Proprietary software and OS choice

Open Source Software

One of my favourite podcasts is LUGradio, one of only two that I actually subscribe to (although I have many one-off podcasts). This is primarily for the entertainment value, but it is also good to keep up with what’s happening in the Open Source Software (OSS) world. One of their main ‘beefs’ is that any software they use should be open source, primarily on philosophical grounds.

I can’t remember a specific quote from LUG radio, but in parallel, Mark Pilgrim recently caused a minor kerfuffle because he switched from Apple to Linux, after 22 years of using Apple computers.

Mark has been a firm believer in open source software for years, and wrote possibly the most enlightening article on why open source software is more valuable which concludes:

In the long run, the utility of all non-Free software approaches zero. All non-Free software is a dead end.

However, the main issue of his switch revolved around data, the final straw being the undocumented proprietary email format that OSX uses for it’s mail program:

It took a lot of forethought on my part, not to mention actual time and effort, to convert all my disparate mail archives from all those different mail programs. I finally got everything into a single archive in an open, stable format… and just 3 short years later, Apple found a way to screw me one last time.

There are also some good points on data fidelity, as repeated conversions will loose data.

I don’t care if the software I use is proprietary, but I will refuse to use something that locks my data in a format that only it can read/write satisfactorily.

This way of thinking is common for ‘Web 2.0’ applications, from Simon Phipps:

it takes full substitutability for me to have the confidence to stay as well as the freedom to leave. That’s why Stewart is spot-on with Flickr’s policy and paradoxically will keep my business by allowing me to leave at any time.

But this approach is far from common in desktop programs, even with the greater overlap you see now between desktop and online applications.

Backups and data longevity

Tim Bray made a fantastic post on doing backups well. My approach is similar, but I tend to simply use rsync and copy my home directory (or ‘my documents’) to an external hard drive. (Yes, you can use rsync on Windows to.)

But for this approach, in fact, any backup approach to work, the format you save things in will determine if you can use the data in future. For example, the only documents I had from before University are Wordstar files, which I can’t read anymore because I don’t have that program. That is on the same platform, what happens to all that music you have in Windows Media format if you want to switch to another OS?

For these and other reasons there are only a few formats that I am happy using. From a cursory glance at my files:

A human-readable text-based format is always a good start, and (X)HTML will be usable as now for many years. Even if we stopped using browsers, it is built from a public spec that could be used to build a browser in future. I use this for web sites and presentations.
These are all based on published standards, and although not necessarily ‘open’ they are common enough to be supported for the foreseeable future.
Actually Ogg Vorbis would be the correct choice here, however, player support is still limited, and due to most people thinking MP3 = digital music, support is pretty much universal. All of my music is in MP3, or quickly converted to MP3 after buying through the iTunes store.
Open Office Docs
Open Office provides a pretty good alternative to MS Office, and uses an open format that is essentially XML. The XML and associated files are saved in what is effectively a zip file, so even if there were no office applications in future, it is still XML. It also uses the OpenDocument Format, which Microsoft will reluctantly be supporting.
A slightly surprising choice perhaps, but as far as having documents that are intended to be printed, PDF is a perfectly valid choice, based on a published spec.

Choice of Operating System

So what does that mean for my choice of OS and applications?

These days the choice is fairly open, with the Mozilla organisation providing the main applications I use (Firefox & Thunderbird) across the three main platforms, these aren’t a point of contention.

Another important application for any web developer is the humble text editor, and my first choice is jedit, another cross platform choice. Open Office has always been available for Windows and Linux, and now the Intel Macs have been released, it is no longer the poor cousin on Macs.

For media players, I favour iTunes, Media Player Classic, and also keep VLC. I switched to iTunes well before getting an iPod because it was far superior to anything else for organsing your music. It helped me turn 3,000 poorly IDed tracks into a coherent collection. It was much quicker at listing large playlists than Windows Media Player was at the time.

Thanks to jHymn I can buy music from the iTunes store and convert it to a regular (unmarked) MP3. However, it doesn’t work with iTunes 6, so if I switch to a Mac I’ll have to go back to buying CDs to rip.

That covers the main applications. Obviously it is somewhat different at work, it is very difficult to avoid the Windows lock-in there.

Deciding factors

So what OS would I choose at the moment? It should have everything I use currently (under Windows), but I would like better terminal access, which points me towards either OSX or Linux.

I’d make a different choice to Mark Pilgrim, despite having similar concerns. The deciding factors are:

  • Hardware – Software integration: There are certain things that are hard to do on Linux, or Windows for that matter, that require good hardware/software integration.
  • I’m not prepared to spend much time configuring a Linux system. I will give Ubuntu a go again at some stage, but it seems a lot easier to get going quickly on a Mac.
  • I’m not a programmer, and whilst Mark Pilgrim or Tim Bray can contribute to changing an Open Source OS, I would be way out of my depth there. I’m also not willing to wait for it to happen.
  • Windows genuine disadvantage is really annoying, Apple may not be very open, but they aren’t actively snooping.
  • Windows Vista appears to be getting watered down, and probably won’t be where OSX is now, regardless of any improvements from Leopard that will be released about the same time as Vista.

I’m in a different position to Mark, and have made different choices (e.g. using IMAP).

So there you have it, I’m saving up for one of these.