Free software alternatives: What good is choice if you don't use it?

Free software alternatives: What good is choice if you don't use it?


Look through a list available packages for any free OS and you'll find a sometimes bewildering choice of browsers, mail readers, editors, desktops and tetris-clones available. Despite this many will just blindly install the first one they've heard of. Is this a good policy? What good is all this choice if we don't use it and what are those choices?

Note: please see the bottom of this post for a list of free software alternatives available now!

Choice: good or bad?

Choice has been trumpeted as both an advantage and disadvantage of free software. Being able to choose what software you use and how is a good thing as is not being restricted to particular package because of vendor lock-in. The opposing argument is generally using a free OS excludes the user's from using common proprietary software. Of course in this case the choice or--more accurately--availability of software I can run on my free OS is not made by me but by a business running scared from freedom.

It is true that too much choice can be frustrating: try ordering a cheese sandwich in a sandwich bar. But when it comes to software I'm of the opinion you can't have too much choice. When I'm developing websites I like it that I can--freely--run different browsers to check how things look.

Abusing our choice

One outcome of free licences (and the way they are used) is that the popular solutions rise to the surface. The perception seems to be that a popular package is somehow better. This is of course not always true. Things may start off with the better solutions--and by better I mean a mixture of things like usability, features, stability, compatibility and performance--becoming popular by recommendation. New users might install a popular package without fully assessing their need and by doing so they continue the perception that more is better. I'm not saying popular packages are never the best just that they're not always the best fit.

Part of the issue is laziness really. We as users can be impatient to get our itch scratched so we just install the one we've heard of. I wonder how many websites are using Joomla or Drupal with only a dozen pages where perhaps a more lightweight CMS would have been a better fit. Of course partly it comes down to choices made by those behind our operating system. Many GNU/Linux distributions install Firefox by default, so choosing a browser is clicking the icon on your freshly installed desktop. That's fair enough though and it's perhaps better than the distribution coming with no browser or asking an inexperienced user to choose during system install.

So what?

It's tempting to ask that question here. What does it matter which package people choose and why? In the end it is their choice. Does it make a difference that someone goes straight for the most popular software? I think it does and for a couple of reasons.

A choice not exercised is soon lost

Whilst no free software project should fail solely because fewer people use it the number of users will make a difference. The developers may move on and fewer users means fewer people to pick up the baton. Sourceforge users are able to sort packages by traffic and number of downloads. As many of us can testify to from our proprietary experiences, the number of users alone is not an accurate guide to the best product. So people are drawn by popularity of a package which in turn makes it more popular which draws more people and so on.

Eventually, the packages lower down the list disappear, if not from existence then from perception. Once that happens our choice is reduced. In short not exercising our choice, even if it's just considering the options, can result in that choice being reduced. That said the quality of some products does make you think that's not always a bad thing!

Laziness hinders education

Something I often hear from users is how they wish they could use their computer "better". They are certain they are being less efficient but don't know what to change. Partly this will be because in order to change your ways you have to learn new ways and many non-techie users can be a bit lazy--or at least apathetic--when it comes to learning something about their computers. Similarly by limiting our decisions to only the most popular software we could lose out on learning more about how such software can be used. Alternative packages can approach the same task in different ways and by considering them we can perhaps learn more efficient ways to do the same tasks. How many Word users do you know who use styles properly?

What are our choices

It's all well and good for me to bang on about people not using their choices but perhaps I should list what some of those are, I've included some of the ones I've heard of below. I won't review the options here--I really don't have that much room--but if you have a preference of any of these--or I missed your favourite--then feel free to comment. Free software (not zero cost) only please: recommendations for proprietary software are likely to be edited out. Most of these will be available as packages for the majority of free operating systems. Emacs users: yes I know your beloved app can do pretty much all of this - I just didn't know which category to put it in!

GNU/Linux distributions

I'm going to duck out of a flame war here and suggest you have a look at something like http://distrowatch.com. Consider things like system specs, default packages and community activity when choosing.

Web browsers

Productivity

E-mail clients

Image manipulation

Media players

Content Management Systems

You can try these and a lot more without having to install at Open Source CMS

Database

Those are just some of the alternatives around and there will be more. Many of them are not only adequate but may be perfect for your needs. For example if you only want a spreadsheet you might find Gnumeric less bloated than a full OpenOffice.org install. Finally you can find alternatives listed around the web at places like Open Source Alternative.

Needs over wants

Any IT manager/support person will be able to recount tales of a user starting a conversation with "I need [application name here]!". The smart ones will be able to establish the user's real need and then offer a solution to fit rather than accommodate a desire to have the latest status symbol software. I suggest that free software gives us choice for a number of reasons but if we don't use it we're missing out.

I guess what I am saying is don't just follow the crowd--break out of that proprietary software habit. Next time you need to invest your time in a new application do yourself a favour: do some--free software--research first. You may just find that one of the less popular options is a better choice.

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Biography

Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.