Free software- it still costs you!

October 29, 2011 - General Computing, Programming

Oftentimes, when comparing software products in the same market, you’ll see comparisons made where one product has a “pro” over another based entirely on the fact that it doesn’t cost money.

I’ve never understood this. It doesn’t make any sense, when you think about it. Sure- if the two products are extremely similar in form and function, then the comparison is valid- because all other things are equal within a margin. But the problem is, when it comes to free software, they typically don’t stack up to commercial ‘evil’ proprietary Applications.

For me, I learned this by way of text editors. This is a very simple type of application, and one would assume that out of the bajillions of free offerings, one of them would also be easy to use, and meet my needs. This was the case, but I was stymied by what I found in a lot of them.

For example, I have often seen free, Open Source applications, such as emacs, vi, etc touted as “the de facto text editor” application, and held up as some kind of standard.

I have to be brutally honest here- if those are some sort of standard, then that is a pretty damned low bar.


How is this even something to consider for everyday text editing? It’s about on par with WordStar in terms of finger-contorting shortcuts, and it reminds me of edlin, except that it is powerful; That much I can see. But when I need to become a god-damned apprentice to a ancient VI master to learn how to use the software application in a way that fits my needs and need to “train” myself even longer in order to do so adeptly, I’ve lost. My time is not valueless. It doesn’t matter if the software was free, or if I can edit the source code. For one thing, I don’t try to judge software as if being Open Source automatically makes a piece of software sit on some sort of moral high-ground above others. I want my software to work and do what I need. That is it. software should be judged on it’s own merits, not on it’s license.

One thing I noticed with free text editors, was they all seemed to have too many features, poorly organized.

notepad++ is a fine application. But it’s menus are an absolute mess. Being Open Source doesn’t mean you can ignore basic UI Design guidelines. Same goes for the Graphical versions of Vi/Vim (gvim) and for emacs. I have no doubt these are powerful tools, leveraged by plenty of people worldwide. But I cannot personally justify the time investment it would take to learn these applications, when there are plenty of other applications that provide exactly the functionality I want in an easy to use package. Also, from what I’ve seen, becoming proficient in either emacs or vi turns you into a condescending douchebag. gedit is a fine application- it’s free. It has syntax highlighting, and it’s menus actually make some bloody sense, and yet time and time again I see Linux veterans saying it is only for “noobs”. I want to edit my text. That’s what it does. The problem they have is that they invested so much time in learning an overall badly designed (UI-wise) application, and now need to justify that time investment by putting down those people who avoided that time investment in the interest of getting things done.

The free software I found that met my needs at that time was Editpad Classic. This program was (and is) a closed source application. I didn’t, and still do not care. It did what I needed. Then, when my needs grew, I found the same vendor had a product called “Editpad Lite”, and I found that to be sufficient as well.

When I started this website, I needed a efficient way to upload and edit files to and from my webhost. Upon reading the descriptions of features for that same company’s paid offering of the same product (Editpad Pro) I found it seemed to fit my needs perfectly.

Ever thrifty, however, I decided to prowl the web for free software with similar features. Notepad++ had an FTP plugin, but it was unweildy, stubborn, and finicky. No other FTP capability seemed to match. So I purchased Editpad Pro, and I am still using Editpad Pro (still using version 6) to this day for this very capability. Being able to make quick changes to my news page, edit the PHP code of any file on my host, at the touch of a single GUI button is something that I value. Again, I value my time more then some self-inflated sense of pride. Sure, I could:

  1. download the appropriate file I want to edit using wget
  2. edit the file using a powerful program like vi or emacs
  3. use ftp to upload the file back to the server

But I cannot see any reason to do that. I can do all of those. But why are they disparate tasks? All I want to do is edit a file on my webhost. Why is it that an editor cannot edit a file simply because it happens to reside on a remote server? Why do I have to go through an arcane ritual of download->Edit->Return to sender just to edit a single file? And why do people seem to think this is in any way superior to the time-saving method of simply using an application that does this properly?

Returning to Open Source; It’s fine! I have no problem with it at all. I plan to release BASeBlock’s source code under the BSD/MIT license. But I don’t feel that an application being open source gives it value. The fact that an application is Open Source, in fact, means absolutely nothing to me. I only care about whether it does what I want. I don’t care if it has the potential to do what I want if I make changes and recompile the program, because that means it’s not free at all, costing me time I could spend not editing somebody elses program. People often tout the “Open Source” label, as if it matters. It truly does not. In the majority of circumstances, you don’t need, and you do not sanely want to view and edit the source code. How many people can look at the source code for perl, and make sense of it- only the maintainers. That is their job; even if they volunteer, thats what they like to do. But Why would your average user want to recompile the perl interpreter? I can’t think of a good reason. Same for nearly any other Open Source application. I’ve never downloaded and used a Open Source application and thought “hmm, it’s missing this feature- I know, I’ll waste the next two weeks staying up until 2AM and adding it”. No, what I think is “Hmm, this software application is missing this feature, I know, I’ll stop wasting my time using it and find something that does”.

I think the best summary I can come up with is this- Being Free or Open Source does not excuse sub-par design and implementation; and, at least in my opinion, I don’t see a reason to use any application based entirely on it’s license or distribution method. It’s almost as arbitrary as using an application over another because one of them is written by a catholic and the other is written by a jew. It’s a arbitrary and irrelevant to the meat of the matter which is whether that software does what you need it to.

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