Software Confessions: A Response to Kevin Brock

by Ryan Trauman

This post is a response to Kevin Brock’s response to my recent post, “New Media Scholarship: Regarding Tools.”

First, I want to thank Kevin for even bothering to read my post in the first place, and even more so for taking the time to participate in a respectful conversation about it. Maybe it doesn’t need to be said, and I’m happy to have the sense that civil participation in public conversation is getting better all the time, but I want to mention that I certainly don’t take it for granted. It also helps that Kevin is spot-on in his critique about the attitudes I expressed about the value of most free software. Kevin quotes a chunk of my post, including the snippet:

There are also free [software] options, but with the exception of Audacity as an audio editor, most of them aren’t worth what you save [in comparison to proprietary products].

As part of his response, Kevin notes:

I read “free options” as referring heavily to FLOSS (Free/libre Open Source Software), and I find myself upset that an entire galaxy of potential programs are relegated to the metaphorical bin because they’re not well-advertised, highly polished suites that work to lock users into a specific paradigm. I’m especially confused because Trauman notes, immediately after this dismissal, “Software is only worth what you can do with it. If you pay a bunch of money for a powerful program, but you don’t know how to use it, that’s a huge waste of resources.” If what matters is what can be done with it–and what one knows how to do stuff with it, why is it so important that the go-to programs are Adobe CS and similar proprietary products?

I have to admit he makes some excellent points, especially when he points out my contradictions regarding “Software is only worth…” I want to respond to his points in some organized fashion, so I’ll just take them one at a time. First, he’s right. I am referring to FLOSS projects. I do think “entire galaxy” and “metaphorical bin” are a little hyperbolic, but still, he’s right to call me out for making an unnecessarily scattershot assessment. But the fact that FLOSS projects are “not well-advertised, highly polished suites” doesn’t matter at all to me as an individual user. And to suggest that I prefer my software recommendations to “lock users into a specific paradigm” seems a little unfounded. Of course I don’t like the idea of locking users into anything. He is right, however, to identify that as Adobe’s obvious business strategy, and even more-so Apple’s. So, good points.

Kevin then expands the scope of his response to move into some smart and insightful warrants for embracing FLOSS technologies over those types to which I had been referring. And in a lot of contexts I agree with him. However, as there are myriad factors relevant to any decision/premise related to scholarship and/or pedagogy, I’d rather reflect on some of factors influencing my own decisions, instead of engaging those Kevin offers.

I had intended for my comments to be directed at scholars and teachers who are just getting started (or just thinking about getting started) incorporating new media texts and practices into their scholarship. At my home institution (U of Louisville), I talk about this stuff all the time, so I get asked about it often. And I also teach at the Digital Media and Composition Institute at Ohio State each summer in Columbus. I only mention this to offer some sort of context about my own orientation to these discussions.

I’m interested in getting people started with new media technologies–overcoming anxieties, responding to possible resistances, and encouraging a thoughtful relationship between content and technologies.

I want to use Adobe’s do-most-of-it-all website design product, Dreamweaver as locus for thinking through some of these issues. Dreamweaver is a really useful product. It offers what I think is the most polished (to borrow Kevin’s term) tool for developing web pages and web sites within a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) user interface. DW combines this WYSIWYG HTML editor with a synchronized text editor, a CSS editor, FTP client, and file management system. All this within a single interface. I have to say that this is pretty impressive. And when I look at the current features of Kompozer (from what I gather, the leading FLOSS alternative to DW), it looks as though they are very similar in terms of their feature set. So why would I recommend Dreamweaver?

Well, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure that I would. If I had struck up a conversation with a new acquaintance at a conference, and they asked me what I used, I’d admit to using Dreamweaver. If they asked my what I would recommend, I’d suggest that they try the 30-day trial of Dreamweaver, as well as Kompozer, and decide for themselves. Maybe they’d ask me my why I use Dreamweaver. I’d have to admit that there’s not much more to my decision than momentum. There was a time when I wanted to really get my hands dirty designing sites, and I actually considered Kompozer, at the time the leading DW alternative. The interface was buggy, there was virtually no training available, and the information available online was at best hit-and-miss. Even though the product presented itself as a WYSIWYG editor, there was no way it was practical unless I was already relatively familiar with HTML. It made some things faster, but ultimately, as a technology for someone with little-to-experience with web design and HTML/CSS, DW had it beat hands down. However, at the moment, it looks as though the product has matured enough where it could actually be competitive in that sense. So I don’t want to suggest that DW is a superior product to Kompozer.

Instead, I want to consider this situation from the perspective if an anxious/resistant/motivated/intimidated newcomer. The first question I’m going to have about the DW/Kompozer decision is about which is easier to use, but I’m not really going to be able to answer that question without consulting other people. Given that DW, regardless of its comparative merits, far outstrips any other web-design/html-editor/ftp-client/file-management product, of those people who have some experience with this type of produce, they will overwhelmingly be of the DW persuasion. Kompozer is going to be seen as the outlier by most people, even those who understand that it might be a superior product. What I’m getting at here is that, at the moment anyway, DW far outstrips the competition in cultural/social capital. Most folks will perceive that it’s more valuable to be trained/skilled/experienced with Dreamweaver than with Kompozer.

Following that same train of thought, there’s the issue of momentum and investment. Adobe has tens of millions of dollars invested in Dreamweaver, and there’s no reason to think they’ll be abandoning it anytime soon. There’s way too much to loose. And even if they begin to transition away from DW, they’ll do everything they can to transition to another full-featured, well-supported product in an effort to justify their licensing costs. (For instance, look how they’re handling the devaluing of Flash texts…) I’m not at all trying to suggest that Dreamweaver is a superior product to something like Kompozer. It might or might not be. What I am suggesting is that to a person just getting started in academic new media, someone who likely has some experience with well-known, well-supported ecosystems, along with the reassurance the the product has been around for a while, and will very likely continue to be, DW can look like a more attractive option that something like Kompozer. Scholars/teachers, like most people, recognize that their resources are scarce. Most folks would consider getting invested in a certain technology, only to have that technology disappear or atrophy, just isn’t an option–or at least not a risk they’re willing to take.

Maybe I’m more sympathetic to this hesitant, play-it-safe attitude than I should be. I’d be dishonest to suggest that I don’t doubt my position from time to time. It takes strength, confidence, and dedication for someone like Kevin to call me out on this. Kudos to him for that. I don’t always have those qualities. I’ve had some disappointing experiences over the last several years.

For instance, I tried (far longer than I should have) to get folks excited about Open Office, a suite of programs designed to offer a powerful, productive, and free alteranative to Microsoft Word. To this day, I still love Open Office. However, no matter what I did, no matter what I said, it was always a major hassel to work with other folks who didn’t use the program. Microsoft kept making changes to their default settings for their file formats. And enough colleagues/students just wouldn’t heed my calls to save their files as .rtf or .doc instead of .docx. Not only did I waste a bunch of time moving back-and-forth between MS Word and OpenOffice, I still had to purchase a copy of Word to open those files.

And yes, it’s not lost on me that this situation is the perfect example of the evil of supporting an ecosystem hell-bent on ensuring it’s own survival and profitability. Read: Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. But like everyone else, anyone who hopes to live a healthy, balanced life, I have to pick my battles. And this happened to be a battle between my own personal time, my dedication to a project (The OpenOffice project) with which I would never have time to full embrace, and the time I had to reasonably dedicate to my courses/students. It just wasn’t a high-enough priority.

I could offer similar stories about my early experiences with Kompozer, with Sophie, etc. But I don’t want to suggest that FLOSS projects are bad or aren’t worth it. There have just been a few that haven’t been worth it for me, and those experiences have made me a little gun-shy.
And yes, I get how this might make me a sell-out. How my weakness, my apathy, my lack of faith might be exactly what the Apple/Microsofts/Facebooks of the world are counting on. But I don’t know what else to do.

Even after reading Kevin’s thoughtful/insightful/reasoned position on these issues… even after admitting he’s pretty much right on the money… I’m still not convinced that some FLOSS projects align with the way I prioritize my teaching and scholarship interests, but that’s a personal orientation toward these issues.

On the other hand, I will say that I’ve had some great experiences with all sorts of free software (some of which are FLOSS projects): WordPress.com, WordPress.org, Filezilla, Sublime Text 2, various Markdown editors, Open Office, Thunderbird, Audacity, Reaper, various flash video downloaders, VLC media player, Handbrake, Notepad++, Windows MovieMaker, Jing, and others. And I should thank people like Kevin for particpating-in/developing/championing project like those, as much as he might have done the same for those projects which weren’t as successful. We need them both to keep things moving, and I continue to experiment with them, evaluate them, and recommend them. Just not for everyone.

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