Cheap proprietary software still costs too much.

The following is part of an open letter I wrote to an university committee that was surveying students and faculty on the feasibility and desirability of providing discounts to students for popular and expensive software packages. This discount would have been provided by basically sharing the cost among all students by purchasing a large number of licenses and then reselling them at a lower price to interested students. Obviously, I thought there was a better alternative.

To Software License Group members:

I agree that it is a noble cause to provide students with access to software at a cost that is commensurate with the resources of the average university student. However, with full-priced office suites and programs running as much as $300 to $700, even discounted software can be prohibitively expensive for this university’s students who are most in need of the discount. In the interest of accessibility, this program should be expanded beyond simple discounts.

This committee should task itself with locating and increasing awareness of Open Source and Closed-source free software. Through the use of Open Source Software, the university will promote the continued development of programs that work independently of proprietary systems and encourage the development of software that does not require a discount to be use-able by the vast majority of students.

For nearly every proprietary software packages, there is a free alternative. The following list is just a small selection of the many open source and free applications that are equivalent if not superior to their closed-source, proprietary and often expensive counterparts.

Microsoft Office Suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access) ->
Photoshop -> TheGimp
Adobe Illustrator -> Inkscape
3D Studio Max -> Blender

There are many equivalent software packages, so the following site is one of many that may be of use to the Committee.

Many school districts, universities, businesses and even governments are switching to open source projects because not only do they save money, but often the open source applications are more secure because of their transparency.

I am a Linux user, so I do not specifically use most of the closed-source applications that the university promotes; however, I am able to design programs, write documents, and create movies as easily as any user of the proprietary systems. My .doc and .xls files created in (a platform independent program) transfer into Microsoft Word and Excel, but do not require that I spend what is for some, a weeks pay. All of my work, both academic and personal, is done with free and open-source software which is available for nearly every operating system.

I urge the committee to look beyond its admirable but basic goal and to work expand this university’s students ability to access the tools they need to succeed in their educational endeavors. It is our responsibility as employees of this university to encourage students to learn — regardless of whether they are learning quantum mechanics or a better program on which they may write an essay.

Aaron Harun


Free alternative to BrowserCam

BrowserCam has long been the best tool for testing websites in a multitude of situations; however, it isn’t free, so its usefulness is limited for people who just want to test a new design quickly: enter BrowserShots.

This free website has most of the features developers will need to test their sites; however, unlike BrowserCam, there seem to be waits of up to 20 minutes for some OS/Browser combinations, so it is better for casual testing to ensure compatibility rather than live tweaking—it does have a detail page to show how long your wait will be. It has a few useful features: all screenshots are of the entire screen instead of a small part and requests are based on the website, so multiple people can view the results without sharing log-ons.

However, the most interesting part is that the software that runs it is freely distributed and you can, optionally, help the project by volunteering to run a screenshot “factory” from your computer that operates in the background while you go about your normal computing business; thus, combining the best things in life: free stuff and being nice to others. You can just feel the good karma coming.

Besides…it beats signing up for multiple 24-hour previews…

Songbird: Firefox-based Media Player

Please note that this review is based on a much older version of Songbird than the current one. Features and glitches may no longer be applicable.

The Songbird media player is a cross-platform media player that is based on the gecko browser engine. Songbird enables you to use add-ons and skins feathers just like you can in your Firefox web browser, and combines the the most useful parts of the browser into a fully-featured music player. This means that rather than having a web browser added into your music player, like in Amarok, the program natively includes the code, so it is exceptional at both, and allows the media program itself to download music and video files on a webpage automatically or load playlists with a click. These features make this the ultimate program for listening to podcasts at your computer.

How you can use SongBird.

Songbird looking at shoutcast Because you can load playlists with only a click, browsing to websites like Shoutcast allows you to automatically tune into radio stations just by clicking “play now” without having to open/download any files or opening second programs. This is also excellent for podcast websites or playlist-sharing websites.

Songbird automatically adding files. If you use the DownThemAll extension to download music or videos, Songbird will make this much easier and natively supports browsing to any page and automatically downloading files, so if you use google “hacks” like intitle:”Index Of” mozart to find music files this will make things much easier. If you use a company laptop or have a small drive, you can do the same thing as above, but instead of downloading the files, you can add them directly to your library without downloading, so anywhere you have an internet connection, you can find your music.

This is a little tangential, but if you have ever gotten the urge too look something random up while listening to music, the fully functional browser will come in handy.

Songbird web library This one is iffy, when browsing the web files are automatically added to a “web library” and are stored separately from your normal library. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but if you are normally on a fast connection, it can save you a lot of time, but at the same time, you might get some odd or embarrassing files added there.

Now there are a few things I don’t like

  1. The program is a little weighty (~40MB fully loaded.)
  2. When loading playlists from Shoutcast it adds ALL servers to your library as individual files.
  3. Currently Library information only works off of the ID3 tags without any filename parsing.
    Songbird stuck on a name
  4. The track editor can’t save changes to the ID3 tags (it can only save to the internal database).
    Songbird Track Editor
  5. Songbird showing duplicate files When listing files found in webpages, there is no way to filter them. For example, browsing to a Librivox page will show you three copies of each recording (one for each file type.) To play them, you have to manually remove the duplicate files. A quick solution would be to be able to arrange them by format, but this doesn’t exist yet.
  6. The default “mini” player isn’t so mini.
  7. The program isn’t as snappy as a standard media player or web browser, but this should be resolved as the project matures.
  8. When playing streams, the currently playing track isn’t updated.

Some lovely Video demonstrations

This video, produced by the guys from Songbird, is for a slightly older version:

This video highlights the collapsible UI.

And the playlists.

Final Thoughts

Songbird is extremely attractive, and it has the potential to replace Amarok as my favorite music player ever, and has the the ability to work across all platforms because I have to jump from OS to OS all the time. I don’t think it is ready for prime-time yet, but a couple more versions and it will be perfect.

Tiddlywiki is both good and bad.

If you haven’t heard of it, Tiddlywiki is a single file, off-line, single user “wiki” that you can use to store notes and information in an easy-to-retrieve format. I found it and decided I loved it…for about 6 hours. Now I’m looking at the source code and trying to understand it so I can rip out all the stuff I don’t like and replace it.

Tiddlywiki doesn’t allow any sort of XHTML and requires all code to be done in textile. This is great once in a while or for places where XHTML would be a bad idea, but for people like me who have been writing HTML since the <blink> tag was the “in” thing, this is just irritating and I was finding that I was having to go back over my “tiddles” frequently to coax the content into displaying what I want. I find it much easier to just write <code> some code </code> than trying to remember that I’m supposed to type {{{ some code }}} — it also makes more sense. Now I get that using straight XHTML could conceivably cause errors if broken tags were used in a message, but there are ways around this: simply replace the < and > in tags with some other character before saving or create a function to balance tags.

It also doesn’t have a powerful whitespace parser like WordPress does. The Tiddlywiki one is fairly basic and just seems to replace new lines with <br> (note I said <br> not <br />), and it isn’t too difficult: I converted the WordPress parser to Javascript for the Live preview features in INAP rather quickly.

Anyway, I was planning to use it for a download-able readme file, but before I can do that I’m going to have to make a few modifications.

Habari needs better developer documentation.

The Habari Project just released version 0.2. I have been watching it for a while now, but even though it has some features that I really like, it still hasn’t reached a point that I would consider switching this website from WordPress (mostly because I would have to rewrite far too many need-to-have plugins).

However, recently I started thinking about re-writing some of my plugins for it–especially what will eventually become INAP 3.0, but when I try to find reasonable plugin documentation, it just doesn’t exist–not even simple tutorials. There is a wiki for the project, but it is very well hidden and nearly empty. Now I don’t mind reading through the code to figure out what functions do, but even I don’t have the time to read through an entire project just to get started.

So for now I sit back an wait for some docs that at least give me a brief overview of how things work under the hood. Moral of the story: quick and dirty documentation is better than no documentation, so don’t wait until the end to write your docs.