosh computers – I liked their simplicity, their ease of use. I liked their sleek design. I still do. I still use them. There’s something beautiful about the way they’re put together.
But I’ve been converted to the open source/free software movement and am a firm believer in the benefit of openness and freedom. I recognize the warts (geez, some of this stuff is butt-ugly!) but I am willing to put up with the negatives of free/libre/open source software for some very real reasons.
Freedom means choices
When I use Macintosh software or an Apple device, my choices are limited. They’re limited by what the folks at Apple decided I should do. They often build options in – there are some settings I change in how things work – and I can use different software – I use Firefox on my Mac – but in the end they make decisions and I have to go along with it. Sure, there are limitations even on open software, but those are simply limitations of coding, not necessarily decisions made. Apple does not want me to pull music from my iPod to my Macintosh …so I am limited by that. Apple doesn’t want me to have to deal with the files in iPhoto, so it’s all saved in a database. I have to live with that. (And cope with the loss of dozens of holiday photos when I maxed out my database!) I can find ways around many of these restrictions, but it feels like I’m living in a prison (or a “walled garden” if you prefer) and have to resort to subterfuge to do what I really want.
Open isn’t easy
This may be counter-intuitive but it’s something I’m growing to appreciate more. When I advocate open software, many times I hear from people, “It’s too hard to learn.” or “It takes too much time.” etc.
Think about it: what’s hard in life? Becoming successful. Making your marriage work. Raising a child. Learning new skills. Cooking an elegant meal. Convincing someone of your viewpoint. Nearly every good and valuable thing in life is hard.
Things that are easy in life are often not valuable or good for you. It’s easy to slob out and watch television all day. It’s easy to go grab a bag of fast food. It’s easy to throw the trash out your car window. It’s easy to do a Google search for an image and copy & paste it into your blog without considering the license or copyright.
If you want something good, if you want something that means something to you, you have to put some work into it.
Openness means forever. I have a bunch of files that are .cwk …remember ClarisWorks? AppleWorks? Those were decent programs… but they are no more. What can open those files now? We still have AppleWorks groaning along on our iMac. One day that won’t even open. And then the data in those files ….gone forever.
Meanwhile, any .odt file will be able to be opened forever. Because open source and open standards means anyone can and will use it.
Openness and Freedom Encourages Tinkering
This is a vital reason for me, working in a school. As students come to use open software, they are encouraged to tinker. Want to change something? You can! You just need to learn how.
And this is an important skill for our students to learn. They are growing up in a world of computers: of hardware and software. They should know how these things work. They should know what goes into making software. They should be able to figure out how the hardware is put together.
When Apple glues its laptop batteries in, when it hides the screws on its phones, when it purposefully designs the devices to prevent a user from experimenting, tinkering, etc. then it is restricting not only our freedom as users but our opportunity for really understanding the device. It’s as if it’s all a secret that’s only available to a select elite. (And how can you become one of the elite?)
Coping with Unknown Unknowns
This one came at me today as I was advocating for open software. As you use something, you know its uses and know what you need it to do. (Known knows.) There will be new things that you can anticipate you may need it to do later. (Known unknowns.) But somewhere down the line you may need the software to do something that you can’t anticipate. (Unknown unknowns.)
At that point, having open software will become invaluable. If you need the software to do something new, you will be OK if it’s open. Either you can make it function properly by tweaking the software or building some new component, or you can find someone to do that for you.
If the software is closed, you will be dependent on the company that makes it. They may do it for you. They may not.
While this may not be important for you as you choose a web browser or a photo editor …or at least it may not seem important… it certainly will become vital if it’s a complex system you’re using to run your payroll or document management or whatever.
There are plenty of other reasons, big and small: ability to share, avoiding licensing issues, cost, transferability, cross-platform compatibility, etc. Here are some other reasons: from the Free Software Foundation, from Saigon South International School, from a technology company, and the UK Government. If you have your own reasons, please leave it in the comments.