Open Source and Cost of Use

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.

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12 Responses to Open Source and Cost of Use

  1. Jenn UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    I applaud the use of LaTex over something like Word – for the exact reason you mentioned: if there is a mistake, you know it’s your fault and not the application. You’re in control.

    On the topic of open source – decided on Wordcamp, sucka?

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  2. I think that you went off on a tangent while writing, and decided to go with it, instead of going with your original thought, since your title != content. This is typically okay, but I was REALLY hoping for you to write a post about the complexities of the net gain, and such of using open source software.

    For instance: While converting an entire school to Edubuntu will save thousands of dollars in OS costs and such… it would also mean that they have to train their techs in Ubuntu, sending them through pricey education… then they also have to find new solutions to problems they once had, they have to pay the network admin to configure everything for a linux network, so moving all the users from something like novel to erm.. whatever typically linux uses.

    While in the long term, the move to linux is cheaper… the short term is it may be more expensive.

    Or in the corpate world… having each of your employees learning to use the new linux interface… may cut down on productivity so you may be actaully taking a loss from switching, even though everything is open source.

    Maybe this isn’t what you had intended to cover, and you just didn’t quite pick a matching title… but I would love to see a comprehensive look at this subject from your eyes.

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  3. Sorry that kinda sounds like I was being a douche.. I also enjoyed THIS post. I was just let down that it wasn’t covering what I was hoping it to cover. :)

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  4. road UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I think your Cheap/Easy/Powerful analysis is fantastic. I think it’s so astute it should be called “Maciak’s FOSS gambit” or something.

    Great post.

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  5. Ron NEW ZEALAND Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    It seems a fair judgement of a good chunk of open source software, I really need to get round to learning LaTex anyone got a good starting place for that?

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Jenn:

    Are they all booked now? I sort of got lazy and didn’t do anything regarding tickets and/or similar stuff. :P

    Travis McCrea wrote:

    I think that you went off on a tangent while writing, and decided to go with it, instead of going with your original thought

    Shhh… Don’t tell anyone, but that’s pretty much true for every post. Sometimes I change the titles though.

    Travis McCrea wrote:

    Or in the corpate world… having each of your employees learning to use the new linux interface… may cut down on productivity so you may be actaully taking a loss from switching, even though everything is open source.

    See, I think this is not entirely true. Let me give you two examples:

    1. Transition from Office 2003 to Office 2007 vs Open Office

    I’d argue that transitioning to Open Office is cheaper because it behaves much like Office 2003. So an average user can jump right in and feel more or less at home. Office 2007 on the other hand changes the whole UI completely, so it usually takes power users few weeks to adjust.

    2. Elderly Secretary

    Let’s say we have an elderly lady who was trained to use Firefox, Thunderbird and Microsoft Word 2003. She doesn’t actually understand the file system – she edits the files by double clicking the email attachment and then mailing it back. If a message pops up, she immediately calls the IT department. Someone has to walk to her desk in the morning and log her into windows because she just can’t figure that out. How hard is it to transplant her to linux? It she likely require no training and probably won’t even notice the change.

    So it’s relative.

    @ road:

    LOL. I can’t tell if this is sarcastic or not.

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  7. road UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    not sarcastic. i thought it was very insightful.

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  8. Kevin Benko UNITED STATES Konqueror Linux says:

    Concerning the discussions on the costs of retraining people on a new operating system or bit of hardware. While the end users may require some actual training in order to effectively use a new piece of hardware, I think that any “tech” should be able to just figure stuff out and teach themselves to use a new piece of software.

    While I may seem a bit harsh with respect to this, a real geek should be able to just figure out the basics of GNU+Linux, for example, without having to attend any formal training. Isn’t it in implied in the definition of a geek to be so damn interested in this stuff so as to just *want* to figure it out from scratch?

    At least, that’s my personal frame of reference on such things….

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  9. Kevin Benko UNITED STATES Konqueror Linux says:

    @ Kevin Benko:
    s/hardware/software/g

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  10. Regan CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I can relate to this. From what I’ve seen of open source software (and I’ve seen quite a lot), oftentimes what you’ll get is an extremely powerful tool packaged with a rather dated/clunky interface; it’s almost as if it’s a last-minute addition tacked on just to allow access to various functions. Now this isn’t always the case, of course (I really love the KDE4 interface, for example). Perhaps it’s just me being biased towards visual design – I think it plays a big role in application usability.

    As for your OpenOffice vs Office 2007 example, I can’t remember how many times my relatives have complained about the ribbon-style in the latter. Indeed, I think I’ve almost convinced my dad to switch (citing near-perfect compatibility with simple documents). To this day, I’m still pretty bad at navigating Word’s interface, but I’m sure Microsoft had a reason for making the design decision. I just wish there was an option to switch (say, on first use of the product).

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  11. Ryan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Luke, you have no idea how difficult capturing images can be with a proprietary system. We have altiris deployment where i work and it is a pain in the ass. Thing is, we have had it for years, we have sunk a lot of money into it and moving to an open source solution is seen as a net loss by management.
    This is because if we sunk 60K for five years into it, then for some reason it’s “worth” 300K and if we move to something that is free, then we are not using a “300k asset”. The idea that if we stop spending money on a product, there is this perception that is is somehow a loss, due to what has been spent in the past.
    I suppose that if we made up a line item for clonezilla that was less than the license renewal and support contracts for our current product, it would be seen as savings.
    There is even resistance to giving people open office on their work computers. A teacher has asked for open office to be installed on her computer and there is this idea that now she is wasting money, since the district pays for office and she is not using it. Her husband works for Sun and she doesn’t have office at home and likes using open office better than MS office.
    There are a lot of attitudes in management that need to change. I would say most IT staff and the users just want to get the job done.
    Management has to defend their budget against cuts and it seems like they like to throw around numbers to use in pissing matches against other departments. “We have 1800 computers and we have a operating budget of 1.8 millions dollars a year, we can’t cut x from that!”

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  12. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Well, I tend to agree with most of waht was said. I have used pretty much everything from an old ATARI (TOS), Mac OS, OSX, PC with DOS, Sun, PC with most or all versions of Windows, Suze, Ubuntu, Mandriva, Red Hat and a couple of others. All as a non-IT trained user, so, believe me, I have been in all sorts of pains. I have used proprietary and open source software on these platforms and free as well as paying soft. There is no rule. Some proprietary software is decent and well designed from a graphical point of view, user friendly and so on. Some of it is horrible in all aspects (and even the most expensive). The exact same is true of open source, be it gratis or not. I loved Ubuntu. I use Open Office. But for instance, I think the guys who made the Impress module of it (the equivalent of MS Power Point) should be hanged. It is simply poor work and reflect badly on an otherwise very decent (if a bit heavy) product.

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