Break free from Apple, Microsoft

Gregory Dawes, of Dunedin, sees the use of ''open source'' as the best way to bridge the deepening digital divide.

The world of technology is changing dramatically. Smartphones and tablets have transformed the ways we communicate and connect to the web. There are now serious discussions about whether the traditional PC - the desktop or laptop computer - has a future. Even if it has, it will be just one of the many forms of information technology that will populate our future.

With this new technology, however, comes a danger. Like ultra-fast broadband, which will be available to those who can afford it, it might merely deepen the digital divide, the gap between those who can pay for the technology and those who cannot. In particular, these new devices are in danger of locking people into a proprietary system they are unable to leave. This will condemn them to a treadmill of software and hardware updates which many individuals and organisations will be unable to afford.

Let me illustrate the danger by reference to Apple products. Apple has become one of the most successful companies in the world. It has done so not only by offering attractive devices, but also by building these into a digital ecosystem. Users of Macbooks, iPhones, and iPads are encouraged to buy their music from iTunes, to store their data in the iCloud, and to co-ordinate their activities using the iCalendar. But while this may seem wonderful, it is difficult to transfer any of these activities to a non-Apple device. What Apple has created, in other words, is a ''walled garden'' that is both beautiful and difficult to leave.

Nor is this unique to Apple. While Microsoft programs could traditionally been installed on a great variety of machines, this situation has begun to change. Microsoft is now producing its own machines and beginning to restrict what can be done on those devices. They have learned all too well from Apple's success. Locking people into your system is what produces profits.

Added to this is the problem of planned obsolescence. It has become increasingly difficult for owners of older devices to upgrade to newer versions of their programs. Computers might still be upgradeable for four or five years after purchase, but mobile devices (such as the iPhone or iPad) may be upgradeable for only 18 months or two years. After that, the only option is to purchase a new device, at least if you want the latest applications.

The key problem here is the operating system. An operating system is the software that communicates between your hardware (the machine itself) and your programs (such as Microsoft Word). (If you can kick it, it's hardware; otherwise, it's software.) Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X are both operating systems. New versions of these operating systems often make increased demands on their hardware so that they run sluggishly (if at all) on older machines. What happens as a result? Users very quickly decide that they need a new computer.

This may be harmless enough for individuals or organisations who can afford to finance this rather expensive habit. But those who cannot will quickly get left behind. At least one school in Dunedin requires its pupils to have an Apple Macbook computer. That's fine for the families who can afford to pay out $1900, perhaps twice during their children's time at school. But many families cannot. The same is true of the schools themselves. Schools with wealthy parents can have wonderful IT facilities. But many of our schools are littered with old computers that scarcely operate and that they cannot afford to replace.

Is there an alternative? There most certainly is. My main home computer is nine years old. It runs beautifully. The reason it runs so well is that I'm using Linux Mint, which is an open-source operating system.

What is ''open-source'' software? It consists of programs that do not come merely as pre-packaged bundles, ready to install on your machine. They also provide access to the source-code that was used to write them. Most of us cannot read or alter that code, but many people can. They are free to adapt the software, to fix it when it goes wrong, and to share their solutions with others. In addition to this, most open-source software is available free of charge. It can even be given away to friends. In the open-source world, sharing is not regarded as ''piracy''. It is encouraged.

Why, then, are more of us not using it? Well, most of us already are, at least when we go on the web. The majority of websites, including Google and Amazon, use versions of the Linux operating system. If you use Firefox as a web-browser, you already have at least one open-source program on your own computer. But most people use open-source programs on machines running the Windows or Apple operating systems. Few of us have broken free from the domination of Apple and Microsoft. Why is this?

The main reason is that most computers come with Microsoft or Apple operating systems pre-installed. It takes an effort to replace them with Linux. It also takes a little effort to find your way around this new system. Many familiar programs, such as Word, can be used on Linux, although it takes a little work. But there are excellent open-source alternatives, such as LibreOffice, which I am using to write this column. Once you have become accustomed to open-source programs, you will be astonished at how well they perform, often better than their proprietary counterparts.

More importantly, open-source software is our best hope for bridging, rather than deepening, the digital divide. Our local Warrington school has led the way, by almost entirely abandoning proprietary software. They use the Ubuntu Linux system, which has a version specially designed for educational use. Wouldn't it be wonderful if other organisations and individuals were to follow their example?

- Gregory Dawes is an associate professor in the department of philosophy and religion at the University of Otago.

Break free from Apple and Microsoft

Thanks to Viking for the response to my article. The points he highlights are not so much inaccuracies, in my view, as different judgements about the same facts.

Firstly, about malware... I hardly need to point out that GNU/Linux systems are almost entirely free from malware problems, not merely because comparatively few people use them but because they are designed to be secure.

Yes, iPads and Android tablets (Android being, of course, open-source and based on Linux) are easy to use. But modern Linux desktop systems are no harder to use than MS Windows or Mac OS X. Indeed they are easier for most people to adapt to that is Windows 8 (with its radically redesigned Metro interface).

It's great to hear about the versatility of the new Macbook Pro. I'm very familiar with such machines, since I purchase them for our Department. But I therefore know how much they cost. What worries me is that some schools require pupils to purchase them. That's not a trivial cost for many families. And if the schools themselves buy such devices, it will soon blow their technology budget.

As for open-source software, it is rare for a major project simply to be abandoned. With regard to ease of use, I installed Linux Mint last night on a nine-year-old PC that my Department was throwing out. Within an hour I was watching a DVD, viewing YouTube videos, and revising my research grant application. It works astonishingly well. How much would that cost a school? One hour's work.

With regard to compatibility, well, the latest versions of Microsoft Office (at least for Windows) read and edit OpenOffice (or LibreOffice) files (.odt). One can also save files from OpenOffice (or LibreOffice) in MS Office formats (.doc and .docx). There can be minor problems, but most people to whom I send documents are almost certainly unaware that I'm NOT using MS Word. So what's the problem here?

Nothing is free

Several inaccuracies exist in the piece on Open Source.  As usual the author focuses on the negatives of the Apple and Microsoft ecosystems and extols the virtues of the free nature of Open Source.  

Let's balance the picture. The 'walled ecosystems' aim to provide security and integration of applications.  It helps more users to get stuff done easily in an increasingly complex computing environment.  Kids and people that did not grow up in the computer era can pick up an iPad or Surface tablet and get to work in minutes, out of the box and with no special tweaks.  They are screened from malware as long as they stick to the rules of the system.  Far from opening the digital divide then.

The hardware from Apple is of great quality.  I am using an old MacBook laptop from 2007 (6 years of heavy use), as well as an iPhone 3 that still works very well.  Some new features may not be available, but I see no need for upgrades.   A new MacBook Pro that my son uses at Uni is stunning.  He runs OSX (Apple), Windows 7(Microsoft) and Linux (Fedora) on it.  I see no lock-in here!

What is seldom explained about Open Source is that it is more often than not developed in an ad hoc fashion.  The developers do what they want, when they want to.  If they do not feel like updating your Android version, that's it.  If they feel like adding new things that you do not want, they'll add it, for free.  If they want to drop a project halfway, they do, to your eventual loss.  Installing a free distro is not for the fainthearted.  Not even the new Ubuntu will install without quite some effort on my old Windows machine - it needs a dedicated search to support my hardware.  And a good internet link as a result!  When looking at billable hours that you spend on this, you see that it is far from free.

Lastly, the one thing that we must recognise is that you have to choose systems that will allow for connectivity and that implies adherence to standards.  Unless you are using Microsoft Office, your files will always run the risk of not being compatible on another machine.  That is life for now.  Again, if you have the time, use LaTex, but then I cannot review or collaborate.  What was that about a divide?  [abridged]