The free software conundrum

I am a supporter and user of free software (though I admit I have not migrated entirely). I research and write about the social movement aspect of free software, and its potential as a model for alternative social organization beyond the realm of software development. I am inspired by the future envisioned by free software and take heart from its existence here and now.

All these things are true. Yet a faithful reader emailed me the other day to point out the inconsistency between my theoretical stance on free software, and my use of proprietary software. In my last post, I uploaded my conference presentation, Talking to Tech Activists: Another (Cyber)World is Possible, as a Word document, and the slides as PDF. I am well aware of this inconsistency – contradiction, really. In fact, I originally uploaded the presentation as an Open Office document. But then I recalled all the emails I get from folks who can’t open my OOo docs, and how I am constantly converting and resending these docs as proprietary files. It occurred to me that my readers – who knows how many – might not be able to open these files. I thought of those not savvy enough, or concerned enough to take the time to download Open Office (it’s free!) just to read something on my blog. So I weighed it in my mind: remain consistent and “true” to my work and beliefs; or, in the interest of broadly promoting free software and the various ideas contained in my work, upload the files in a format more likely to be more accessible to all.

I think I made a mistake.

It’s not the first time a free software advocate/user has pointed this inconsistency out to me. After my talk to the Vancouver Linux Users Group, I received another email, rather caustic, calling me on the carpet for presenting on free software using proprietary software. It was after that I switched to Open Office. Now I have the latest version of Ubuntu, ready to be installed (I just need to clear a day for technical maintenance and make the switch). It’s fair to say I have come a long way.

I have always liked and embraced Marx’s idea of praxis: the notion that theory without action is useless and action without theory even more ridiculous, and ultimately unsustainable. From the beginning of my academic career, I have criticized the academy for being out of touch with reality, for navel gazing and other forms of theoretical narcissism. I intended to be an activist, starting from the inside and working out, connecting ideas to action for social change “on the ground.” Not an academic content to warehouse my ideas securely within the ivory tower, speaking jargon to a select chosen few.

As I have traversed the long and twisty path to become a professor, I have tried to do this, to walk the walk, to be an authentic activist-scholar. And I thank my fellow activists, readers and practitioners for helping me in this. That is truly the wiki way. I cannot do my work without your help.

I told my faithful reader that I would write this post, putting up my presentation and slides as free software documents. And that I would encourage all my readers to download Open Office and give it a whirl. It’s like when you switched over to Firefox. Just as easy. Just as cool. And then you’ll be one little bit less a part of the Microsoft Evil Empire… But that’s another post… ;)

My free software presentation is here.

My free software slides are here.

J’espère que vous appréciez et je fais bon accueil à vos commentaires!

10 Responses to “The free software conundrum”

  1. Jean Hébert Says:

    Well said. Here’s an idea – why not present in HTML? Everyone with a browser can read it; no one owns it.

  2. Mike Cantelon Says:

    Before switching to Ubuntu I anticipated a lot of hassles. I found the hassles were not so bad.

    I still use some proprietary software, but don’t feel trapped in it like I used to.

    Congrats on making the shift!


  3. FamilyNature Says:

    I switched over to firefox the day you were here. :)

  4. Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD Says:

    You never cease to amaze me, Kate – This is a great discussion (with yourself, which is even better!)

    I had not tried OpenOffice, but I had been a slave to MS for a long time. Heck, I even had been a slave to EndNote. Since Tara Robertson introduced me to Zotero, I think I’m more or less 80% non-proprietary.

    I admit that it’s harder for me to publish a presentation in “Presentation” by Open Office than Power Point as I’ve mastered the latter but I am willing to learn. And I’ll eventually switch to Ubuntu

  5. tara Says:

    i’m in a similar boat to you. i believe in free open source software and am migrating my life over to use open source software wherever i can. sometimes, especially at work, it’s difficult. by using open source formats it’s a chance to start a conversation about proprietary formats. sometimes people have never thought about it. often i offer to show people how it works and answer their questions if i can. a few people have taken me up on this, and it’s been a practical way for me to contribute to the open source community. i don’t write code, but i can teach and help others learn.

    thanks for sharing your thoughts along this twisty path.

  6. christophe Says:

    This story has been submitted to! If you think this story should be read by the free software community, come vote it up and discuss it here:

  7. Robin Says:

    When sending ODF documents, you can inform the individual to download the ODF plugin from SUN.

    If the documents do not have to be edited, then send them as PDF as OOo can export as pdf.

    As you said, get them to download OOo. In many cases, it will make them legal as the copy of Office or Word may be borrowed. :)

  8. Karen Quinn Fung Says:

    I’m happy to expand on this when it’s not 2am, but this is the note I posted on this item when I shared it in Google Reader (with a further elaboration or two):

    Though I think Kate’s stance is admirable, I actually think it misses a larger debate about accessibility and turns it into a pissing match about the purity of ideology and format wars rather than focusing on what open source/open standards is really about to me: freedom of choice along a continuum of tradeoffs on ethics, usability and restrictiveness.

  9. KateM Says:

    Well, that *was* my point exactly: accessibility was my primary concern… and practicality has always informed my activism. But there is that moment of truth where the pursuit of change actually requires, well, change. How will free software spread if we don’t do the spreading? Along with evangelizing, resource sharing and skills building…. all of which surface in these comments… ;)

  10. Sigfrido P Says:

    At the risk of being bashed for playing the devil’s advocate, my heart is not truly with free software, and I have what I consider very valid reasons for it.

    I have experimented with open software for a little over 10 years now, and while it has improved, it still lacks the reliability and consistency of proprietary software.

    Take for example Linux, which has so many distributions that you need at least a few hours if not weeks in order to make an informed decision on which version to get (Knoppix, Ubuntu, Mint, Mandriva, etc.) especially if you are just trying to experiment.

    Well, that’s exactly what I did, and after trying Knoppix, Ubuntu and Mint, I simply gave up for 2 reasons: I could not get the maching to correctly identify my laptop’s resolution, and it could not get my wireless G card to work, despite trying packages such as ndiswrapper, and others. I had better luck 8 years ago when I installed a then-Mandrake Linux, was able to get a wireless card working within 2 days, and finally got bored and uninstalled.

    I fiddle with computers a fair bit, and I can do some relatively advanced tasks in Windows, but when after a full week of trying to get a Linux distro to work I have to give up, I know something is wrong. Just imagine the average non-technical user who just needs to get out a report quickly, or do some calculations to reconcile financials for fiscal year end having these kinds of problems, and you’ll see why they would never risk pulling their hair out for a product for which even users in forums cannot agree on a solution (believe me, I tried 50+ forums). At least with Windows you know that if you’ve saved your information throughout the course of the work, and something goes wrong, you can re-start the computer and continue working from the last autosave point.

    Let’s analyse another case from a different perspective: Firefox. Great tool, absolutely love it, and would never change it for either IE8 or Safari. Does anyone know that Mozilla Foundation pays its bills through the clicks they get from Google through the search bar? So there is an incentive there to make the product reliable, and the best it can be. Of course there are fantastic programmers who are doing pro-bono work for the browser and its extensions (such as the awesome bar – the address bar that will let you type anything and find related searches in your bookmarks, google, and history, kudos to the guy who wrote that). But the guys in Mozilla know that if their product isn’t reliable, someone is not going to get a paycheque soon, because users and ad-links will soon trickle down to a halt.

    For-pay software is no different from any other form of product or service available on this planet. You pay for cool Gap or Levi’s jeans, Nike runners, lululemon yoga wear, and even just for a shiny computer that has an apple on the cover, because they simply work for you, and have a value that is certainly bigger than the money in your pocket if you are willing to exchange one for the other. Why should software that allows you to do whatever you (legally) need (or want) to do any different?

    There is a reason why Microsoft, Apple, and all the associated hardware vendors have made millions, and that is because other people who agree with me have exchanged their money for the tools that these companies provide. Until free software gets its act together (Red Hat and Novell being probably the leaders), I doubt that things will change a lot.

    One last thing, for those philosophically opposed to proprietary software: Bill Gates is the largest philanthropist alive in terms of money donated to noble causes such as global health (reduction and control of malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, etc.), global development (agricultural technologies, etc.). Without any of the money he has made, none of those programs would be a reality. I suggest you check the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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