Axes of Futz, and Whether to Let Go and Let Steve

I’ve documented my general susceptibility to the futzmonkey — switching between different software solutions to a problem (email, web browsing, operating system, bookmarking, blogging, etc) in the quest of the elusive “best” solution.

One of the big tradeoff axes is free software vs. nonfree; another is cross-platform vs. macintosh; another, which is often the same as the latter, is web-based vs desktop-application-based.

Free vs. Non-Free:  I’m doing well enough right now to afford a Mac laptop in addition to taking care of the family, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time in my life barely getting by, never able to afford a new or nice computer, and even now it’s not like a Mac is a trivial purchase.

With the uncertainty of life it makes me nervous to assume our present relative prosperity will continue and invest myself heavily in expensive machines and software. Even the Mac OS — every few years they release an update, and you need that update if you want to run up to date software, and it generally costs $129 per computer.

Besides the free-as-in-beer factor, there is the free-as-in-speech factor.  The relationship there is that “freeware” which is not also “Free Software” tends to suck, or to be deliberately limited in its functionality to encourage you to use the for-pay version, or to become obsolete and abandoned as the rest of the software universe marches on.  If you need free-as-in-beer (“freeware”), the only safe way to get it is to go free-as-in-speech (“Free Software/Open Source”) as well.

An example of “free vs. non-free” futz would be Firefox vs Safari, or vs OmniWeb if we add in the “not even free-as-in-beer” factor.  The ultimate free-vs-non-free futz is Mac OS vs Linux, of course.

 Cross-Platform vs Macintosh: Same things as mentioned above — investing in the Mac makes me nervous, even after being there for years.  I do it, because the Mac is a wonderful place to be, hardware and software-wise.  But it’s like having a girlfriend you really like who you worry might break up with you.  Maybe this is just a personality quirk — I have to work at a job for years before I cease being afraid I’ll be fired at any moment.  Could the same be true of operating systems? Is it just me?
 Web Apps vs. Desktop Apps: You can get an amazing amount done without leaving your browser these days.  I started typing this up in a desktop application called “ecto” and finished editing it later in wordpress’s web-based post editor.  The lovely thing about web applications is that they are available anywhere, on any OS with a recent enough web browser.  The lovely thing about desktop applications is that they’re usually more pleasant to use, and they’re there for you if you don’t happen to be on the internet at that moment.  This turns out to be a Macintosh anxiety issue too, because web-based solutions are cross-OS and therefore “safe.”  When I’m moving back and forth between different platforms, the easiest way to do it is to be as web-based as possible — google reader for RSS, web-based mail, that sort of thing.

Most web services out there are proprietary — the various Google apps, Flickr, etc, etc.  One can get around those by buying web hosting and DIY’ing it, of course.  But then you pay for the web hosting and the hassle of making it work well is all on you.

mph uses the phrase let go and let Steve to describe just doing things the Mac way and enjoying it, letting go of the old paranoia.  There is certainly a big payoff.  Going with free software, in many cases, involves getting involved in all kinds of fiddly nonsense getting it all to work right.  Hacking this configuration file.  Tweaking this kernel option.  Poring over the ubuntu message boards looking for someone who got the same mysterious error message and found a fix for it.  Recompiling this and reinstalling that.

    That way lies, if not exactly madness, incredible frustration and hassle.

    There is also the aesthetic element: Don Norman wrote a whole book about the fact that functionality can not be separated from beauty.  We are affected by beauty and ugliness whether we want to be or not; all other things being equal, a beautiful system will work better than an ugly one, because we react to the beauty, it affects our mood dealing with it, our tolerance to problems and the speed with which we become frustrated, all kinds of things.  We can’t help being affected.  And to be honest, most free software involves ugliness.

    Is there a conclusion here?  I don’t have one.  I’ve been making this up as I go along.

    Am I the only one who gets weird about these things?  Comments welcome.

    2 thoughts on “Axes of Futz, and Whether to Let Go and Let Steve”

    1. No, I get weird about it too. I don’t switch very often, I’ve found a set of apps that fit me very well, and I’ve gotten very comfortable with them. I tend to resist change quite strongly. :)

    2. Just a note on the OSX thing… I bought my powerbook in ’04 when Panther (10.3) was the thing, and I think within a year Tiger (10.4) came out. While I was missing some of the whiz-bang features, I was able to keep up-to-date on software, security patches, etc. for nearly every single program I used, even after Mac went the intel route and software shops started shifting that direction.

      Some of my apps (Textmate, e.g.) look a bit prettier in Tiger, and some (Uno) just weren’t available for Panther, but I was just fine on Panther for quite awhile until I found a bargain
      on a legit copy of Tiger recently.

      I think I’ve found my groove, application-wise, on the Mac. A combination of Free (Firefox, Thunderbird, iTerm, Quicksilver, Adium, sshKeyChain), free (iTunes), and non-Free (Textmate) make up the software I run daily, and I’ve grown quite accustomed to it. I don’t care too much about cross-platform stuff; for email I can use Thunderbird wherever, ditto with Firefox for browsing, and beyond that I prefer something that’s more OS-aware and takes advantage of that versus something that sacrifices interface goodness for crossplatform compatibility.

      I do know what you mean about the OS cost–I’m weighing replacing the machine now and biting the $129 bullet later this year when Leopard comes out, or waiting and cursing my machine’s lack of RAM and processor power until then.

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