Why public institutions need public software Donald Winslow, 22 July 2011
Like many GNU/Linux users, it was Microsoft that drove me to free and open source software. Of course, Microsoft is not the only company that patents software. But Microsoft was so successful at making its private code the standard throughout our institutions, public and private, that I could no longer stomach it. I don't blame Microsoft for that; rather I fault the users and the decision-makers who let it happen.
As a grad student in the 1990's I watched the applications we used for our work (e.g. WordPerfect, QuattroPro, Paradox, Netscape, Pine) being replaced by Microsoft software, even though this company's software wasn't designed or marketed primarily for academic use. Academic societies that once asked for conference abstracts or manuscripts to be submitted in WordPerfect were now asking for them in Word. It was not so much because of a difference in the functionality of the software, but rather Microsoft software was becoming the standard. Because it was what was used by businesses and academic administrators, it became more convenient for scholars to use it.
Common standards in software are important; they allow applications and institutions to interoperate. But common standards should be publicly owned, not proprietary. Furthermore, the tools that are useful for business and administration are not necessarily going to be useful for scholarship. For instance, if you make a piechart in Microsoft Excel the default is a "3D" format; the chart is tilted so that it appears to be a three-dimensional object. That might look nifty in the boardroom, but it's not at all useful for an objective examination of the data--the area of each slice is not proportional to the percentage it represents (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Two-dimensional and three-dimensional pie-charts illustrating the proportion of months in a year that are < 30 days, 30 days, or 31 days in length. Both graphs produced with LibreOffice Calc (Document Foundation, 2011).
These days there's no reason for documents to be submitted in a proprietary format (such as Word); we have the Open Document Format (OpenOffice.Org, 2011; Document Foundation, 2011). Any modern word processor can save or open a file in Open Document Format (.odt for word-processing files). If your version of Word is too old to handle these files, and you can't afford to upgrade, you might consider downloading a free office suite from OpenOffice or the Document Foundation (LibreOffice). This essay was originally composed using LibreOffice Writer.
Some argue that software should not be patentable at all (Free Software Foundation, 2011; End Software Patents, 2008). That's a complicated issue, and I can see the arguments on either side. But certainly our society has gone too far securing the intellectual property rights of large corporations at the expense of users. One of the central rationales for the patent system is that it can encourage innovation. When it stifles innovation, it needs to be regulated or refined or reversed.
I'm not going to argue here that a company should not be allowed to place restrictions on the use of its software. But when quality software is distributed without such restrictions, this is the software that should be adopted as standards by our public institutions. If nothing else, it's a matter of interoperability. For instance, many government websites are optimized for access by Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE). The reasoning here is that IE is the browser that most users have installed on their systems by default. The problem is that Microsoft only distributes IE for use by Windows, their own proprietary operating system (Microsoft Corporation, 2011a; Wikipedia contributors, 2011). Furthermore, they do not release the source code or allow others to port the application to other operating systems (Microsoft Corporation, 2011b). So a user that needs IE to access a website cannot reach the site from a Macintosh or a computer running a free operating system such as Linux.
To pick on another company, let's consider videos that are posted on the web. Most videos posted on the web require Adobe Flash Player (Adobe, 2011a) in order to be viewed within a browser. For instance, my local city government posts periodic video updates at http://www.shawneeok.org (City of Shawnee, 2011), always requiring Adobe Flash. Well, what's the problem, it's a free download, isn't it? "Free" as in beer, as they say, but not free of restrictions on sharing and modification (Adobe, 2011b).
That might seem trivial for the typical end-user. If I don't have coding skills, I'm not going to modify it anyway. And if I want to help someone else obtain it, I can just point them to Adobe's website (Adobe, 2011c). However, it's a major annoyance if your operating system is not well-supported by Adobe. As a Linux user, I can quickly and easily install and use any of tens of thousands of applications for no cost. That's because there are many individuals, companies, and organizations who cooperate to develop open-licensed software. If source code is available for a particular application, chances are someone has already ported it to my platform of choice. Unfortunately, Adobe's software is not open-source, and Adobe does not distribute a stable version of Flash for Linux on 64-bit architectures (Adobe, 2011d). It takes a certain amount of wizardry to get 32-bit Adobe to run on a 64-bit Linux installation; one needs to figure out all the other 32-bit packages that need to be installed in order for it to work (see, for instance, Ubuntu contributors, 2011).
So is that Adobe's fault, or is it my fault for using Linux? I don't blame Adobe, really. Like any company, their primary goal is to maximize profits. They've made the strategic decision not to emphasize Linux support, and instead focus on providing quality support for the various mobile platforms that are gaining marketshare (Adobe, 2011e). I also don't believe that it's a bad decision for me to use Linux. It allows me to be much more productive than I could be with a proprietary operating system. Yes, much of the software I use can also be run on Windows or Mac OS X, but the software repositories and package management systems available with many Linux distributions (e.g Fedora.; Hradílek et al., 2011) make it much easier to add and remove applications. There are other advantages and disadvantages of using Linux, but the main point is that I should not be forced to use a proprietary operating system by public institutions if I choose instead to use a free operating system. If a government agency wants to post a video for citizens to view, they should post it in a free format such as WebM (WebM Project, 2011). That way any modern operating system can play it.
I can't end this essay without saying something about Facebook. Facebook is a very innovative and powerful platform, and it has even facilitated major political change in several countries during the past year (e.g. in Tunisia; Leavitt, 2011). But it's getting to where one has to use Facebook to do business any more. Facebook is privately owned, and public institutions should develop similar platforms to provide modern communication infrastructure to citizens. Facebook open-sources at least some of its software (Facebook, 2011a) and has recently open-sourced its hardware specifications (Facebook, 2011b). I hope public institutions will use these resources or similar software (e.g.; StatusNet, 2011) in order to provide forums in which we can discuss the important issues of our time.
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"Why public institutions need public software" by Donald Edward Winslow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.