I strongly prefer to use and support free software. Though I grew up using proprietary software like Windows, Microsoft Office, MacOS, etc., I now use open alternatives like Linux almost exclusively. I do this not because of cost, but because of my basic philosophy of software and data freedom.
My primary reason for preferring open source software is that it is more likely to support open data standards. This leads to the key advantage of modularity. To use an analogy: In the early days of cell phones, each phone had its own power adapter. If you forgot or lost your charger, chances were slim that you’d be able to locate one that matched yours. Replacements were expensive, and choice was minimal. Fast-forward a few years, and things are now much more interchangeable because the cell phone world has coalesced on a standard: micro USB. Today, phones can almost universally swap chargers – and not only phones, but a huge number of other small electronics, from tablets to headsets, use the same standard. This means you only have to bring a single charge cable when you travel, and if you lose one, replacing it is cheap and simple. This demonstrates the power of a hardware standard.
Of course, open source software and modular standards are not the same thing. But history has repeatedly shown that they, for explainable reasons, are intricately intertwined.
My philosophy was shaped by an early experience I had with proprietary software. Like most people, I didn’t grow up using Linux, so my first exposure to almost all software was propriety. When the time came for me to choose software for managing personal finances, I naturally settled on Intuit’s Quicken, which was (and still is) the clear market leader, popular commercial finance software. I downloaded a 3-month free trial to test it, and was duly impressed. The software was straightforward, powerful, and user-friendly. It fulfilled all my needs.
When the trial ended, I purchased the full version – the ideal outcome and proof of the efficacy of trialware. This is what Intuit wanted, right? Since I was just getting started, I was only using the basic features of the software, and so I bought the most basic version with the fewest features. It could handle everything my uncomplicated early personal finance situation required.
After installing the licensed full version, I realized that it would not allow me to import my 3 months of data from the trial version. I thought surely this was a mistake! But no, the basic version did not allow data import – to unlock that feature required an upgrade to the “deluxe” version. But surely, importing data from the trial should at least be allowed? Isn’t the point of the trial to get me to purchase the product to continue to use it? Should I really need to throw away those 3 months of data? I didn’t need any other feature from the deluxe edition – I just wanted to import data from my trial run and then use the basic version. A request for help to Inuit went unanswered. Customer service was absent, and I grew a bit frustrated.
There was, in fact, no way for me to retrieve the data I had spent 3 months collecting in the trial version – either within or outside of Quicken – unless I ponied up twice the price, and bought a new, deluxe copy of the software. At this point, a fundamental concept hit home to me: as a user of Quicken, I had lost control of data I had created; my data was at the whim of the company. Though it remained mine physically on disk, by securing it in a closed format, Quicken effectively prevented my ability to use it as I wished. If they did not want me to import, view, and profit from my data, then they could restrict that. What a powerful business model, and what a sucker I was.
Probably many people would just pay the deluxe price. What’s an extra 40 bucks? But rather than succumb to the strategy to squeeze a few more dollars out of me, I sought alternatives. I found a free, open-source finance manager called GNUCash, and installed it. At first, I found GNUCash clunky. It was more difficult to use than Quicken. It lacked some features I was used to. And it did things… differently. But my desire for data freedom drove my willingness to learn a new system, and after a few weeks of using GNUCash and learning its quirks, I came to actually like some things about it more than Quicken. Even though at first I missed a few features of Quicken, these drawbacks were outweighed by my knowledge that I now controlled my data. If I wanted to export, change software, or do something else, I could. Since then, I’ve now successfully used GNUCash for 8+ years, through multiple computers, several operating system upgrades. I have not looked back. I have not paid a cent in licensing fees. I have exported my data in tsv format for use with other software. I have 10 years of my data that I can now explore and analyze at my leisure. I control my data.
The fact that I didn’t spend a cent on software is just icing on the cake. Probably this time period would have involved at least 3 upgrades to Quicken – maybe more, as I started to use more advanced features – would would have added up to hundreds of dollars. But it’s not so much about money as it is about philosophy. I don’t mind paying – In fact, over my life I will likely contribute more money to open source projects than I would have spent on proprietary software. But what GNUCash has given me is something more valuable than money: control over my data, and choice over what I will do with it now, and in the future.
From the operating system up, this is the conclusion I have come to. Even though there’s clearly huge support for open source, frankly, I’m amazed so many of my peers still tolerate closed systems for something. As time goes on I see more and more how truly valuable the concept of openness really is.