Thursday, November 20, 2003

A Monocultural Alternative: The OpenCD

Even with this specific attention to paid prospective educational clients, adoption of The OpenCD at the institutional level remains an uphill battle. Most schools are immersed in a Windows monoculture. Despite widespread budgetary woes here in the U.S. and elsewhere, despite widespread virus and worm attacks on Windows-based products, and despite ever-increasing licensing fees from Microsoft, most schools will likely continue with this monoculture. Phil Harper, one of the lead developers of The OpenCD, stated that the reactions he typically receives from institutional IT departments toward free software "have always been a little less than enthusiastic". (Harper, personal communication, September 15 2003)


"A monoculture tends to be fragile because of its sameness. Perhaps more importantly, however, a monoculture is by nature slow to adapt, change and innovate--particularly in the case of the computer industry. What incentive is there to really innovate when your only competitor is yourself? All you need to do is make slow, incremental changes just often enough to assure a steady supply of upgrade revenue. The pace of genuine change slows to a crawl, and opportunities for dramatic quantum leaps in technology disappear. ...The chance of anything startling or groundbreaking happening is vanishingly small, and in fact, there's a very strong vested interest in not rocking the slow, comfortable boat." (Hoffman, 2001)

Internet Explorer is an unfortunate example that illustrates Hoffman's point. During the height of the browser wars, Microsoft made clear strides in innovating its way past Netscape. Features such as auto-fill forms, auto-complete urls, and on-the-fly text resizing made for a better overall browsing experience, and left Netscape Communicator looking like your father's Oldsmobile. However, since Microsoft effectively won the browser war, further development of innovative features in Internet Explorer have all but ceased. Tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking, integrated Google searches, and cookie-blocking specific to advertising servers are all features common to modern browsers such as Mozilla, Opera, and Safari yet absent from Internet Explorer. Admittedly, there are several third-party options that would bring many of these features to Internet Explorer. However, with the possible exception of the Google Toolbar, the average web-surfer would be unlikely to take the time to research, evaluate, download, and install these add-ons.
A similar situation exists for Microsoft Office. In OpenOffice 1.1, users can save any file in Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) or Macromedia's Flash format on-the-fly, without needing to have the full version of Adobe Acrobat or Macromedia Flash installed. To say that such features are convenient would be an understatement. Using OpenOffice, students could create a presentation, save it as a PDF, then put it online or send it to anyone via email, knowing that anyone with at least the freeware Acrobat Reader (recently renamed Adobe Reader) could access the file. The same applies for any file saved Flash format. The only software needed to access the file would be a web browser with the Flash plugin, as opposed to the full version of PowerPoint. While the free PowerPoint Player would also meet this need, there is no equivalent for Word or Excel files. With OpenOffice, this is not a problem. Additionally, Microsoft Office files are compatible with OpenOffice.

Mozilla and hypocrisy

Right, but what about the experiences that Mozilla chooses to default for users like switching to  Yahoo and making that the default upon ...