Friday, October 13, 2006

The Convenience Factor: Choosing Your Operating System

Of late I have been focusing quite a bit of time on my personal choice in an Operating System: Mac OS X. Partly because I will be teaching several courses within the next year on using Macintosh systems, but also because it is the Operating System that I prefer to use. Why? Because I like the convenience of being able to install professionally distributed (and therefore purchased) software, as well as being able to implement various Open Source software that I find I need or want.

But this got me thinking... Why do people choose the operating systems that they use? Often times it would be because of perception in availability, performance requirements, or desires for control over the system in varying degrees. It all comes down to convenience, control, and performance, from that I can see.

Now, making the assumption that Open Source can provide better control on varying levels over the system, and that performance can by association be tweaked within that control, the real question comes to convenience. Does Open Source provide more convenience than closed source software?

That question alone would probably get me in trouble as it is, but it's a question that I have started asking myself. Let me start you off with the following scenario:
My Macintosh has one drawback, it doesn't natively sync with my Toshiba Pocket PC running Pocket PC 2003. The device has slowly but surely become more prominent in my life of late, helping me organize my class schedules while providing me with an excellent eBook reader and video player to keep my son happy on long trips. But it doesn't sync with my Mac at all, with default software installed.

So, being the frugal person that I am, I begin looking for Open Source syncing software that may help me become Windows free forever. I did find some software. SynCE is an Open Source program developed for UNIX platforms and allows syncing with various handheld devices, including a Pocket PC. As I began reading it and downloading the application, it sounded fairly simple. Though I am not by any means an expert in programming, I do know how to compile the odd program if necessary.

Well, I started the configuration, which worked well. Then I tried to make the software, and failed. Why? I was missing some libraries. So I searched for those libraries for the Mac, found, compiled, and ran make install. Then I tried to compile the program again, and it failed. I read through the documentation available (which was scarce), and as I began looking for various obscure discussion boards out there, I found two commercial programs that do exactly what I want.

The two programs I found were The Missing Sync, and PocketMac. Both programs provide basic information syncing with Entourage, Mail, AddressBook, and iCal, and The Missing Sync even supports software installation for the Pocket PC. The Price tag for both is around $40.00 for full features. So the question I have to ask myself is, can I afford $40.00 over the time it would take me to figure out the SynCE problem?

This is the crux of all issues, I found. Whether it is growing your own food instead of buying it in the store, or building your own Linux system from the ground up instead of buying a Windows machine pre-made. It all comes down to convenience and cost. Do you have the resources to take advantage of the convenience of another's labor, or do you need/want to provide your own labor instead?

Adam Smith addressed this in The Wealth Of Nations, in his chapter Of the Real and Nominal Price of Commodities, or of Their Price in Labour, and Their Price in Money (Chapter 5, Book 1). He said, "The real price of every thing, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it." This means that in order for professionally developed software to be of worth to me, it would need to represent a smaller investment than the overall time and labor it would take in order to achieve the same ends.

I will leave the actual calculation of this dilemma to economists, but it does place a new light on the benefits of Open Source Projects vs. Professional Closed-Source purchases. In what way does Open Source become an economically viable option? What are the benefits and the drawbacks of using purchased software over Open Source?

I will let you debate this issue for yourself, so that you can look within your own soul and decide how the economics of Open Source figures into your Convenience = Cost of Labor equation. But for those of you who are zealots for Microsoft, Linux, Macintosh, BeOS, BSD, Solaris, etc., I want you to keep in mind that your economic impact may not be the same as someone else’s, so it's too harsh to judge someone on their choice of operating system.

And if you are still wondering, I didn't buy the syncing software. ^_^

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