FOSS for Ministers, Part 1 – Search and Office
Ok, we can get to the fun part! This is Part 3 of a multipart series on making the case for, and opening the way for, the Christian Believer to embrace Free, Open Source Software as one of many ways to live out a Christian spiritual practice. Part One and Part Two are mostly rationale, and today we're going to get started on actually talking about software you might want to use! Exciting!
The rest of this series will probably not talk about Theology or Christian Practice, that's part of the reason why I changed the title. What the rest of this series will do, however, is assume a couple of things.
- The user is either a Humanities Major or partially educated Humanities Geek (I'm the second one!) who does not have an otherwise technical background.
- The user has a certain, limited amount of tolerance for how much of a pain in the ass it is to learn how to use another piece of software, and requires something that is either already familiar-ish or is easy to pick up.
That's it, mostly. Funnily enough, this opens us up a little for an opportunity to say something true about the open source community;
There are not enough Humanities Majors contributing to Open Source
There are certainly more than none! Large projects even have more than a couple! I'm not saying they're not here, but I am saying that a lot of the FOSS community has a bias towards spending resources on things like technical implementation, elegant/conformant software code, and features, and has a bias against spending resources on “nonpractical” things like visual design, readable documentation, tutorial/onboarding design. The projects that take that kind of thing seriously stand out, head and shoulders, above those that don't. I'm going to do my best to point out when I think the team making software values visual/user interface design, and when I think the team is more interested in features (upon features upon features).
This post is going to be about swaps I think you could make today and be reasonably sure that your life would just be able to keep on truckin. They are, on the friction scale, a 0-1/10. The very first thing I think we can start with is the kind of search engine you use.
“Isn't Search a “BUMMER” product? I thought you weren't going to talk about those?
OK you got me, this is the only one. Search (as I covered in Part 2) is part of the kinds of apps that use a business model that Jaron Lanier calls “BUMMER” or “Behavior of Users Modified, Made into an Empire for Rent”. This is, classically, the business model of Facebook, Instagram, and Google.
I think what I meant is I wasn't going to go into the Arguments that You Should Delete Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (all Ten of them) because that's a big hurdle and honestly, even a man who despises BUMMER as much as I can admit it's a much bigger sacrifice for most people than using a different search engine. The reasons why you might want to use a different search engine, though, might be compelling.
Search, and the ads placed on it, is the main product propping up Google right now. They make money by letting people pay money to show you different links, instead of the most relevant ones you might actually want to see. It makes more money on those ads by tracking you literally everywhere, on the websites you visit, with your phone location data (if you use an android phone), with the data from your grocery store trip, everything. Easiest way to win that game is to just take your ball and go home. There's a lot of people making search engines that are not tracking you all the way to the soccer game and back, and these are the two I can most easily recommend.
DuckDuckGo has been around a long time, and I've been using them for a pretty long time too. They use their own webcrawlers (software robots doing the mining work of finding websites that might fit a particular search result) and use their own seach algorithms to create results. Those algorithms don't take in to consideration the previous search history of the user, and they don't gather that information anyways. It certainly delivers different results than Google does for the same queries, at least the couple times I compared results.
DuckDuckGo has grown in the past couple years, and it offers a little bit more than search these days. The major thing is an extension you can use for Firefox that disables any kind of cookie tracker you might run in to out there, along with a couple other helpful things. I don't really recommend it to you at this stage without the caveat that you should be aware that blocking trackers, cookies, and adware can cause some sites to behave strangely, and a small number of sites to break down completely. There's a tradeoff with all this stuff.
A lot of people are worried about search quality, and they probably started using Google for it's near magical ability to take a query like “That song with the stoner guy with the nasally voice that goes nah nah na NANA NAAA” and return the result “That's obviously 'Self Esteem' by The Offspring, give me a hard one next time” with the assumption that nobody can do the kind of thing Google does. Because everyone, technically, uses an individualized version of Google, it's tough to make accurate statements about “everyone's” search results. That said, because of the ubiquitous nature of search engine optimization, people have been remarking on the steady decline in perceived quality of Google's search results, which might be one way of saying that all search results are starting to become more equal in quality. That's a qualitative assessment that I can't make for you, I can just say that for me, using DDG used to feel like a sacrifice I made for the greater good, and these days I can't tell the difference between the quality of search results. Your milage may vary.
That said, if you still want to use Google search results for “reasons”, then you could use Startpage instead. Startpage gets you a lot of the privacy that you'd want by not using Google, but they still buy their search results from Google. The main difference is that you're not shown Google ads, and Google doesn't know it's you doing the searching. They just know that Startpage is doing the searching, you and all their other users.
But Sam, I just did some checking and neither of these companies are open source...
You've got me there. There really isn't any free and open source operators in the search business. It happens sometimes, another example would be handwriting recognition in note-taking apps, the only people who do it make proprietary software and the only people who do it well, right now, are giant companies like Microsoft (in OneNote) and Apple (in their Notes app in iPadOS). I'll admit that I'm not a FOSS Fundamentalist, like Richard Stallman. Stallman doesn't use any software that isn't FOSS because he's a bit impossible and doesn't have professional or social obligations that might require him to calm down a little bit. I use Open Source software, when I can, because it feels more human and humane to me. I see the people involved with the process more clearly and I see the fingerprints of their decisions all over the stuff they make. If you decide to go down this rabbit hole with me, you'll find that the main way people are inducted into this... “Fandom” doesn't sound right, “community” we'll say, is by having a problem, asking the internet a question, and having a person help you out. It's in chat rooms and collaborative help tools, and you may not know who “BrianLuvsLinux” is, but you'll know that his volunteerism is the reason you know that keyboard shortcut, and you'll never be able to say you did it all by yourself. And that kind of rhymes with the way the Church works, at least, the way it should work.
There are several options in the office suite world, but in my opinion, the rookie should only really consider two. The difference is going to be if you need access to a large number of features, or if you really want something functional that looks and feels as much like Microsoft Office as possible. There's one thing you need to know, though, and it's the one thing that's most likely (these days) to cause issues with interoperability between your free software suite and the proprietary stuff your coworkers/volunteers/mom uses. That thing, interestingly enough, is fonts.
Fonts, or typefaces (some graphic design person will correct me in the comments, but I can never keep them straight) are usually the culprit when your document looks funny when someone else opens it. We're going to roll RIGHT over the majority of these issues and say that if your document is intended for internal use in an office setting, my recommendation is to just use Arial or Calibri for everything (unless your whole office is all Mac users, then use SF Pro, which you can download from Apple). This should resolve the majority of your funky chicken issues with document formatting being broken on other machines. These are both proprietary fonts, kind of. Their license, the legal terms under which they can be used, is proprietary. They are, generally, freely available for users of any system. They'll come preinstalled on Windows machines, of course, and it's likely any office software you install on your windows box will just pull them right in to the selection box. If you run a Mac, then you should go here and follow the instructions. If you run a Linux box, why are you here? Just kidding, if you run a Linux box then the MS fonts should be in an unfree software section of your repositories. I'm sure a quick DuckDuckGo search should take you to a place to just download the .tty files, also.
OnlyOffice is my recommendation if you just need to jump in and write a quick word document or slideshow and don't need every feature in the book. The software is almost indistinguishable, to me, from MS Office, so users should feel right at home. support for proprietary formats like .docx and .xlsx is strong. The only real downside here is that OnlyOffice only includes the big three software programs, Documents, Spreadsheets, and Slideshows. If you need a database manager, math formula builder, or drawing/flowchart builder, you'll need to use LibreOffice.
So, with every name, there's a story. You've heard me talk about Free and Open Source Software before. A couple of times. There used to be a software suite that was called Open Office. Great software. Used it, loved it. It was bought a couple times, Oracle took it over, ignored it, and a bunch of people took the source code and forked it. A “fork” is a creature unique to the open souce world, its what happens when someone decides to take the software source, which is open to the public, copy it, (presumably) make some changes and then re-release the software under a different name. This is done for a lot of reasons, but for the purposes of this story you can just know that a new team took over active development of Open Office, with permission from nobody, and continue to develop it today as LibreOffice, while the original Open Office was allowed to die. Kind of. Oracle eventually allowed Apache to have the project, but that's neither here nor there.
LibreOffice is the product of a team that wants to actually replace all the functionality present in proprietary products. All the functionality. And add to it. Consequently, power users will have their best luck finding all their necessary features in LibreOffice, and maybe even some they wish they had with Microsoft. The only real exception here is that the most elite of all Excel blackbelts will probably have to stick with Excel. Reportedly, some people find there is still useful and necessary advanced features that have not been replicated, yet. That's probably not you, though. You're a Pastor, not an accountant. Unless you've got one of those big ol churches with a 15 Pastor staff and a Pastor for Everything and you're the Accounting, Bookkeeping and Guest Relations Pastor. In that case, I see you and your work is valid and important.
Downsides look back to the thing I mentioned earlier, the more a project focuses on features, the less resources they tend to invest in things like graphic design, user interface design etc. The one saving grace here, though, is that the UI is generally VERY configurable. So you can generally make it look exactly how you want.
We're going to be working our way just a little bit further down the rabbit hole here, with the next post. I won't say where I think I'm going to go, next, but I think we'll probably return to the subject of Embassy, proper, before returning for Part 4 of this series. I'll see you then!
Also, I've got my email up on the banner! If you want to talk to me about what I'm writing here, drop me a line!
This post is part of #100DaysToOffload, a challenge to blog a hundred days in a year hosted by Kev Quirk. This is post #10.
#Technology #Tech #FOSS #FLOSS #OpenSource #ChristianMinistry #Theology #Humanity #Gospel #OnlyOffice #LibreOffice #DuckDuckGo #StartPage