ideological self-flagellation

Last year I had an internship where I had to take along my own crappy netbook. On it, I hadn’t shelled out for a copy of Microsoft Office, and was instead using the mostly excellent LibreOffice. The person I was working for eventually noticed all the files I was sending them were coming out strange when they opened them in Office, and I had to explain why. After I had explained the reasoning behind not using Word etc, they said something along the lines of “so you’re subjecting yourself to inconvenience for ideological reasons?”. As much as I don’t like to admit it, I think this comment hit the nail on the head. The sad reality of open source software – and the open source movement more generally – is that yes, using free alternatives does involve subjecting yourself to relatively constant annoyances and inconveniences.

What I’ve found in my experiences with open source alternatives is that it’s a good idea in theory, but in practice they often involves lots of working around and tweaking, missing features, and ugly interface design. On top of all that, you often end up being inconvenienced when you inevitably encounter people sending you things in proprietary formats like .docx or whatever.

I think this problem of inconvenience plays a large part in the failure of open source alternatives to achieve higher adoption. Open source software or websites often requires a higher level of technical know-how to use them easily. Ron Amadeo puts it quite well in his wrap up on trying to create an open source phone. The takeaway message for me is: open source is definitely not easy, but sort of worth it in the end for peace of mind?:

“Completely open Android is possible, but it feels like a constant uphill climb. It’s harder and sometimes impossible to find open source solutions for many tasks. Even if you do find something, it will probably be uglier and less capable than the latest stuff out of Google HQ. But if you’re willing to deal with a few headaches and slog through the sparse app selection, you’ll have a better handle on your privacy and be able to brag that you have a (mostly) open source phone.”

I recently installed Ubuntu on my desktop computer, and I was immediately beset by problems which couldn’t be solved by simply changing a few settings, but rather involved trawling through countless forum postings looking for answers. Once the answers were found, I then had to take a crash course in how to use the terminal to fix my problems. By this point, most normal computer users would have probably given up in frustration.

Of course one might argue that of course open source alternatives aren’t as polished as they don’t have huge corporations pouring millions into them, but the point still stands. If open source alternatives are going to make it into mainstream adoption, they need to be essentially at the same level of polish as the things they’re trying to replace. For some open source enthusiasts, the fact that it’s free/libre justifies glossing over potholes and bugs, but for the vast majority of people who don’t care about much more than having something simply work, the current state of affairs is never going to work.

I don’t mean to diminish the efforts of those who pour their time into community open source projects, but I think overall the standard of open source alternatives has to be lifted.

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