It’s my choice dammit

Anybody who tells me I can’t use a program because it’s not open source, go suck on rms. I’m not interested. 99% of that I run tends to be open source, but that’s my choice, dammit.

I got my shiny new iPod Touch yesterday and even though I really like it for a number of different reasons, I can’t help but feeling a little bit guilty. I like Apple in general, but the iPod is pretty much as closed as a system gets and I don’t feel too good about giving my hard money to something that is rather opposite to what I think computing should be like.

Though I can’t shake off the feelings of guilt (and am concerned by the direction in which popular computing is going), I let practicality take the upper hand in this case. The reason I bought the iPod Touch is that there is no other device on the market that lets me do just what I want to with the Touch. I needed a light, mobile internet connection device that could connect via Wi-fi and fit in my pocket. Also, I didn’t want to spend a small fortune (for a college student). I didn’t want a phone with a plan (I hate phones) and I didn’t want to shell out $500+ for an unlocked Nexus One.

What I needed was basically a web-ready PDA for the modern day and the iPod Touch pretty much fits the bill. The calendar and mail apps work wonderfully with Google services and there are some good to-do list apps available cheap. If there was an Android equivalent to it (say the Motorola Droid without the phone part) I would buy it instead in a heartbeat. But there isn’t and I need something that gets the job done today.

Though I am very much an open source advocate, I’m not fanatical about it. I use OS X on a regular basis because I think it looks good and the UNIX underneath lets me do most things I need it to do (except perhaps package management, but I haven’t really tried that). On the other hand, I went completely Microsoft-free last week. I stopped using proprietary formats long ago, preferring plain text, HTML and PDF. But I nuked my Windows partition simply because I didn’t use it any more. I was back up and running with a beautiful fresh, 64 bit Arch Linux install in about an hour.

Having a philosophy and values and ideals is awesome, but in the end I choose technology that serves me best. If that means I have to spend a few dollars lining a closed giant’s coffers, then so be it. The reason I grew to love Linux was because it was so easy to tinker with and because I could write programs very easily. I never quite figured out how to write serious code in Windows and I’ve never been a big IDE guy. If Windows had let me program and tinker as easily, I would have probably stuck to Windows. Some would argue that Windows will never be that way because of its closed nature. I’m not sure I agree, but then again, I can’t say I’ve tinkered enough with proprietary systems to tell what can and cannot be done.

And of course no conversation on openness today can be complete without some mention of the iPad. I think it’s an interesting piece of tech, but it’s not something I will buy because I don’t have a plausible use case for it. I either want something I can carry in my pocket (the iPod Touch or iPhone) or I want a full fledged computer. However, I also understand that I’m not the iPad’s target audience. The target audience is people who don’t do a lot of typing and are more digital consumers than they are proper computer users. And though the iPad may be unimpressive from a technical perspective, it will almost certainly sell like hot cakes (as my friend puts it). And no doubt Google will push out an Android-based competitor to it within the year.

Part of my misgivings about buying the Touch has to do with the fact that at heart, I am a tinkerer. I like cracking things open to see what the parts do and then putting the parts back in a slightly different just to see what will happen. Seeing a mass market popular device that is so tinkerer unfriendly does unsettle me. But there are also things that I have no interest in tinkering with. I don’t want to jailbreak my Touch or run my own “unauthorized” programs on it, because there are far better things for me to do with my time. Computer technology is at the point of maturity where you don’t have to tinker to get things to work the way you work and I think that in general is a good thing. I care more about users having a good experience and getting their job done than I do about running a completely free software stack. If that means I need to throw a little proprietary into the mix, so be it.

Linus Torvalds does sum it up really well for those open source users who aren’t primarily motivated by morals or ideals: most of what we run is open source because it works and gets the job done. And most importantly, it’s my choice.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

2 thoughts on “It’s my choice dammit”

  1. I see these “i love open source but I’m not a fanatic about it” messages from time to time, and even sometimes feel compelled to issue comments along these lines, and I wonder what these all mean in the larger picture.

    Is it an expression of guilt at some sort of entrepreneurial spirit? Do we cringe when RMS says something in a way that we might not have said, and want to distance ourselves from him? Have the politics of contemporary issues overridden (various liberal causes, the current economy, Hati, etc.)

    Because the truth is that we probably are fanatical, by some term. Also, I tend to think that most “choices” aren’t really free in the sense that they’re always constrained by external factors. You may think you have some choice, but really the freedom to choose among a selection of choices is hardly freedom at all.

  2. In my own case, there was a certain amount of guilt about buying the Touch. I don’t like closed platforms and I think the way the iPhone device locks down the computer is really frightening. But I sometimes really get sick and tired of nnot having stuff work easily (and I have neither the time nor the inclination to make ALL my tools). And I don’t want to use a tiny 9inch netbook because it’s the only device that runs completely free software.

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