Thoughts on Open Source Software

For the past few days, every time I've opened Microsoft Word to view a file or create a new file, as soon as I opened it, it would say "This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down." Then, when I'd click "Details," it would give me the "INVALID page fault at 151.8375.938493 blah blah." Stymied, I'd go to my office. But today, I decided to uninstall and reinstall Word to see if that would help. First I tried selecting the "Repair Word" option on my installation CD, and it didn't fix the problem. So I completely uninstalled Word, and when I went to reinstall, it of course asked for the 25-digit special number that is on my certificate of authenticity. Wherever that is!--I've moved three times since I got this computer (Word came with my Gateway, which I got in 1999 before I was wise to Microsoft and the fact that Macs are better).

Today is the day I decided to ditch Word entirely and go open source. I had heard that Abiword and Open Office can handle .doc format, so I tried to download Open Office, which will have to wait for another day as it would have taken about 6 hours to download with my 56k connection. Abiword's site was having problems, so Charlie did a temporary upload of Abiword to his web space so I could download it. I've been viewing my existing .doc files in Abiword and creating new ones too. I heart Abiword. It's a beautiful thing! Didn't cost me a penny, and it's a decent word processing tool that isn't giving me that "illegal operation" crap! I'm starting really to see the awesomeness of open source. Abiword isn't, of course, my first open source tool; Kairosnews is run on PostNuke, and this tool I'm using right now to blog is open source too. I've always been an advocate of open source in general, but have never quite understood the implications of it: a software tool that people work on as a labor of love for the community in general, open source is really activist work. I'm a member of the Digital Divide listserv, and there has been a lot of talk about using open source in low-income communities, but now I see how great it would be and how within reach it puts software. I wouldn't have bought another copy of Microsoft Word even if I could have afforded it, but I can still create documents.

Today I attended a needs assessment tour of the computer labs on the St. Paul campus. Three administrators, another graduate student, and I discussed what the labs need and what our vision is for them. When we got to the question of software, I asked if we might have Inspiration, a fantastic mind-mapping tool, and then I asked, "What's stopping us from going open source?" I knew they wouldn't decide to start using it, but I just wanted to know what their reasons were for using commercial software. Their argument centered on the fact that commercial software is more dependable, as it often comes with tech support, better documentation, and some kind of recourse if the software doesn't work. That's a good argument, but my interest has been piqued by the potential of open source, so I'm going to do some more thinking and reading about it.

As a side note, Charlie pointed out that Abiword doesn't automatically associate .doc files (or any files with a certain document extension, like .rtf) with Abiword. The user has to specify if he or she wants certain file extensions associated with Abiword. He said that there's a feminist study to be done on the design of tools like Word, which don't give the reader a choice and do many things upon installation for the user. I've been thinking more about this, and I'm reminded of a phrase my adviser from the University of Tennessee, Mike Keene, used to use: dummy user. The user is very often feminized and made to be passive. Charlie's on to something! If I still had Word I'd make more notes on this idea. :-) Heh, seriously, it can be a little project I do on the computer at my office.


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Thanks for the pointer!

Abiword sounds great! I'm looking for an alternative to M$ Word, as I prepare to upgrade my iMac from OS 9 to Jaguar. I'm currently thinking that Think Free is probably my best choice, but I'll check out Abiword, too. Do you know if it can recognize Word files that don't have extensions at all? (i.e., Word files created the old-fashioned way, on a Mac) Maybe I'd better rename my files before I make the switch to OS X . . . .


I don't know...

if Abiword can handle documents with no file extension at all or not! I'm definitely going to download Open Office soon and will post about it when I start using it. Abiword isn't a big download, though--you could try it and then just uninstall it if it doesn't work out.

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