Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Computing minimalism: try this software, be more productive

This is a totally non-Thailand entry.

This is a two piece article I wrote on computing minimalism elsewhere.


What is computing minmalism? And why should you give a damn?

Oh OK, I may, just may, be a part time geek. But I have friends, a healthy love life and I have not played laser tag since I was a kid. So that's my disclaimer done.

Now, I'm going to try and persuade you to think differently about the way you use a computer. Even if (unlike me) you are a total non geek. Even if you couldn't care less about computers and use them because you have to, even if you don't go as far as I do with my methods, I hope to just change the way you approach the idea of computer use, very slightly.

Here's what I'm building up to - I believe that a lot of computer software we use today is bloated, clumsy and non-conducive to productivity. In other words: it's slowing you down.

"Word processing was a solved problem in 1984. By 1987 spreadsheets had all the functions a normal person would ever use. Databases took a little longer, but by 1990 that was sorted. An infant could have been born that day and by now would be almost of age to vote and we've seen no real improvement in productivity since."

That was a quote from Mikel Kirk that I think sums the situation up beautifully. Think about it - how many features on your office suite or your web browser do you use? How many of them were not available on the same program back in the year 2000? Unless you happen to be involved in Desk Top Publishing or database maintenance - or perhaps even then? - I'm willing to bet the answer is: "one or less".

And yet the software you used has become far bigger, far more hungry on your resources and most probably far more demanding of your attention. You don't have to think too hard to come with examples; Ipod users normally use Itunes, a program that not only uses an oceanic amount of memory just to load up, but also dominates the user's entire music collection. It will sort them, it will play them, it will allow you to search for information about that new band online. No need to use your brain, just use Itunes.

Microsoft Word users have an even greater pleasure. For the last five years or more, Word has given you the utmost pleasure of completing your work for you. You want a bullet list? It's done! You want to line up all those answers for the quiz? It's already done! What's that? You didn't actually want to do that? Oh well, you can always manually undo it all. Oh and don't forget to hunt down the "auto complete" menu and uncheck every box before it happens again.

OK, so sometimes we have problems, but it's all meant to be user friendly right? I mean, these extra features are designed for people who aren't familiar with computers and need help, no?

It would be nice to believe that, but in my cynical mind I can't help but think that such designs are utilised for another purpose; to make damn sure you stick with that proprietary software that you just installed. The less you question Itunes, the more likely you are to use it. The less choice you have over how you play music, the more often you see the Apple logo. The more often Itunes "helps" you organise your music collection, the more likely you are to visit the Itunes store. 

You get the picture. Certain companies design the software this way not to help people who are unsure, but to "help" people who are stupid, because 'stupid" is how they think of you.

OK so maybe there's a problem, and maybe some of the software is big and clunky, but what does it matter? Computers are getting faster everyday and besides, everyone uses this software so what choice do we have? 

Well on the first charge, the answer is not so clear cut. Remember that quote I gave you earlier, software is growing more bloated at the same rate as our PC's are becoming souped up. There seems little evidence and no guarantee that we humans are becoming more productive.

As for "why worry?"  Well perhaps you shouldn't. If you can stand having your intelligence insulted and if you don't care about working at well under full productivity then maybe there's no problem.

For me though, it's matter of principle. I simply will not allow some lazy, overpaid programmers to use up a chunk of my RAM just to play an MP3.  I simply cannot abide using a "word processor" that insists it knows better than me about what I want to do and lumbers me with 101 featuresthat  99% of us will never use. I will not surf the Internet with a browser than takes an age to start up and a lifetime to open a page simply because it's from Microsoft. I prefer to open my mind a little more rather than accept such nonsense.

I want applications that do one thing and do them well, whilst getting the hell out of my way when I want them to. That's what real productivity is.

But even if that doesn't matter to you, there is another factor: cost. The alternatives I will propose to you are either totally free of cost or much, much lower than the prices you pay from the fat cat companies for the overblown nonsense.

In my next blog on computing minimalism I will propose two solutions. For the shy user I will simply suggest a few pieces of alternative software that can easily be installed (and uninstalled) on Windows and tried out. After that, I'll take things a bit further and go into some really lightweight and efficient applications for GNU/Linux and maybe Windows too.


OK, so in part one we established what the problem is with popular software, why that problem exists and we established the benefits of taking the trouble to find a solution.

In this section I will try to guide the reader through the first baby steps towards that solution. The idea is to make you more productive in terms of work speed and, ergo, freeing up your time. That solution can be summed up in two words: "free software".  Before we press on there are a couple of important points to make.

First, the term "free software" has two important and distinct meanings. "Free software" usually means "free" in the sense that it is non-proprietary. This means you are free to copy it for yourself or colleagues, free to distribute it and if you're feeling sharp, free to actually use the original code to improve the programme! This type of "free" is often called "free as in free speech" for clarity. 'Free speech' software can also be called "open source" , the difference in meaning is almost negligible.

The second type of "free" of course is "free of cost". This is usually referred to as "free as in beer". Even "free beer" programmes usually accept user contributions should you find the software useful, but it's entirely your choice. (One piece of software even requires the user to promise he or she will not take more than two airplane trips in one year).  Software can be free in terms of both 'speech' and 'beer', or just one, or neither. If you are a typical computer user, it's likely that all your software is not free in either sense.

Secondly, I have established already that I do not believe you can ever be truly free or efficient when using Windows. But I accept that leaving Microsoft entirely is a big step that many people don't feel they can take yet. So I am bearing that in mind as I make my suggestions here.

Now, here are a few suggestions for users of Windows and / or GNU Linux for alternatives to popular software. The criteria for my choices here are simple. A perfect, short and sweet summary of what makes good software can be found here, but I will briefly recap.

Good software should do one job and do it well.

A music player plays music while I type. I don't need to browse musical web sites with that same software. My word processor that I'm using now does not enable me to embed a database in my document whilst autocreating forms for me with links to an HTML web design template. I don't need any of that. You get the idea.

Good software is unintrusive.

As I'm type, I'm downloading some music (legally, from jamendo.com ). My download manager is in the background and will stay there, with just a little five second message appearing in the corner to say when it's done. It doesn't pop up to ask me for "upgrades". It doesn't offer to link to other software, it doesn't use any advertising or ask for a monthly subscription. It gets the heck out of my way so I can work. Try doing that with Adobe PDF reader.

Good software is lean

You don't need to spend thirty minutes downloading bloated software just to read a PDF. It does not take 20 MB of ram just to type a letter to mum. An internet browser should not take twenty seconds just to process a basic web page. These problems occur because overpaid programmes purposely bundle their software with burdensome features for reasons we have already discussed.

Yes hard drives are getting bigger, but that does not mean we should waste the space anymore than you should put large, empty boxes on your front lawn just because you have a large garden.

Good software is easy to install and uninstall.

It's my computer. I will decide what goes in and out. Software has no more right to make its removal difficult anymore than a guest in your home has the right to refuse a polite request to leave.

I could go on but the previous link explains it all nicely, so take a quick read.

Enough waffle. Let's press on with a few basic alternatives. Don't worry if this is not minimalistic enough for you, I'm taking things one step at a time.

Office suites

Let's start with the easiest answer. To get good, free software for the office use OpenOffice.org That's the actual name of the software as well as its web address. Openoffice.org is free as in 'beer' and 'speech'. It does everything you need it to do. Its word processor can read and write Word documents, its spreadsheet programmer can read and write Excel files and so on. There's no excuse whatsoever not to use this software as an MS Office replacement. It's not exactly as lean as I would like but at least you have the freedom. Available for Windows and GNU/Linux.

Word processing

As well as the OpenOffice.org writer, there is a much leaner choice for Windows. It's called Jarte and you can see it here. Jarte is free as in 'beer'. It's small, it's quick and its interface is far more straightforward and user friendly than Word once you get past the tiny adjustment curb. I'm willing to bet that ninety percent of tasks you use your word processor for, you can do with Jarte at a fraction of the disk space and resource use. And yes, it can read and write .doc files.

Jarte is available only for Windows. A quick look at the website will see the case for minimalism explained once again, quite nicely.

Abiword is another alternative. Abiword sits somewhere between Word and Jarte for size and functionality. It is free as in 'speech' and 'beer' and is popular with Linux users, though it's multi-platform, meaning it can be used on any system. I use Abiword when I need a full featured word processor for my work. Yet again, it can read and write Word files.

If you're not sick of hearing about it yet, a good comparison of Abiword and Word is available here.

PDF File readers

Ever since PDF came into fashion, users have been baffled by the long start time of Adobe, agitated by the constant nag screens, confused by the amount of memory it uses and annoyedby  requests for upgrades and massive internet downloads. There must be an alternative, right?

Yes there is: Foxit Reader. Free as in 'beer', lighting quick and tiny, Foxit Reader cannot edit or create PDF files, but how many users need to do that? (And if you do, there's other free software for you to use). Available for Windows and GNU Linux.


Unless you have been living in an alternate reality, you may have noticed that Windows Media Player is slow, bulky and tries hard to run your computer for you. Well, the alternative is Football 2000, which is one of my favourite pieces of software and one of the very few Windows only applications I miss.

Foobar can play virtually any audio file, it can create playlists, it can convert between formats, it can look up details of your audio CDs online, it can - only if you tell it to - edit the tags on your audio files (tags are the small files that tell you details such as the artist name, album title, genre type etc.) and organise your music library. The interface looks spartan and there may be a tiny learning curve, but in the long run it will save you time and makes organising your music fun again. The only thing it can't do - as far as I know - is bring up a picture of the album cover. Though a quick glance at the website suggests maybe now it can!

Foobar 2000 is freeware, meaning free as in 'beer' but not speech. Did I mention it's quick and extremely light on resources? :-)


Slightly tougher area here. Multimedia, by its nature, is not something that is easy for computers to handle without a lot of power. Still, remember that challenge I gave you last time? Think about your software nine years ago, what can it do now - with much bigger software - that it couldn't do back then?

To prove this point, we have Media Player Classic. MPC is based on the Windows Media Player of old but only aesthetically, the code behind it is totally independent as is the team of designers. Free in both senses, MPC can play virtually anything - including DVDs - and runs lean. It is Windows only.

On Linux, we have the even more efficient Xine Media Player or Mplayer. The latter is also available for Windows but you need to have a little computing knowledge to get it running.

Web browsers

There is a whole ton of choice in this area. Most rebellious users like to use Firefox. Personally I prefer to use Opera. There's simply no competition with the two 'big' browsers, Opera wins hands down in style, features, security, users friendliness, stability, choice and light resource use. No I don't get kickbacks for that, Opera is free as in 'beer' and multi-platform. It can even be used on mobile phones.

The adventurous may like to try a little known browser called Arora. Arora will be easy to use for anyone who has used Firefox. The only feature lacking in these early days is a system for remembering user-names and passwords. Still, it runs super light and should work well for anyone who has older hardware.

That's enough for our first experiment. Give these programmes a try and use them without fear. Mess around, have fun. They will not affect your existing software and are easy to install and remove.  While you play around with them, try a little experiment: open up your task manager (Windows users press ctrl+alt+delete , Linux users all have their own way to do this) and make a comparison. Compare Jarte and Word, compare Windows Media Player and Foobar 2000 and so on. As long as your system is clean from viruses and spyware, the difference in speed and performance should be easy to see anyway.

I'll be back soon to take our experiment one step further for the willing. Meanwhile, if anyone has had their curiosity tweaked, the free software versus proprietary argument goes well beyond geek chat. It covers corporate behavior, ethics, philosophy on the rights of people and ideas about human development. A simple Google search will turn up many interesting resources, the GNU web site has many interesting articles ranging from FAQs to reasons why schools should use and benefit from free software. Finally, look out for a documentary called "Revolution OS". The introduction features one free software figure telling a Microsoft manager" "I'm your worst nightmare!".

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