Tuesday, December 19, 2006

It always comes down to freedom

Some of the trollish comments on the Dot and the link to the Adobe thread where KDE is described as something written by college students brought to mind a phone-in show on CBC Vancouver. The guest was a technology guru, and offered to help people sort out computer questions. The majority of the calls were from people trying to get things done in spite of the limitations that came from software publishing firms trying to lock down their data and formats, or lock out a competitor. Yes, some problems were about Adobe products.

I called in, and said that most of the issues that were brought up could be solved by using free software.

Now I don't have my head in the clouds, thinking that the KDE desktop is vastly superior to everything else out there. No. There are many areas where it is incomplete, and for some not functional enough for their needs. But inexorably it progresses, and eventually will become complete enough for most people.

But the fundamental strength is freedom. Every time I use some proprietary application, even on my linux box, there is always an insistence on preventing me from using the application freely. Sometimes I am forced to use these things. But I am finding that there are more and more free alternatives, and I find the freedom is of far greater value than some neat feature. In fact, freedom is the neatest feature of all.

This is constantly being confirmed when dealing with the plethora of embedded devices at work. Why would a bleeping thermostat have bleeping software bugs? And what the bleep are we to do when more and more of our lives are controlled by trashy software? And we only find out about the bugs long after the systems are installed, and usually during extreme circumstances, like Canadian winters. I dream of a time where the code would be available for all these things, with the ability to fix and update the software. I'm reminded of a story told by a technician who works for the local school district. He is a highly qualified programmer, but decided to leave the industry after one too many death march projects. The school district had an intrusion alarm system installed that would fail reliably under a peculiar circumstance. He removed the rom chip, disassembled the opcodes and found a bug in the software. The manufacturers refused to fix the problem. So he burnt a new rom, installed it and the thing worked as expected. A hacker in the true sense of the word. Unfortunately I think we are doomed to the sloppy and closed, but damned if I'm going to submit to that tyranny if I have the choice.

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