Wednesday, July 7, 2010

How am I a reflection of the digital tools I use?

In creating the list of digital tools I use right now, several thoughts about identity came to mind. I seem to be in transition from commercial software to a fully open source existence, emanating from the cloud.

I recently dropped several Microsoft products (or only use them in case of emergencies) in favor of OpenOffice and the Google toolkit, especially the Chrome browser and Google Docs. FreeMind, Audacity, Skype, FileZilla, iTunes, etc., all of which I think are important programs for me to have right now, all of which are free and open source. The lone commercial holdouts for me are Adobe's Creative Suite (especially InDesign and Photoshop) and EndNote (although I was on the fence in the beginning between EndNote and Zotero; if I had to do it over again, I might have went with Zotero, but I think it's too late in the dissertation process now to switch). Quality level is the primary reason I stay with those programs. As soon as I have an open source option of similar quality with CS4, I assume I would switch.

Cost is a factor, too, since CS4, for example, is about $700, and that's with a student discount. I think EndNote was about $150, again, with a discount. I know these companies need to make money, but, as a consumer at least, I have a hard time justifying that much cost for basic digital products (with no packaging or delivery costs). I prefer the "freemium" model, in which I get to use basic services for free, but if I am using the software for particularly complicated, or proprietary, actions, that give the software its business niche, then I don't mind paying for it. What I don't like paying for is the basic functions, like saving a photo without a watermark. I wouldn't even mind the commercial model of this system, I suppose, if the versioning wasn't such a rip off.

As an example, I bought CS4 about a year ago, and now Adobe wants me to pay full price to upgrade to CS5, for just a few new features. I don't think that's fair. Honda doesn't come back to me a year or two after I buy a new car and say, "You know, we've added a lot of features to later models, and your car just won't be compatible with the roads in the near future." Instead, as long as I can find gas and spare parts, that Honda should work just fine for the rest of my life. Why can't my computers and software work that way, particularly when I buy top-end products?

Microsoft has pulled this versioning trick on me too many times to count (pushing me through all of the versions of Windows), building obsolescence into new versions of software and hardware, forcing customers, like me, to either upgrade or lose the functionality that we already had bought (Chrome OS, where are you?). I find the business model offensive. So, in reflection, I think my tool choice demonstrates that I am fed up with the heavy-handed capitalistic money grab of the system.

The sneaky commercialization of "free" software also is concerning. I was listening to Pandora yesterday, and, for the first time for me, an audible advertisement played. It was a shock to hear that ad for McDonald's. I found it so abrasive that I immediately turned Pandora off and plan to uninstall it soon, if that policy doesn't change quickly.

Pandora just plays music in a genre, based on similar musicians, like an Internet radio station. It really doesn't do anything so special, except play without advertisements (and, at times, introduce me to a new artist, just like a radio station). So now that it is playing with advertisements, I find very little use for it, and will turn back to public radio stations (without advertisements), or other commercial-free Internet radio, or play from my CD collection, which I have digitized and imported into iTunes (yes, saving the hard copies, with respect for copyright concerns). If nothing else, I think, my choices for digital tools show I am moving away from corporate control systems and further embracing the wonders of the altruistic collective (for as long as that lasts).


Craig Baehr said...

At least with Pandora, if you pay their $30 annual fee, the advertising evaporates. I wonder how that will hold with its increase (or decrease) in subscriptions. And your point about the versioning 'money grab' is very relevant. I often find it difficult to see the benefits of upgrading from one version to the next, CS4 to 5, Office 2007 to 2010, as there seem to be so little discernable changes considering what you pay for. In many cases, it's paying for continued compatibility and technical support.

Benjamin said...

I may be young, but I haven't found a software that really loses its entire value upon release of upgrade. Many people still use and prefer Windows XP, and virtually no one has upgraded to Office 2010 (speaking of consumers).
When you save a file in CS4, does it not open in CS5? Vice versa? Honestly, as a digital artist with no money for CS anything—I use GIMP to edit images and a relatively cheap yet pro software for drawing/painting on my Mac, iPhone and iPad—and I don't know if I would ever upgrade to Adobe slaveware, even if I had the money. I tend to think that a real artist will use whatever is available to them and do better than their competition just based on their spirit and creativity. The value of the work will be greater, not just the monetary value that someone places on it, but the worthiness in the memory of society. No matter how basic a work, whether drawn with a stick in the dirt or pen on paper, the value and quality should be based on the time, effort and emotion put into the piece, and the passion, cultural relevance and overall expression that it achieves.
Also, how is iTunes open? It's totally proprietary—files are reformatted and cannot be shared indefinitely—and is a prime example of why the software world isn't black and white. Some open is good, some proprietary is needed. I would assert that there will always be an altruistic collective as long as we all remain human. The internet is one good source, but who knows how long it will remain free. Nothing is permanent though, so I'd also say that it doesn't really matter. Just do the best with what you've got.

Brett Oppegaard said...

Benjamin, I respect and appreciate your attitude and abilities to find solutions at low or no cost. I certainly can sympathize, since that is how I typically try to work, too, and have had to scrimp most of my life on these sorts of things. But I also have found that some commercial software is just so much better than anything else, that your work, as inspired as it might be, suffers from not having access to these tools. It is sort of like photography, in the sense that a really good name-brand camera with expensive lens does take better pictures than a cell phone, no matter who is operating the devices (not wanting to digress into the "who has a better eye / who judges what is better" debates). Give a modern Ansel Adams a cheap cell phone and me a Canon 7D, and I like my chances in a photography competition. So the equipment can help in some cases, I hope you might agree. I feel that way about Adobe InDesign (Quark XPress was pretty much the same thing) and Photoshop (although there may very well be some great open source photo editors available by now). In the near future, though, who knows? I might not need those, either. ... And you are right on the mark, by the way, about iTunes. I should have used a different example. And I have used a variety of open source programs that do basically the same thing, except without access to iTunes, which becomes an access problem at times. I am in definite opposition to the iTunes model, though, so I am glad you noticed that. And thanks for your comments!

Stefan Walz said...

Technology has become so ubiquitous that it's difficult to justify *why* we should pay for anything other than a CPU. However, commercial business exist to make money. They invent a patent/product/resource and they put a price tag on it for the consumer. Pretty cut and dry if you ask me. It's obvious the open source populace are more communal in their approach. And I often DO they make money?

It'd be great if the open source model were integrated in other social veins. Imagine if people took a few hours each weekend to labor in public spaces to clean up weeds or graffiti. Instead the county or city is responsible and my taxes increase because we have to pay for those services some how.

However, I get your point...I've purchased several copies of the same music in vinyl, cassette, CD and now digital format. Isn't technology great? The older I get the more I enjoy unplugging from the purported advances of this digital era.