Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Open Source Battle Grounds

I often find myself at odds with a lot of FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open-Source Software) people due to my attitude on office suites.

To me, they're not the place to start introducing FLOSS. Those ideals about interoperability are lost when people then find they're having to adjust bullet points and the like when those same files end up on a different office suite. This is fiddly work (which I'm of the opinion should NEVER be a problem).

The matter is even more confused when there's already a de facto standard used in businesses everywhere.

The fact is, trying to replace MS Office with LibreOffice/OpenOffice and formerly StarOffice, is setting up for failure.

It's my belief that bringing FLOSS to a business should ALWAYS extend their functionality. Introducing GIMP to crop images in place of packages too expensive for most businesses to contemplate (in which case, a cost benefit is seen immediately) or building a database (a real database - which is NOT a spreadsheet or multi-sheet spreadsheet - more rubbish that I hear perpetrated) to help ensure data integrity and enable future expansion (i.e. a database can then be offered via a web front end or used with other information to build a more complete information management system) adds value rather than asking people to sacrifice something - whether it's as simple as user interface elements or more complex like sharing documents - they're losses. Introducing FLOSS should not cause a loss if you want to promote it.

I'm also not a fan of Google Docs. Sure, they're great for collaborative work - in fact, for this purpose, they just can't be beat. However, instead of the office suite being the limiting factor, the limiting factor has turned into the browser. Page breaks in a word processing document appear in different places depending on what browser you're using. There ALWAYS seem to be annoying nags if you're not using Google Chrome (OS, the Browser or Chromium Browser).

I'm a big fan of getting rid of office suites. I consider them to be HORRIBLY outdated technology.

Spreadsheets are great for small quick tabulated, the presentation is more important than data integrity, sort of quick jobs BUT extending the range that spreadsheets can handle (i.e. previously you couldn't have more than 65,536 rows) has confused their purpose even further.

They should be replaced by databases. This then introduces the opportunity to make a system work to a business rather than a business trying to work around a software package.
And no... I don't mean sqlite. Sqlite is probably good for stand alone programs but for the most part, those databases that are vital to a businesses everyday operations, need to be shared by multiple people. A more server-centric database:
  1. Has locking features which make them scalable (i.e. if one person has a spreadsheet open, then generally, the whole spreadsheet is locked (collaborative features aside - although in a version of Office, this caused all sorts of headaches). Having the capacity for an information system to scale brings with it an incredibly positive message - you're working with the business to help with it's growth.
  2. Clears the way for expansion such as having it work with other data in a consistent way.
  3. Helps with data integrity by ensuring everyone is accessing the information in the same way (hopefully by web based interfaces - even if not available on the Internet, designing interfaces for the Internet generally creates a OS/device agnostic interface).
The word processor could be a whole lot smarter. Rather than presenting you with a 20,000 formatting controls (on an individual character basis), I'm of the opinion that you should instead be able to use styles - yes, the same concept as web pages. Lyx, which describes itself as a document processor, is close except that it doesn't make it easy for you to define your own styles. Other word processors have a cursory nod in this direction but do incredibly badly at enforcing it (a friend of mine wrote up a document, sent it away for review, and then went through it again to fix up the structured nature of it - as pointless and just as busy work like as fixing up bullet points). Currently, writing up a document is a mad frenzy of content and formatting. What if, you could concentrate on the content and then quickly mark out blocks of text (That's a heading. That's a sub heading etc.) and let the computer take care of the rest?

I'm of the opinion that presentations are, in the normal course of things, done INCREDIBLY badly. The few good presentations I've seen have been from people who do presentations for a living. The likes of Lawrence Lessig and Al Gore. These presentations were used to illustrate something. I don't believe that the lack of presentation applications would have stopped either of these people from having brilliant presentations. They are the exception and people who have gone to exceptional lengths to have good presentations. Otherwise, they're bullet points - points to talk to. They don't engage the audience. It's much better to have vital information - that which you need illustrated - behind you such as charts. Something that helps to illustrate a point (when I was told I needed to have some slides behind me I agonised over it. I didn't want them. I didn't need any charts and I think they're more of a distraction than an aid when you don't actually need them. I spent more time agonising over those slides than I did actually thinking about what I wanted to say - fitting a speech to slides just sucks. The speech was awful as I was feeling horrendously anxious about the slides.) is so much more engaging than putting up bullet points.

So I think FLOSS has a huge part to play in advancing technology here. Instead of fighting a losing battle with trying to perpetuate existing terrible practises (based on MS's profits), FLOSS could instead be used to show people better and more efficient ways of doing things.

This really came home to me when I was trying to compile a report on warranties. Essentially, while trying to break down the types of repairs across each of the school's, I was finding I was having a hell of a time trying to get the formatting consistent. The problem would be the same regardless of which office suite I was using. Instead, I really should have been able to create a template and then select which sheets it should use to generate a finished report - charts and all.

Office Suites create bad (and soul destroying) work practises.

But back to the original point, when making a proposal, think about what value it's adding. Is it adding value? Is it adding value perceived by the intended audience? The revolution that oh so many Linux people talk about isn't going to happen by replacing like for like. Instead, it needs to be something better. Something that the intended audience sees value in. Something that revolutionises the way people do things. Things that encompass the best in Open Source Software - flexibility, scalability and, horribly important to me, customizability. All derivatives of the core concept of Free (as in Freedom)...

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