Monday, March 13, 2006

Open Source, Flattening, Wealth, Socialism/Liberalism, Creative Balance and Overly Long Blog Posts &Titles

OK. First of all, I have this idea that more of my posts should contain some useful information and not just long-winded, pyscho-babble rants. As popular as those are with the kinder. So we're going to start off with the useful stuff and then do the long-winded psycho-babble rant later.

Open Source stuff (aka usually, for most purposes, totally free), is picking up big speed. We've had shareware and freeware software for some time, and public domain content for centuries... but Open Source, per se... it's starting to freak me out... In a good way.

The highly useful, "free software"
portion of this really long post

Open Blogging: For example, this blog is created with WordPress, which is an Open Source blog engine, and beats (IMHO) TypePad, hands-down. And I know whereof I speak; I created and ran several blogs on TypePad for more than a year-and-a-half. And, while not a coder, I power-spanked 'em and jimmied the heck out of what you can do with a "Dummy-book" level of expertise. TypePad has some really nice features -- don't get me wrong. But WordPress has a couple hundred people who write add-ons for it, develop themes, etc. And it's free. You can host freely at, too. And, BTW... It beats the PICKLES out of Blogger. Don't even go there with me. I'm comparing WordPress favorably with TypePad, the top PAID-FOR service, for Bahamut's sake... Blogger? Yeesh.

So. Free blogging. Great. Who blogs? Some fonging large number of people that still doesn't approach "who cares?" as far as mom and pop are concerned. They just want a good word processor. OK. Try OpenOffice.

Open Write, Calc, Draw, Present, etc. OpenOffice is a suite of Open Source office products that work together much like... er... well... very much like... Microsoft Office. In fact, so much like MS Office that, well... you can stop using MS Office. OpenOffice also reads/writes to the same file types as MSO, too... so you can share files with them what's still using MSO. OpenOffice has modules for Writing, Presentation (think Powerpoint), math equations, drawing (think Visio), spreadsheeting (think Excel) and databases.

In a recent article at eWeek, some Microsoft flack said that OpenOffice is 10 years behind MSO. First of all, I remember MSO from 1996, and that's a lie. Powerpoint sucked ass in 1996, Word hadn't figured out how to integrate fonts properly and Visio had disappeared into some weird Land-of-Nod between the nice, small charting program it had been and the giant chunk of expensive code it is now.

I've used every OpenOffice module except the math editor and the database module; i.e., everything most normal people would use -- word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software and drawing package. They are all very, very fine. They lack about 10% of the "features" of MSO and about 15% of the polish. And it lacks 100% the price. They also have some features that MSO doesn't have, so there you go. And many of the features they don't have, are big old "who cares?" stuff for many people.

But do you know anybody for whom a $200-$500 per seat price tag (plus upgrades) is a "who cares" feature?
Early pedagogical warning: Not necessarily useful and yet really important information alert! Recently, the international standards body, OASIS, came up with a standardized OpenDocument Format (ODF) that is both official (as much as any international standards body can make anything official) and vendor neutral. Read: it applies equally to OpenOffice and Microsoft. [Shout out, by the way, to my company, OCLC -- ODF makes use of the Dublin Core metadata structure that was born in Dublin, home of OCLC, with the help of several OCLCers]. Why is this "really important?" Because it means that an "open" format is being chosen over a "popular" format. Get it? We'll come back later in the rant... In the meantime, if you want to read how Microsoft is responding, check this out...

[Updated 3/19 -- Another Open Source word processor; AbiWord.]

Open CMS. Content Management Software (CMS) allows you to manage Web site content on-the-fly, as it were. Once you've installed the CMS engine, you manage the content on the site itself, rather than using a program like FrontPage or Fusion. There are, literally, dozens of great, Open Source CMS engines out there. You'll need a host, as they need to be loaded on a server. You can get hosting, in some cases, for as little as $5-$10/month. I've tried a number of CMS packages and would recommend checking out tikiwiki, Mambo, Drupal, and Joomla. There's lots more. And some site hosts will do the initial install for you as part of the price, saving you that headache. So... for $10/month, you get a sophisticated CMS thrown in on-top-of your hosting package. Sometimes you can get multiple, different "scripts" (as the different enginges are called) installed, so you can try a couple out.

Open Wiki. There are a bunch of good Open Source wiki options. If you have a Web host already, it can be similar to the Open CMS option above. In fact, CMS and wiki run together in some cases. Tikiwiki's base content entry mode is a wiki... but it has modules for articles, polls, bulletin boards, etc., and so has "graduated" to be a full-blown CMS. If you have a host, and want to use an Open Source wiki engine, and don't mind using wiki syntax (a fairly simple "tag" bassed syntax), I recommend either MediaWiki (the engine used for the WikiPedia), PMWiki (incredibly simple install and good feature-set) or TiddlyWiki (a relative newcomer... but verrry interesting). Note: you can do a free version of MediaWiki at EditThisDotInfo.

If you don't have a host, and if you'd prefer to use a wiki with a WYSIWYG editor... funny thing, they both go together. Seedwiki has both free and paid hosting wiki levels, and a good visual editor that doesn't need weird codes. Same with Xwiki. Same with JotSpot. Of the three, I like the free version of Seedwiki best. Why are they free? Because they'd like you to upgrade to the higher-level, more feature-rich versions. We'll get into that in the "rant" section below. Keep your pants on.

Open Graphics. You want to be an artist, eh? Good for you. Start drawing with Inkscape, an Open Source program very similar to Corel Draw or Adobe Illustrator. For bitmap image manipulation, there's The GIMP. GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. And while double-embedded acronyms make me itch, the program itself is worth a look. Windows users should go here for the installer. I'd also be terribly remiss not to mention IrfanView, the single best graphics utility program ever made... and free since the day it began. It's the Swiss Army Knife of graphics utilities, and if you work with images, you need it. Go get it. I'll wait.... Cool, hunh? Irfan, you're a Bosnian code god! Long may you rock. I would love this program if it did nothing else but create on-the-fly thumbnails from giant piles of clip-art. Which it does fast and logically, with a menu tree. It also lets you create self-running, single executable file slide-shows from any number of images. Thank you Irfan! Why doesn't Powerpoint do that? I have no idea...

[updated 3/19 -- Paint.NET. Another Open Source PhotoShop-ish program]

Open 3D. For a long time, if you wanted to create sophisticated, funky, 3D, shadowy, light-bouncing graphics, you needed to spend a couple thousand bucks on a rendering package. Then a few good programs came along and lowered the price barrier significantly. I use TrueSpace, which is around $600, and rocks very hard. But that's still a bucket o' dough for students, people who want to experiment with the idea of 3D, cheapskates, anybody just starting out, many small companies, many non-US companies, etc. So... what're the odds that anybody would come up with Open Source software in such a narrow category. Check out either Art of Illusion or Blender. While not as sophisticated as TrueSpace or the (still) thousands-dollars alternatives... you can get great results. For free. The image at the top of this post was created using Blender; click on it for a high-res version.

Open Music/Sounds. No, this isn't about the new Napster. If you want free tunes, though, there are plenty of places to go. This is about making and messing with audio. Start with Audacity, an audio file manipulation program that, with a few, free add-ins, is as good as many store-bought alternatives. Then there's iabc, a sheet-music helper program. OrDrumbox is a drum-beat/drum-fill track creator. There may be more... I'm sure there are. I've been more heavily involved in the draw/design world, though... if anybody wants to ping me with additional music resources, I'll be glad to update this section.

Getting slightly preachy, now. Still about "free stuff," but with a slight twist and funky aftertaste

OK... I've hit you with a good double-handful of links to free software, arguably worth over $10,000 if you made up a number and wrote it down and that number was $10,000. In return for that Open Source information (this blog post), I ask that you read a bit further...

I know tons of people (my wife included) who use Yahoo mail. I have an account, myself. It's my backup email account. Only about eight people know about it... and 7,209 of the Spamtichrists (may they rot in the bowels of Shiva's dog, Fitz). I have it for when I can't get to my main email, which isn't very often anymore, but what the heck. And it's free. And I need one to have a MyYahoo page, which I use as my RSS aggregator. I also use Yahoo's Instant Messaging (IM) and Yahoo Music, all of which run off of... my free email account name. All of those services, save one, are free. Yahoo Music. I pay $60/year for unlimited access to some stupid (a million? I have no idea...) number of songs, which I can play on my home computer, my work computer, and download onto my MP3 player. I can also stream any song in the library, and listen to even more songs on a couple hundred LAUNCHcast Radio sites. If I sound like a fan, I am. I love music, and I get to listen to more of it, legally, and for less money with Yahoo Music than I ever did in the past. For about the price of 5 CD's a year, I've listend to about 50 CDs, and stream radio at work and at home pretty much all the time. With no commercials. Way, way cool.

Now, you are saying, this is not Open Source. No, it ain't. And neither is Yahoo!, which is advertising sponsored.
As is Google, which also offers free email and a bunch of other services. This model is very familiar to anyone who watched TV before there was a cable to plug in, or who still listens to radio. You get a free service (content of some kind), and, in return, you subject yourself to advertising. The advertisers suspect (rightfully) that some subset of the public will purchase their fine products, and so provide the content. A good deal all around. That's how it worked with me and Yahoo!. I used the ad sponsored email, was exposed to Yahoo Music, and bought it. Perfect.

But, wait, you are STILL saying... this has nothing to do with Open Source. This is not "free." It's advertising supported. Producers pay publishers/programmers to make the content and we get to watch/listen. Money changes hands. And, if consumers complete the circle and buy one of the sponsor's products, even more money changes hands. No Open Source there, you great bearded loon.

Pipe down for a sec and back off of your narrow definition of "money," and your narrow definitions of "producers" and "consumers." Because what we see, throughout the entire history of value creation, economics and commerce, is that, eventually, as systems mature, benefits that accrue based on an individual principle, eventually "bubble up" to become benefits at larger levels.

What the hey-nonny-nonny am I talking about now? OK. People learn stuff. Individual people. Fun things, helpful things, interesting things. These things are, initially, applicable at the "me" level. I can use this stick to hit animals on the head. Eventually, learning "moves out" and becomes available to groups: we can use these sticks to hunt bigger animals together; we can use these sticks to build Fenway Park. You never ever -- you simply can't -- start with the more complex, wide-level version of an idea. That's not how ideas are born.

Example: when it comes to commerce, the initial idea of, "You have popcorn, we have beer... we can make a deal," is very "low level." I trade my stuff for your stuff. Then comes money. Right? Slightly more complex. Symbolic value. Next comes the idea of trading for possible future value; temporal value shifting. At this level we get stocks, bonds, credit cards and... advertising. Because all of these concepts are based on the idea that something we're investing in now (stock in a company, the thing we're buing with a credit card, the advertising time in front of an audience) is worth more in the future than right now.

All of these things are great and have proved to be fantastic engines of economic growth. When people trust each other enough to say, "OK. I'll take your coin instead of a goat," it makes commerce much easier. Barter systems just suck. Systems like venture capitalism -- that bet on good ideas and a brighter future -- have built the modern economic world. When you take out a loan with interest, you are betting that "tomorrow will be a better day." Why? Because you're betting that you'll have the money to pay back the principle... with the interest.

These improvements -- advancements, if you will -- in economic management are great and add value to both the societies that use them, and the individuals who partake. Yay for capitalism and my mortgage. Seriously.

The same type of advancement, I believe, is what is happening in the arena of "value for participation." At an individual level, that's what advertising is. The advertiser provides funding for the content, and I reciprocate by adding value as a consumer. I may not buy every product whose add I see (who could?), but, in the aggregate, the proposition works. In the aggregate.... the aggregate...

And now, the socialist/liberal portion of our program

[Crap... this is a really, really long post. I'm going to make an executive decision (since I'm the only one who cares), and call this at least a 2-parter, and trust that you'll come back for a future installment sometime soon. I promise this all hangs together.]

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