Unlock Your Data with Open Software

So you're a rich and famous computer geek, or aiming to be one in the future.  Or, perhaps a broke high school/college student with dreams of conquest.

In any case, there's one potentially destructive addiction you may have acquired that needs to be broken sooner or later, and that is the use of closed, proprietary software.  The sooner we start moving ourselves away from it, the sooner we start protecting our hard work and experiencing the same freedoms that we enjoy in other areas of our lives.

Now of course there are many fine software packages for sale and I don't begrudge their publishers of (usually) hard-earned profit, especially the little guys.  In some rather large niches, there simply is no usable open alternative.
However, what we are focusing on today at Geekademy is vendor lock-in, the ability of closed software (or hardware) to lock up you and your hard work for good.  The goal is to squeeze as much money out of you over the long term as possible.  Sometimes however, a company goes out of business, or simply drops the product if it decides your market segment is no longer profitable enough, leaving you "high and dry."

The best example of the former is Microsoft Office.  Every few years comes a new version and file format that is incompatible with the last, which is by design.  I'd wager 90%1 of users were happy with Office 2003, and would continue using it if it were maintained.  I'd also guess that roughly 75%1 would do just fine with Office '97!  (The second 32-bit version if memory serves.)

Unfortunately, to keep up with the bulk of Office users, you'll have to spend hundreds of dollars for the privilege of upgrading.  Alternatively, You could grab a pirate copy of course, breaking the law.  As a kid, I didn't mind making copies of expensive software since I wanted to learn it or use it, and did not have lots of $$$ laying around.  In fact, software companies don't mind this as much as they publicly complain, since they know that one day they will get money out of addicted users and some value thru network effects.

But, that was then.  With so many great, free alternatives available today, why waste time, why bother to do either?  It just doesn't make sense.  So, instead of continuing to line Bill G's pockets with your own sweat and tears ... it is time to start planning ahead.  Planning to put yourself first, with as many types of software as possible.

To recap:
  • Proprietary software is expensive, and designed to keep you addicted and paying.
  • Every five years or so, you will be forced to a new version, or left behind.
  • You may lose your data forever if the company goes out of business, or simply decides to discontinue your product.
  • Time is your most precious asset.  Your data = time.
    This one may be hard to understand when young, but it will become clear soon.
  • "Big Media" Corporations would love to determine how you are able to use your computer.  They are actively working on methods to enforce their rules on you right now; their primary lever being closed software and hardware.  Don't contribute to your own economic slavery.
But with open and free, (as in freedom) software:
  • Save $$$!
  • Copy at will for friends!
  • No activation bullshit.
  • Pirates go legit.
  • Keep your options open.
  • Many are best of breed, e.g. Firefox.
  • Gives you a choice of applications to use with your data.
  • Open formats will be readable far into the future, and easily convertible if not.

But wait!

"I can't move everything now, I need feature X ... I need to exchange Y with Z!! I'm not switching to Linux, the games aren't as good!"
You may be thinking the thoughts above.  There are certainly costs to switching, but they are not much larger for example, than switching to Office 2007 with the new ribbon interface or from XP to Windows 7.  The truth is, you don't have to move everything now, so don't.  Start now, little by little, and in a few years you will have the freedom to use any platform you want.

How to get there from here

Below, a plan of action for a Windows/Mac users:
  1. Start using free(dom) and open-source software now, in as many areas as you can.  In other words, if you can't use one of these examples, then move to the next.  E.g.,
    • Firefox as your web browser
    • OpenOffice as office suite
    • InfraRecorder for disc burning
    • And many more.
  2. Convert closed data to open formats as needed on demand.
    • .doc to .odt
    • .psd to .xcf, .png
    • Flash to HTML5+Javascript
    • If you haven't opened a document in years, delete, archive, or convert before moving on to the next step.
  3. A few years goes by ... (it will anyway)
  4. Move to an open operating system, such as Linux or BSD.
    • The move is easy, since you are already familiar with the applications.
    • Keep any old, but necessary programs running with Wine
    • Keep any others running in Virtual Machines.
      (Windows 7 Pro has XP in a virtual machine anyway.)
    • Visit corporate apps using Remote Desktop
Even if you don't go all the way to step four, steps two and three give you choices you'd never have otherwise.  Maybe a Mac is in your future, who knows?

Coincidentally, these are the same reasons not to invest time in closed languages and development platforms such as C# for your own projects, when you could just as easily use Java or Python.  A topic for another time.

Further reading:
  1. Numbers I pulled from posterior regions, but in the ballpark of reality.

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