Funny story: a coworker saw me using Clonezilla the other day. I was sitting in the frigid server room (did I say room, it’s more like a closet really) and cloning the shit out of some laptops. He seemed impressed by the concept and asked me how much did it cost.
I did some mental math and decided that it couldn’t be that much. Knowing our server d00dz they probably bought the Dell PowerEdge server second hand somewhere so the whole thing was probably the discounted price of the hardware + the TB drive. No clue really, because these guys descend here every once in a while, attach themselves to the server rack for few hours and then vanish as suddenly as they appeared.
It turned out that my visitor was asking about the software.
Software of course is free. This did not register well. How could a powerful tool like that be free?
Well, it’s open source – I explained. And you can see that very well, by how the cloning process requires me to go through about 15 steps and configure it using a slightly cryptic ncurses interface. If this was a proprietary solution it would probably look much different. It would probably have two buttons (one to clone, one to restore) detailed graphical dialogs and animated progress bars – sort of like Norton Ghost has.
That sunk in. Free because it is not easy to use – it made all the sense in the world to him. Now, I didn’t say this because I’m a hater. I love open source software. In fact, I am a long time Ubuntu user. I love Firefox, I wrote my Masters thesis using LaTex (fun fact: no one in my thesis comity actually knew how to use Tex) and most of the software I wrote in my spare time was released under GPL. So I’m the last person who would want to badmouth open source projects.
Still… The above is often true. A lot of open source projects do require certain skill or know-how to use. There are plenty of exceptions of course. But for each Ubuntu, Firefox, and Open Office there is a Clonezilla, sendmail and Apache. Some open source apps are just not user friendly. At least not very much.
Is that wrong though? Nope, its not. A proprietary application can’t really afford to have an arcane user interface. The more difficult it is to configure and/or use, the less likely it is to find customers. When people pay for software they do require some level of convenience. Open Source software is often written by hackers for hackers and offered as is – no warranty, no support, no guarantees it will work on your machine. And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It usually works like this: Cheap, Powerful or Easy to Use – for each project you can pick any two. Open source software can afford to concentrate on power and flexibility forgoing ease of use. A lot of apps are a major pain in the ass to use, but once you figure them out, they offer vastly superior performance, and configurability than their user friendly counterparts. Prime example could be using LaTex vs. a WYSIWYG editor.
Back when I was writing my thesis I made a conscious choice to go with LaTex rather than word like all of my peers. This meant that I had to do extra work in order to embed figures and charts (such as converting jpg images into EPS files) but it was worth it. My thesis looked much better than most of those generated with word. The custom context aware kearning and word spacing meant I never had to worry about my paragraphs not being justified properly. I could change just about every aspect of my document (font, character and line spacing, margins, paragraph spacing, headings etc..) just by tweaking the settings in the preamble. And don’t even get me started on maintaining proper numbering of figures or bibliography.
Most of my friends thought that they were getting the better end of the deal. After all they just had to fight with the quirky WYSIWYG UI – while I had to actually comprehend the arcane LaTex syntax. I thought the exact opposite. I take a LaTex problem over an idiosyncratic UI bullshit any day. LaTex issues are usually logical – syntax errors, or faulty markup that can be isolated, debugged and corrected. Whenever my thesis got messed up, I knew it was my fault, and I could apply standard debugging strategies to resolve it.
Word on the other hand… Well, sometimes it just fucks up the document because of a stray keystroke, but there is no easy, logical way to debug it because you can’t see the markup. You have to guess, try different things, hit the undo button a lot and if everything else fails, revert to a previous save. Ugh…
The Clonezilla server we have at work is similarly pretty sweet. We attached a little switch to it, and all I need to do is to plug the machine to be cloned into that switch and perform a network boot. It loads up the OS, let’s me quickly configure it and then it just does its’ business. A proprietary solution would probably have much less flexibility for a much higher price.
So, easy to use does not always mean good and free does not always mean easy to use. Or something like that.