Computers Linux Music I Like Ubuntu Windows

The Songbird has hatched

When Songbird first appeared on the scene (I think it was version 0.1 or something), I remember the Ubuntu Forums community getting really excited about it. It was supposed to be like the Firefox of music players, the iTunes-“killer.” It seems as if it’s been years, and people have been hyping it up all along the way.

At intervals, I’d try it out and see how I liked it. Meh. I was never that impressed.

Recently, though, I came back to it on my work computer. Ever since newer versions of iTunes have broken compatibility with third-party efforts to set up global hotkeys for iTunes in Windows, I’ve been on the search for something very simple: a music player that will keep track of how often I’ve played songs in my library and give me global hotkeys. It’s not as easy as you’d think. I’ve tried Foobar2000 and XMMS. No go. So for a while I was just sticking with iTunes without the global hotkeys, and I decided it was too annoying.

For any of you who wonder what global hotkeys are for, I have a job where I do a lot of office work (filing, processing mail, running reports) and also answer the phone and sometimes talk with people in person. While I’m doing office work, I like to listen to music. I have my own office (not a cubicle), so I’m not bothering anyone. But if the phone rings or if someone walks in, I want a quick way to pause my music so I can give that person my full attention. And if I’m doing office work, I’m too lazy to create playlists, so I want to often skip songs I don’t feel like listening to at the moment. Global hotkeys help me do this without constantly having to Alt-Tab back to my music application.

Well, my return to Songbird has been a good one. I’ve now completely remove iTunes from my work computer, and I’m sticking with the bird. I’m very impressed that Songbird not only gives me global hotkeys and keeps play counts per song but it also has so many nifty little plugins. There’s an on-screen display when I change songs. There’s a plugin for looking up concert info for artists. There’s a lyrics plugin. There’s a play queue plugin. All great stuff that iTunes doesn’t have.

I feel as if there’s now a little bit of Linux functionality on my Windows work computer, and it’s great. Go, Songbird!

Apple and Mac OS X Asus Eee PC Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Would Apple’s netbook be the next iPod?

I remember back in 2003 when only a handful of early adopters in America were buying portable audio players. If I’m recalling correctly, some of the big players at the time were RCA and Creative, among others. Once 2004 rolled around and the 3rd-generation iPods came out, suddenly “everyone” I knew had an iPod. Soon, even armed with my Sandisk player, I had unknowing friends call my portable audio player an iPod. The iPod took over a growing trend and made itself a virtual monopoly in portable media devices.

In recent years, phones have been getting more internet-connected. Blackberries have been the standard for business travellers, but most everyday folks have had crappy no-name web browsers in their phones that can do only some very basic tasks. Suddenly, the iPhone came along, and now… well, not nearly “everyone” but it’s getting close to half of the people I know are getting iPhones or planning to get an iPhone when they can afford it. I had high hopes for the Google phone or the Blackberry Storm; however, all the reviews I’ve read of them have been mixed and make it sound as if the iPhone, despite its own flaws, cannot be beat for sex appeal to the masses.

Now we have these netbooks that are “popular” in the sense that early adopters are excited about them, but really very few people I know have netbooks let alone know of their existence. I bought an Eee PC 701, and I still love it but, like many netbook owners, know that the netbook has not reached its full potential. Some Linux users are optimistic, since most netbooks come with a Linux-preinstalled option, that netbooks could be the key to a Linux-for-home-user revolution of sorts. If that’s to happen, OEMs have to wake up and start making a netbook that is unreservedly the best. I’ve read literally hundreds of reviews of various netbooks, and with every review, there’s something seriously wrong. Some key is placed in the wrong place. The keyboard is too small. The sound is tinny. The processor is too slow. The battery life is too short. The Linux distribution it comes with is crippled.

Why is it so difficult? Really. If an OEM (Dell, HP, Acer, Asus, etc.) came out with a netbook that had these characteristics, I guarantee it’d blow the sales of the other netbooks out of the water:

  • 92%-sized keyboard with important keys in the right places
  • No weird side buttons for the touchpad
  • Nice aluminum casing, no cheap plastic
  • Sleeps when you close the lid, wakes when you open the lid
  • Ubuntu-based Linux that takes advantage of the full Ubuntu repositories
  • “Easy” interface that can easily (meaning a box that checked or unchecked, ticked or unticked) be changed to a more typical “advanced” interface
  • 2- or 3-second boot time
  • Definitely cheaper than the corresponding Windows option
  • Battery life of longer than 4 hours
  • Kernel supports 2 GB of RAM without user modification
  • Ships quickly, no extended delays

Why is that so hard to find? Why does Dell’s Mini come with some weird architecture that isn’t compatible with the regular x86 .deb packages? Why does HP’s Mini-Note use a Via processor? Why does any netbook run with a crippled version of Xandros or with Linpus Linux? Trust me, OEMs, for your own financial good, fix these problems quickly and come up with an all-around great product, not just a sufficiently-good-for-early-adopters product.

If the rumors I’m reading are true and Apple may enter the netbook market soon, this could be another iPod coup. I don’t agree with all the design decisions Apple makes. In fact, I actually am opposed to Apple’s whole approach to user interfaces. I cannot deny, however, that Apple thinks out its decisions and tries to create what they consider a good user experience. And they know how to make their products sexy. See, I don’t mind having an ugly MP3 player that also has a radio, has a really long battery life, and costs half the price of an iPod. But I’m not most people. Most people would much rather have a sleek iPod that costs more, has a cool scroll wheel, and works with iTunes.

I’d love to see Linux get some real success among home users, but if there’s not a Linux netbook that I can unreservedly recommend to friends and family before Apple comes out with one, I’m afraid Linux may miss the boat on this one. Or, even if Apple doesn’t come out with a netbook exactly, if the current line of netbooks stays flawed, netbooks themselves may die out, and the iPhone may take over yet another niche.

Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Please stop pretending Windows “just works”

As a follow-up to Macs are just computers, not magic and Macs are computers, not magic (part 2), I have to say based on recent events that people who say “There’s a reason 90% of home users use Windows” (and mean to imply it’s the quality of Windows instead of consumer inertia) or “Linux is for people who don’t value time. I’m going to stick with Windows because it works” are delusional.

Recently, at my job, I’ve been lending the occasional hand to the tech support department (even though I work in the Admission Office), and the problems we’ve been encountering have been problems that have challenged even tech support (not just the end users). I installed Adobe CS3 on a co-worker’s computer, and all of a sudden Microsoft Word would keep crashing and would start up in only safe mode. And a whole bunch of computers could not view embedded PDFs in Firefox.

Such incidents are not isolated to this job or any job at all. Throughout the last two decades, I’ve seen amongst family members, co-workers, and friends, too many Windows problems to even count. It could be anything from an “unknown error” when an application tries to start to a print job not going to the printer but being unable to be cancelled.

The next time someone says “There’s a reason 90% of home users use Windows,” I hope someone else replies, “There’s a reason 100% of organizations who use Windows have tech support departments.” As a matter of fact, computer problems existing has little to do with what OS you use. I’ve seen Mac owners complain about various Mac problems and Linux users complain about various Linux problems. There is no such thing as “just works.” Windows does not just work. Mac OS X does not just work. Linux does not just work.

The only way around this I can see is a redefinition of the phrase just works. Here’s my new working definition:

Fill-in-the-blank operating system has caused me personally (and no one else necessarily) fewer problems than other operating systems I have used, and when I do encounter problems, they are ones I can tolerate and not big enough for me to abandon this platform for another one.

Everyone who uses a computer either is a geek, becomes a geek, has a geek friend, or pays someone to be a geek. I know no one who buys a computer and thinks, “I know nothing about how to fix computer problems, I know no one who can fix computer problems, and I don’t ever want to pay money to have someone fix my computer. I don’t have to worry about that, though, since fill-in-the-blank operating system ‘just works.'” Anyone who would think that is in for a big surprise.

Further Reading
Windows Setup… or Why I hate Windows
What could it be?

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Windows

Why does Microsoft port Office to Mac?

So I know Microsoft has recently been trying to counter-market Apple’s “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” campaign with the Mojave thing, the senseless Seinfeld-Gates commercials, and the “I’m a PC!” declarations. Wouldn’t a simple tactic be just to discontinue porting Microsoft Office to Mac?

After all, I know there are people who use Internet Explorer-only websites and so have not been able to switch from Windows to Mac (now that the latest version of Internet Explorer for Mac is 5). If Microsoft stopped porting Office to Mac, that’d hurt Apple even more, wouldn’t it?

Well, I suppose they know what they’re doing. Maybe they’re worried about antitrust lawsuits or something. I’m no Gates or Ballmer.

Computers Education Windows

I’m an enabler

Last night, my wife called me an enabler. I guess I am. But I can’t help it. (Yes, I know—that’s what all enablers say!)

Here’s the deal (and this is not specific to the school I’m currently working at—this has happened at other schools I’ve worked at as well): When I see people doing something inefficiently. I say, “Hey, you know you can do it this way?” they get all excited, and then I show them how to do it a more efficient way. Then, even though they took notes on the process, they will still come back to me and say, “Can you show me how to do that again?” and I do. So, yes, I’m enabling those people. But I also know that if I said, “No, you took notes. You figure it out yourself,” they would just go back to doing things the inefficient way. They wouldn’t say, “Oh, yeah. I guess I should learn it myself” and then figure it out on their own based on the notes they took.

What does my wife have to say about it? “Well, let them do it the inefficient way, then. It’s their time, not yours.” I guess so. I’m busy at work, but I’m not so busy as to not have time to teach people how to do things correctly, and it pains me to see people spend hours and days doing something that can be accomplished in a matter of minutes, even if I have to show them two or three times how to do it.

I’m a classic enabler.

Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

The Linux Live CD Award

I’ve moved this post to be a page, but I didn’t want to delete the comments associated with this older post.

You can find the page here.

Computers Linux Windows

Dell Inspiron Mini Pricing “Scandal”

Linux users love to be outraged.

Ever since Dell started selling certain models with Ubuntu Linux preinstalled, Linux users on forums and blogs have been complaining that Dell hasn’t been doing Linux justice. Why did they pick Ubuntu instead of another distro? Why is Ubuntu available in that country and not my country? Why is Ubuntu available on only these certain models? Why isn’t Ubuntu advertised better on the Dell website? Why does Dell keep recommending Windows Vista Home Premium, even on the Ubuntu build-your-system-page? And why would a computer with a cost-free operating system (Ubuntu) ever be more expensive or the same cost as the same computer with a costly operating system (Windows)?

Back in 12 July 2007, after much outrage from the Linux community, Dell finally admitted the pricing difference was a mistake:

Dell Ubuntu Linux buyers were recently outraged when a price comparison between identical Inspiron 1420 laptops showed that instead of the Ubuntu system being cheaper, it actually ended up costing $225 more than the same laptop with Vista Home Basic Edition. This was after Dell had announced the week before that Ubuntu systems would be $50 cheaper than similar systems running Vista Home Basic Edition.

“Bottom line this was an oversight, pure and simple,” a Dell spokesperson told “We will be posting a comment to IdeaStorm to that effect by tomorrow.” In the meantime, Dell says that the prices have been reset to the appropriate prices.

Since then, though, comparative prices of Vista and similarly spec’ed Ubuntu computers has fluctuated. At times, both are roughly the same price. Then Ubuntu is slightly more expensive. Then Ubuntu is slightly cheaper. As far as I can tell, it comes down to Dell occasionally offering special discounts, “instant savings,” and promotional upgrades on only the Vista computers. So if you take the price as is, Ubuntu is cheaper. But if Vista happens to have a special deal that week, Vista will end up cheaper or with better specs for the same price. In other words, Dell is promoting Windows computers and only offering Ubuntu ones.

Various Linux users have proposed reasons as to why the Ubuntu computers might sometimes cost more or be only slightly cheaper than the same Windows computers:

  • Windows computers usually come with what’s known as “crapware” (all the free trial software people typically uninstall—AOL, Norton Antivirus, etc.). Those companies pay Dell to put that “crapware” (i.e., advertising) on its computers. And you typically see these programs on Windows installations more than Ubuntu ones, so the Windows computers are subsidized by third-party software vendors.
  • Windows licenses may be so cheap as to be practically free. Dell probably has bulk deals with Microsoft. I can’t imagine they pay even close to full retail on those OEM Windows licenses.
  • Microsoft, in fact, probably pays Dell. Why else would Dell Recommends Windows Vista Home Premium be plastered all over the Dell website? Do you really think they recommend Vista? No. They’re paid to recommend Vista.
  • Dell has operational costs. It is not as if offering Ubuntu is free, even though the operating system itself is free. It takes a lot of time to develop proposals, test hardware, work with Canonical, develop an infrastructure for support, and adjust the Dell website accordingly in order to offer a new option apart from Windows. Dell has to recoup that loss, just as a bookstore that orders you a special copy of a rare book might have to charge you more for that book than for a New York Times bestseller.
  • There are other components that do cost money. Even though Ubuntu itself is free, Dell has now added in legal commercial DVD playback and MP3 playback. Those licenses cost money, even if the Ubuntu ones don’t.

Given all of those factors, I’m frankly surprised the Ubuntu computers do not always cost more than their Windows counterparts.

I will say that given the price difference is usually quite small, you should buy the Ubuntu model if you want to use Ubuntu (instead of buying the slightly cheaper Windows model and then installing Ubuntu yourself). Just as there are short-term freedoms (I want to play this proprietary multimedia format now) and long-term freedoms (I want to be able to choose what multimedia format I play), there are short-term costs (paying a few dollars more for a Ubuntu laptop) and long-term costs (having Windows continue to be the main or only preinstalled option).

Money talks. Petitions walk.

You can petition and Idea Storm and Digg and blog and forum rant all you want, but if you tell Dell “We want Ubuntu preinstalled!” and then you buy Windows computers and install Ubuntu yourself, you’re really telling Dell “Linux users are all talk and no action,” which also means if you ever want to present Linux as a viable option for someone who wants it, you’ll have to keep telling them “Find a Linux geek to install and configure it for you or become a Linux geek yourself” instead of “Buy it online from this well-known company.”

I know people who pay more for organic or locally grown produce. I know people who pay more to support mom-and-pop businesses over Wal-Mart. Is it so wrong to pay a little more for Ubuntu when you know there are good reasons for it being slightly more expensive (it’s not just “Dell is out to screw us!”)? You can call it “voting with your wallet,” because that’s what it is.

That said, I really don’t understand where the whining about the recent Dell Inspiron Mini 9 release is coming from.

Let’s take a look at this on the US site. Right now, we have three base options:

  • $349 with Ubuntu advertised as 2GB of free internet storage from
  • $399 with Windows XP advertised as Larger Hard Drive
  • $449 with Windows XP advertised as More Memory and Larger Hard Drive

First of all, the Ubuntu one is the cheapest. I’m not talking value here. I’m not saying if you get the same specs, this one is cheaper than that one. I’m talking sheer money. So if you want to say “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Talk is cheap, and I should vote with my wallet, but that’s easy to say if you have money,” then that line of reasoning won’t fly. If you’re short on cash and have only $349, Ubuntu is actually your only option.

That said, it’s usually cheaper to have a base model than to upgrade. Some people have pointed out that after you match the Ubuntu specs to the highest model XP specs, the Ubuntu one is more expensive. Yes, that’s true, but after you match the middle-spec’ed XP to the higher-spec’ed XP, it’s also more expensive. After you upgrade the RAM to 1 GB and the hard drive to 16 GB, the middle model becomes $464, which is $15 more than the higher model’s base price ($449). So if you want to argue that Ubuntu is “more expensive” than Windows, you’d also have to recognize that Windows itself is “more expensive” than Windows. As a matter of fact, when you upgrade the Ubuntu model to 1 GB of RAM and a 16 GB hard drive and add in the 0.3 megapixel webcam, it’s also $464.

It’s not exactly clear from Dell’s website whether the XP models have the 2GB of free online storage or not, so I don’t know how that factors into the pricing. The main Mini page seems to indicate it’s Ubuntu-specific, but if you click on the Design tab, it has this little blurb, which seems to be attached to all the Minis:

Keep your files online! We’ve partnered with to provide 2GB of free internet storage for every Inspiron Mini 9 customer. Store, access, collaborate, and share any type of file through a secure, simple, and intuitive web browser experience. Plus, upgrade to larger accounts to store more files.

All that said, I am a little disappointed with the pricing overall (not Ubuntu pricing v. Windows pricing). When Eee launched its Asus Eee PCs last year, they were hyped as being as low as $199 but eventually came out as $399 with a later $299 model. The Inspiron Minis were hyped as being as low as $299, but now we see the cheapest model is $349, and its specs aren’t much better than the original Eee PCs (Atom processor and slightly larger screen, but that’s it).

I have a feeling netbooks will really take off when you can get a decent model with amazing battery life for $150 or $199.

In the meantime, if you want companies to sell Linux preinstalled computers, you have to buy Linux preinstalled computers. I thought it was “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.”

Computers Ubuntu Windows

Using the Windows key as a modifier key in Ubuntu

In my experience, by default Ubuntu seems to make the Windows key on keyboards a single key for the purposes of keyboard shortcuts. In other words, if you want to set a keyboard shortcut for an action to be Windows+D (for example, to have the desktop shown and all windows minimized when you hold down the Windows key and press the D key), Ubuntu will interpret this to mean you want the keyboard shortcut to be the Windows key itself (D doesn’t even enter into the picture).

So if you’re a Ubuntu user like me—you love keyboard shortcuts and don’t want the Windows key as a modifier key to go to waste—this simple tutorial should make you happy.

First, go to System > Preferences > Keyboard

Then, under the Layouts tab, select Layout Options

Under Alt/Win key behavior, select Super is mapped to the Win-keys. And then click Close.

You should now be able to go to System > Preferences > Keyboard Shortcuts and use combinations of keys with the Windows key for keyboard shortcuts.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Life Ubuntu Windows

The limitations of car-computer analogies

I’m less understanding of those who don’t want to learn how to take care of and fix their own computers than of those who don’t want to learn how to take care of fix their own cars. In many ways, cars and computers are similar—both cars and computers are complicated machines made up of various hardware pieces and some software (newer cars have software, anyway).

Nevertheless, there are some important differences between the two as well.

  • Even if you’re getting ripped off for car repair services, rarely will the cost of a repair rival the cost of buying a new car. The same cannot be said for computers.
  • While there are certainly communities and jobs that involve a lot of driving and no computer work, we are increasingly living in a digital age. If you work an office job of any kind, chances are you spend upwards of 50 hours a week on the computer, combining work and home use. Unless you are a truck driver, it’s very unlikely you are spending upwards of 50 hours a week driving.
  • Car repair is often more involved than computer repair. Yes, there are exceptions. It’s much easier, for example, to change an air filter in a car than to change a processor in a computer. That said, if you regularly do your own repairs on a car, you need an extensive workshop of tools and a dedicated garage. And it’s sad to say, but cars these days are being made so as to make it difficult to do your own maintenance. When I was growing up, my dad showed me how to change the oil and oil filter on my car. When I got a newer car, the oil filter was positioned in such a way that it wasn’t possible to get to it without a car-lift and specialized tools. Usually, with a computer, if there are hardware repairs or replacements that need to be done, all you need is about nine square feet of space, two screwdrivers, and your own two hands.
  • Computer repair is less physically dangerous. Yes, it’s possible if you do something stupid, you could probably electrocute yourself with some of the electronics inside the computer, get a minor cut from some of the sharp metal edges of the computer frame, or get a bruise on your pinky if you stick it in the fan while it’s running (shame on you for not unplugging the computer first). Still, I know of no one who has suddenly died from interaction with a home computer. I do, however, know people who have been seriously injured or killed by cars. If a car isn’t in proper working order (particularly the tires and brakes), you could kill someone. It’s okay to fiddle with your computer, as probably the worst you’ll do is fry your motherboard or cut a wire. It’s not okay to fiddle with your car unless you know what you’re doing.

The other thing to keep in mind is that almost all problems with a car are hardware-related. If there is a software problem with a car, you can’t just boot your Linux CD into the car and scan for viruses or edit configuration files. Computers can have hardware problems (loosely connected cords, failed hard drives, dusted-up fans), but the vast majority of computer problems are software-related.

Not everyone repairs her own car or computer, and that’s fine. Nevertheless, the level of ignorance of basic, common sense computer use I see goes way beyond the ignorance of good driving practices I see. Not everyone obeys traffic signals, changes their motor oil regularly, or drives defensively. But almost everyone I know who drives knows to fill up the tank when it’s low on gas or petrol. Drivers know to turn off the car if they aren’t using it for extended periods of time. They know not to drive 100 Km per hour in 1st gear.

I don’t see this same level of common sense amongst most computer users I know. They don’t think it’s worth their time to get to know how to take care of their computers (back up important data, learn how to navigate menus, avoid social engineering).

I’m not saying all this to be some kind of snob. I was in that place before, not long ago. I was a computer user who lacked common sense for a long time. Eventually I finally embraced computer literacy, because I realized it makes sense to do so since I had to spend a lot of time using the computer at work and began increasingly spending more time using it at home as well. I don’t think it’s that most computer users are stupid or lazy. I think it’s mainly that they’re scared.

To most computer users I know, computers are mystifying. When you’re scared of something and don’t understand anything about how it works, it’s easy to use it only for what you need it for and then ask for help whenever you need help instead of exploring things for yourself. I’ve had to teach a Mac OS X user how to install VLC, teach another Mac user how to add songs to iTunes, teach a Windows user how to change her Firefox homepage—these are all things that can be easily explored through the GUI if you just click on a few menus and read the directions.

If we do want to make an analogy between cars and computers, let’s consider a little bit of social engineering. Someone goes to a website and sees she “needs” to download an “ActiveX plugin” to view the site properly. All of a sudden, the computer slows down and there are pop-ups everywhere, and if she closes one pop-up two more pop up in its place. This is like driving to a store and having someone in front of the store say “Can you give me the keys to your car? You’ll need someone to watch your car while you go in the store.” Would you give that person your key? If it’s not a store and it is a restaurant, do you quickly learn to tell the difference between a genuine valet and a con artist valet? Maybe not with 100% accuracy, but I’d say most computer users indiscriminately click on things without considering what is trustworthy and what is untrustworthy, while they’ll at least consider whether a valet might be a real valet or not.

I’m not really sure what the solution to the problem is. How can we demystify computers for computer users who are afraid of computers? How can we convince them it’s okay to explore menus and read the messages in those menus? How can we get them to recognize that it’s worth getting to know how to take care of something you spend 50+ hours a week using? All I know is that the car-computer analogy doesn’t fly in terms of maintenance and repair.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Ubuntu Windows

Freedom for the short-term or the long-term?

As a Ubuntu Forums veteran, I’ve seen many disgruntled potential migrants return to Windows from Ubuntu because they wanted things to “just work.” They would say things like “I don’t really care about software freedom. I just want to be able to play video files and do what I need to do. The computer is just a tool.”

Just as in debates about feminism, there needs in software freedom discussions to be a distinction between short-term freedoms and long-term freedoms. If you use a proprietary operating system like Windows and use proprietary formats like .doc and .wmv, you will have a lot of short-term freedom. Buy any device from a consumer-oriented electronics store, and it will be Windows-compatible. Visit any website with Internet Explorer, and it will probably work. Watch any video online, and it will probably play. You can buy from the iTunes store. You can use Netflix’s Watch Now! Any commercial software will be available for purchase for your computer. It seems as if you can do anything. Isn’t that freedom? Yes, it is—it’s short-term freedom.

My wife isn’t really into the whole software freedom thing, and she uses a proprietary operating system (Mac OS X) and lots of proprietary software (Adobe CS3, Safari), but she recognized the other day the importance of long-term software freedom and open standards when she tried to watch a video at on her Mac. It couldn’t be done. It was an embedded Windows Media Player video, and she tried downloading some helper software, but that didn’t work either. Eventually she gave up, frustrated. Why would they make it Windows-only? That’s stupid. Why couldn’t they make it Quicktime?

Well, in that moment (just as when we both found out Netflix wouldn’t support either of our operating systems with its streaming video feature), she knew what it was like to be a Linux user. You don’t get any support. But why should you have to switch to Windows just to play a video? Is that really freedom? If I’m free, shouldn’t I be free to choose what operating system I want to run? My wife loves Mac OS X and would never want to switch back to Windows. She considers running Mac a software freedom, even if it means sacrificing the short-term freedom of watching a video. I love Ubuntu and would never want to switch to Windows, either. I’ve made many sacrifices of short-term freedom as well.

What proprietary formats (yes, Quicktime is one of them, too, as I explained to my wife) do is tell you “You have the freedom to do what you want… as long as you play by our rules.” That’s not long-term freedom. That’s bait and switch.

Take, for example, someone else I know who loves her Mac Mini but feels compelled to get a Windows computer for her new job, because they use Windows-only software, and she’s worried about .docx files not working on Mac. When you get dictated to what operating system you have to run and what computer you have to get, that is also not freedom. And this .docx business is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. It’s not even backward-compatible. If you have Microsoft Office 2003, you can’t handle .docx without some helper program to convert the file.

Open standards are good, and some short-term sacrifices along the way have to be made in order to get them adopted. In 2003, very few people were using Firefox, and there were many sites that didn’t work with Firefox, because there was very little incentive to follow W3C standards since “everyone” used Internet Explorer. Now, there are very few sites that don’t work with Firefox, since smart businesses realize they will lose potential customers if their sites work with only Internet Explorer. And increased Firefox compatibility has benefited Safari and Opera indirectly as well. Now people have a lot more long-term freedom on the web in terms of web browser choice.

You could argue, of course, that open standards and formats are not the same as open source, and that is true. Frankly, I’d be down with that. If people wanted to use proprietary software to create .odt word processing files and .ogg music and video files, I think even open source software users would benefit, and there would be very little software restriction.

If we are to get to that point of long-term software freedom, there have to be some people (like those early Firefox users) willing to make a few short-term software freedom sacrifices in order to have open source software and open formats more widely adopted. That’s why I like what Mark Shuttleworth and the Ubuntu community are doing with Ubuntu. It’s one of the few distributions that is treading a thin line on the free/proprietary line. It wants to be as free as possible while also recognizing that people are still very much reliant on proprietary software. Other Linux distributions tend to be overzealously long-term freedom-oriented or overzealously short-term freedom-oriented.

Yes, the computer is a tool, but if someone dictates which tool you use for a task, is that really freedom?

Further reading
Ubuntu’s Shuttleworth blames ISO for OOXML’s win