open source and software ecologies

Continuing with the catch up on the Computers and Writing 2008 conference. I sat in on the town hall meeting issues of open source, particularly on the issue of standards for Open Office XML. There’s a lot of interesting debate around this issue, including:

  • Microsoft makes a boat load of money with proprietary office products and keeping people using them, but obviously only a fraction of the money goes into improving the product. Further MS’s idea of improvement has to do with bottomline first and user experience second.
  • One could make an ethical and political argument for supporting open source software.
  • On the other hand, the average academic doesn’t understand these issues, has other priorities, and just wants something that works.
  • One could argue that Open Office and similar products are just dead ends anyway in the sense that they remain forever linked to MS-Office. The "real answer" is to recognize how word processors in general will be abandoned. E.g., Where do I do most of my writing? Right here in my typepad interface or in g-mail.

So I really have two observations to make…

First observation: on an immediate and practical level, if you want to respond to the issue of MS Office in particular, I don’t think the tactic is necessarily to focus on an Office-substitute. Instead, the answer lies in a series of specialized applications: google docs, wikis, blogs, twitter, etc. Office has always tried to function by being generic. Most of us don’t use 90% of its functionality. And then there are plenty of things I want to do that I can’t do in Office with document design and that I use InDesign for.

If I were creating a generic word processor to compete with Word, I would make it super-simple including only the most common elements. If it’s open source then you can have a plugin developer community so that folks can add what they want, like Firefox. But what would make me use it would be if it were easy to connect with all my web 2.0 activities. E.g., I can put in my typepad account, my pbwiki account, my twitter info, etc. Then I write something in my word processor, I push a button, and up it goes.

It might also be good to design it to work across devices down the road.

Second observation: I get the "open source good/proprietary bad" argument. I also get the point that gets made in this Wired article about how the closed shop of Apple creates some pretty cool products. There’s a whole ecosystem of innovation and development here. In some ways, proprietary software practices spur open source practices. Standards work to innovate; they also work to put the dampers on innovation. That is, it takes time for new practices to work there way into standards, which are probably unavoidably bureaucratic.

My point is that your working in a larger network where standards might be understood as a certain class of actors. Fortunately with communication technologies we work in a context where standards are always understood pragmatically in context. I can develop something non-standard, and while I may have some trouble getting others to use it if it is REALLY non-standard, meeting emerging needs that are not addressed by lagging standards is a productive space for development. Besides there are entire discourse communities that evolve from using technologies in non-standard ways (e.g. turntables). So while standards can support open source communities, they can also support proprietary interests.

We can’t think of these things as being universally good or bad. What we need is to map our networks, develop methods for analyzing those maps, and devise strategies and tactics. Ultimately I do think that the ethos of open source resonates with the general ethos of academia: namely that we put trust in the open exchange of information and in the ability of the community to make wise decisions about, and ethical use of, that information.