Why It Is Increasingly Difficult For Me To Use Free Software

Gnumeric is one of the computer tools I most frequently use. But the version I’m using is 1.2.1, which is some two years old. Why have I not upgraded, to take advantage of the sweet new features the Gnumeric team has been developing? I hope my answer to that question will be of some interest to my GNOME project friends.

When I was active in the GNOME project, it was routine to spend an hour or two a day of my free time working on whatever – writing user docs, helping manage bug reports, chatting on IRC with my pals, compiling the latest whatever in the background. I loved the people (still do!) and I loved the work. And I loved the software, too. I believe in the political and ethical notions of freedom and sharing that free software embodies. And I also prefer the freedom and flexibility to control your own data and computational destiny that you get with the Linux platform and the software stack that rides on top of it.

When I decided a couple of years ago to step down from my formal GNOME obligations so I could use my free time to start working on a book project, I expected that I would still be able to kick in a bit of free time to update user docs, triage bug reports, and help with some of the grunt work. But I quickly reallized that if you can’t spare the minimum amount of time and effort required to keep the latest versions of the software stack built, there’s no way to make useful contributions to the development effort. That bar is quite high – too high for me given my new self-imposed obligations.

As a user, I remained (and remain) enthusiastic. But as the time I was actively hacking recedes, the distance between the software stack on my computer and the latest interesting development work grows. The solution, of course, is simple – upgrade! Between Fedora and Ubuntu, this ought to be a relatively straightforward proposition. But at this point you have to remember that I am not a really a hacker. To make the contributions I did, I had to learn some modicum of command line skills. But every time during my active days I had to do a serious system upgrade, I faced a chore and a crap shoot. When it went smoothly, great. When it didn’t, I had to spend hours Googling and IRC’ing how to manually change the “.frabinator_conf” file, and get the “gurglebarger” module to load before the “bergenhafter” module, and why won’t it talk to my printer? Or worse, why won’t it boot? So when I stopped hacking, I stopped doing full system upgrades, because I’m supposed to be writing now, not hacking config files by hand.

For the way that I write, Emacs is still a beloved tool, and Gnumeric even frozen in time in 2003 still meets pretty much all my number-crunching needs. Libxml – god love Daniel Veillard, one of my heroes – always builds no matter what the calcified state of my stack. Increasingly, thought, all the cool new software is out of my reach as the kernel and the stack advance away from me. Occasionally I’ll see some cool new gadget I want to try. I’ll download it and try to compile it and it’ll tell me that I need to upgrade the frabinator. Sorry, no go. Gotta get back to writing.

The purpose of this screed is not to plead for y’all to stop working on the stack. That would miss the whole point of the power and joy of free software. The people who own the pieces of the stack love it, and want to make it better, and are doing amazing things with it that benefit the users who get the latest version. But people like me are always going to be left behind.