Friday, February 1, 2008

Open Source Software

You hear a lot of talk about open source software particularly in techie circles. And it has some real advantages - namely it's usually free. But you do need to keep in mind that open source software is created by techies for techies and is therefore not for the faint of heart.

I'll share a recent experience as an illustration. I wanted to create an audio introduction to the podcasting lesson for the Montana Library 2.0 Challenge. I decided to try out Audacity - open source audio recording software. I found it was easy to download and install and figure out how to use. I even figured out how to do some basic editing. Great!

Then I needed to save it. When I tried to just save it I got a warning that it would be saved as an .aup file that few if any other programs could use and that I might choose to export it as a different type of file. Okay, so I looked at some of my other options. One was to export as an MP3 file. Perfect! MP3 files are the common format used by podcasters. So, I chose that option and was prompted to name my file.

That's when the fun began. I got a popup box telling me that a file lame_enc.dll was required and it wanted to search my newly created folder for the missing file. Not surprisingly, it didn't find it there because my new folder was still empty. I went back to the website where I got Audacity and searched for the missing file name. I found a file called lame-3.97.tar which looked like it would contain the missing file. So, I downloaded it. When I tried to open it, I was prompted for the program. Huh? I tried Audacity and got a popup warning that it was looking for a .dll file, did I really want to use the .tar file instead? Probably not. I chose to let Windows look for an appropriate program on the web. It helpfully found a number of zip utilities that I could purchase for roughly $20-$50. No thanks! But thanks for telling me that I needed a zip utility. Didn't I already have one on my computer? Apparently not this one.

Luckily, I do have some techie tendencies so I decided to look for freeware and went to Tucows. There I found a free zip utility that was rated well - ShellZip. So I downloaded and installed it. I must add it was one of the slowest downloads in history. But I went back to the lame-397.tar file and told Windows to open it with ShellZip. And I got a whole mess of files, none of which was lame_enc.dll. Let me add just how much I hate dealing with unzipped files that I have to try to figure out what to do with.

Okay, my frustration was definitely mounting. What now? Well, perhaps I just wasn't seeing the right one in the mess of lame files (very aptly named, I might add). So, perhaps I could use the Windows search mechanism to look for lame_enc.dll? Well, it did find it - in a program I'd never heard of TC Web Conferencing. So, all I had to do was direct Audacity to look there for the required file and my MP3 file was created. But the whole saving as an MP3 process took a good hour and a couple of needless downloads to accomplish.

Like I said, this is not for the faint of heart or anyone who gives in easily to frustration. The assumption with most open source software is that you know what all the stuff is and how to use it. There are few, if any, instructions and those that you do find are seldom helpful unless you're a computer programmer or software engineer. But there are a lot of useful open source software options out there. So, if you've got a lot of patience and/or you enjoy a good challenge, it's well worth pursuing. If not, you might want to go with an off-the-shelf software product that you buy complete with support and upgrades.

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