Lately, in a couple of the conversations I’ve had about open source, people keep bringing up the fact that they “don’t have time” to use open source. Whether they use the excuse of a busy family life or really have no substantive excuse, it’s a generally recurring theme when a move to open source is brought up. And on the surface it seems like a very real and valid excuse. Who isn’t busy these days? Most families could fill every waking hour with stuff going on at their church, work, school, or home. I get it. I work for a software startup company which can have erratic hours. I’m married to a wife whom I love spending quality time with. We have two kids under 2 which speaks for itself. And although we’ve backed our church involvement off a bit since having our second kiddo, we try to be involved as much as we can with church. My wife and I also volunteer at a local non-profit Northern Churches Care. Life is busy for us…and that’s why I’m glad I use open source software.
I’m not sure whether it’s misinformation or just past experience with open source projects before they were mature, but there is a general preconception that open source software takes extra time out of your already busy schedule. While this is definitely the case for some (especially newer, less mature) projects, I find it to generally not be the case for most mature, well-developed open source projects. If anything, a mature open source alternative is break even when it comes to time spent in the software itself. Obviously, there is a learning curve for new software, but that isn’t caused by the open source-ness, but rather the new-ness.
On the other hand, I know I save time by using open source software and Creative Commons materials at least some of the time. While certain things might take longer with an open source alternative versus a proprietary package, other things take a shorter amount of time. A lot of times this is specific to each software alternative, but there are some general themes that are always the case across all packages. While I’m sure there are others, here are the ones that stand out to me:
- Less time is needed to obtain open source software. As long as you have an internet connection at work, home, or a public access point, most of the time you can have software installed in a minute or two. I don’t have to have a credit card to pay. I don’t have to have a login to download it. And I especially don’t have to go to a store or wait for it to be shipped. I also don’t have to waste time finding my license key and validating it. Worst case scenario: I have to google the download page before going to the site. Even better, if you’re using any Linux distribution with a decent package manager, you just go to the installer or package management application and find the software, then click “Install” and POOF! The package manager downloads, installs and configures the application appropriate to my system. Sweet.
- Less time obtaining the license to use content. Because I use all Creative Commons content, it’s easy to make sure I comply with the license without contacting the license owner. The terms of the licenses are already explicit and I only have to add a quick way to attribute the works. For images, Flickr and Google Image Search both have advanced search options to find Creative Commons graphics. There are several Creative Commons music sites as well.
- If you represent an organization, you must always be aware of all uses of the software in your organization because of liability. This means you have to not only purchase the licenses, but keep track and make sure you are not violating the terms of the licenses through unauthorized copies (which are easy to have in an organization of any size). Not keeping track of your licenses not only generally means you are breaking the law, but also means you are liable for fines when you aren’t complying. For any open source software line items, just put a big “?” in that column and don’t worry about it because it doesn’t matter how many people use it, copy it or distribute it. Whew! What a relief!
- Related to #3 above, if you are auditing things, you not only have to account for all your software but also track down and eliminate unauthorized copies. We all know that there’s always some quick project where some volunteer or member wants to do something on another computer (usually a personal computer instead of an organizations hardware) so that they can take it home, make a deadline or whatever. Invariably, they ask if they can install some software (which they wouldn’t have a license for) of the organization’s “temporarily” to complete the project. Of course, they and you are breaking the law if you don’t purchase another copy of the software for that person/computer. So you should be telling them that you can’t do that. Not fun to be on the giving or receiving end of that situation whether you toe the line or not. Of course, if you’re using open source software the answer is easy. Install it on as many computers as you need to get the job done…no matter whether you have control over those computers or not.
- Time spent worrying about any of the above. Any of the above situations causes tension in our lives. Whether deciding if it’s worth $1300-2600 ($500-1000 for non-profits) per seat for CS5 or replaying the conversation you had with a volunteer where you told them that you couldn’t install software on their computer, tension sucks time and energy from our lives even when the source of the tension is over. Using software with open source licenses is extremely freeing. Because I use all open source software, I just don’t worry about a lot of things any more (mostly related to my budget). Instead I get to use my time learning how to use great open source software in many creative ways.
Of course, all of this assumes you have good open source alternatives for the commercial counterparts. So here is a list of most used desktop software and a stable, mature open source alternative.
- Windows/OSX -> Ubuntu Linux
- Office -> OpenOffice
- VMWare -> VirtualBox
- Photoshop -> Gimp
- Illustrator -> Inkscape
- InDesign -> Scribus
- Internet Explorer -> Firefox (even though IE is free, there are still many advantages to using an open source alternative)
Along these lines, I’d like to share a personal story of how this helps in real life. I was visiting my parents, and we had flown because both the kiddos were still free (I’ll leave the horrible flight story for another time). Because of all the kid stuff, I didn’t have room for my laptop. That wasn’t a big deal, though, because I was trying to get away and relax a bit. While at my parents, they wanted some help with some touch-up and titling on a photo they wanted to send friends and relatives. Of course, they don’t know much about graphics, so I was on the hook. Now, I didn’t have my computer or my normal setup because I had left it at home. In proprietary land, I would have been up a creek. Instead, I just quickly downloaded and installed Gimp onto my parents’ computer. Because Gimp is cross-platform and available on Windows and not just Linux (another common theme of mature open source software), I didn’t even miss a beat. I was able to complete the project easily, and my mom was ecstatic.
So, there are my opinions and experience about how open source saves me time. Do others have experiences to share about how open source has saved you time?