Friday, February 15, 2008

Applications are Open Source too

One of the advantages of combining public transport and mobile computing is that you can spend the time you’re commuting on something useful (if you consider blogging to be something useful of course). I’m using LyX to write this article, but Firefox, GIMP, LaTex2RTF, ImageMagick, Apache, MySQL, PHP, Graphviz, bash, GCC and my own 4tH compiler are installed as well. And no, this is not a Linux laptop, it is a Windows XP laptop. Yes, your deduction was correct, I’ve been providing MS-DOS and MS-Windows versions of 4tH for as long as I can remember, it’s not like Microsoft has recruited me lately. And no, it is not my laptop, it is my employers laptop. Since the Netherlands may be most retarded country in the world where Open Source is concerned it automatically comes with MS-Windows. Fortunately, I was able to install my own stuff as well, because a Windows XP laptop with MS-Office is less than useful to me.

Strangely enough, I get the same remarks from MS-fan boys. They never ask me if there are any useful word processors available (yes, LyX) but if it can run MS-Office. Of course you can using Wine, but there are so many fine other word processors available for Linux. But no, it has to be MS-Word and nothing else. I can understand why. Using another program, even if it resembles the one you’re used to, is like sleeping for the first time at the home of your new girlfriend. When you try to find the bathroom at night the chances are you’ll end up lying face down in the hallway. Of course, in time you will learn to find your way around, but it is frustrating (and humiliating) at first. So when people change Operating Systems the first thing they’ll look for is a way to run their familiar applications. They will only switch if there is no other way.

I remember when I switched from MS-Windows 3.1 to Linux I used Paintshop Pro for a considerable amount of time before I finally switched to GIMP. I used the Linux version of Wordperfect. I updated my diagrams with Novagraph Chartist at work. Finding, selecting and learning Linux alternatives took me a lot of time, time that I could have spent on creating content. Sometimes I was even forced to recreate or reformat content. But once I had familiarized myself with an application I had no reason to switch again. I’m never going to relinquish my LyX, Graphviz or Dia for that matter. In comparison, MS-Visio and MS-Word are applications of a distant past and do not offer me the versatility or comfort I’m used to.

LyX simply works, nuff said. Its format is simple enough to interface with and versatile enough for the most complex of documents. When I insert a picture it stays where I put it instead of jumping to different places or being overlaid with text for no obvious reason. The pages are automatically numbered and adding a Table of Contents is just a few clicks away. Graphviz automatically creates a diagram from a simple definition. I don’t have to place edges or nodes manually and it interfaces perfectly with LyX. Just like Dia, by the way. I must admit, I only use Open Office to read MS-documents, I don’t create too much content with it, but it is a wonderful application. GCC is my compiler of choice, although I rarely need it except to compile my own 4tH compiler, which I use predominantly to write programs. And who doesn’t use Firefox? Only those dwelling in the Valley of the Ignorant.

Some would like us to believe that Open Source applications are lacking in functionality, but I sincerely think they are wrong - or spreading FUD for that matter. I think Open Source offers great applications and I think the community should be more confident and proud of what they have achieved. If you’re using Open Source applications you’re using next generation tools, new and exciting paradigms, which will offer you a headstart once the MS-dinosaur has realized this and has implemented it in its products. And in the meanwhile you will enjoy having the advantage.

I haven’t touched MS-Word for anything serious in a long time - and when I was forced to do it I regretted it every single minute. I’m a writer, not a layout artist. I wanna type, I don’t want to be bothered by adding and maintaining the layout. LyX works like I want to work. This is a chapter, this is a section, this is an enumeration, here comes the Table of Contents - take care of it. And LyX does. ’A’ is connected with ’B’ and ’C’ and ’B’ is connected with ’C’. Put them in borderless, cyan boxes. Now make a diagram. And Graphviz does.

These are the things that make you productive. I’ve never seen anything MS-like do that. They believe in blue ribbons. I don’t. BTW, did you know that you can buy an add-on that makes the ribbon interface disappear and reverts you to an interface that was brand new when the dinosaurs roamed the earth? I guess there must be real market for it.

I don’t even think it is the fault of Microsoft. For several reasons it is very hard to change human behavior. Knowledge is valuable. You don’t change from expert to newbie voluntarily. It diminishes your personal and professional value. People want to get the job done. They don’t have or take the time to learn a new tool, even if this investment makes them more productive in the long run. That behavior is one of the most important obstacles in the adoption of Open Source products. People are only willing to change if their applications don’t change. Most of them don’t know what a kernel is and even less why they should care. As far as they are concerned if it runs MS-Word it’s a kind of ’Windows’.

The Open Source movement can use this behavior to its advantage. If people use Open Source applications they will run Open Source operating systems. It is not a question of ’if’ anymore, but a question of ’when’. So when a friend asks you for a bootleg copy of MS-Word, install OpenOffice or Abiword. You can replace Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro with GIMP, Quark Express with Scribus, Visual Studio with GCC and so on. Now that KDE makes the jump to the MS-Windows desktop the choice of applications has become even wider. And then you wait. MS-Windows will fail at some moment in time and you know where your friend will turn to.

Closed source software is a wonderful thing, especially if you have to pay for it. While ’free speech’ is vitally important, I guarantee you that ’free beer’ attracts more visitors. Fortunately for us, Microsoft made it very unattractive to install MS-Windows. First you either have to pay for it or go through a difficult procedure to bootleg it. Second, their main attraction is not so attractive. Who wants Vista? Not even the most fanatic MS-fanboy wants that on his machine. Third, installing MS-Windows is going through hell. If you have old, vanilla hardware, a modern Linux distribution will probably support it. Pop in the DVD and off you go! Where a MS-Windows installation leaves you with a bare bone machine, Linux will already offer you a wide choice of applications. Applications your friend already knows, uses and loves. You don’t break the barrier by tearing down walls, but by dismantling them stone by stone.

There are developers that refuse to port their FOSS software to MS-Windows. There are even developers that deny others the right to compile their FOSS software for MS-Windows. Personally, I don’t think that’s a good idea. First of all from a public relations point of view. If you want to leave the impression that Open Source developers are a bunch of religious zealots whose next move will be the bombing of the Redwood headquarters, that’s absolutely the way to do it. Second, for what? Those who use or are forced to use MS-Windows and have the required know how will do it anyway. And those who haven’t will be frustrated. Nice going. You lived up to your principles and that’s it. Period. Your little pet project is not the killer application that will turn people to Linux. Tough luck. I’m afraid you’ll have to live with it.

What most FOSS fundamentalists seem to forget is that MS-Windows users can be converted to FOSS users. Even better, a large number of MS-Windows users are FOSS users. The simple fact that someone uses a Microsoft kernel doesn’t mean he has joined the dark side. Most people won’t even care. If there is a good, cheap alternative to MS-Windows they will use it as long as it doesn’t cause them too much trouble. Applications are the key factor here. So instead of trying to force people to change their kernels, we have to ease them into using our applications. Yes, maybe some people will continue to use MS-Windows kernels, because it is easier to run MS-Windows applications on an MS-Windows kernel than it is using Linux and Wine. Yes, maybe Microsoft will continue to earn some money by selling MS-Windows kernels. But in the end, when GCC, OpenOffice, Scribus, Inkscape, Dia, Firefox, GIMP and the new KDE desktop have become the applications of choice, who do you think has won?