Friday, March 11, 2011

open v closed or simple v complex?

I attended a very interesting workshop at Broad Valleys Federation meeting on Open Source Software in Libraries. Nicole Engard spoke quite persuasively on the benefits of open source and contrasted it with Microsoft's wares as an example of closed or proprietary software.

But somehow that didn't seem to be the point to me. I was struck by the irony that she was talking up open source with a presentation running on a Mac. It seems to me that Apple is actually the epitome of closed proprietary hardware and software. If anything that would seem to lend credence to the argument that what you should really be striving for is an entirely closed infrastructure. Where Microsoft went wrong was in trying to make software that was compatible with a wide variety or hardware and software options. The frustration could be from the fact that they've tried to be too open rather than too closed.

Then I listened to Paul Thurrott on Windows Weekly. He argued that where Apple really has the market cornered is in simplicity and elegance of design. I think it's the simplicity that really appeals to people. The iPad and iPhone have one button to take you to the home screen. I've often made the off hand remark that if you're content to live within the Apple universe, your life will be peaceful and hassle free. That's not something you can often aspire to in the technology world. But if you buy the latest products, download the latest updates and function through the Apple app store buying and using Apple approved apps, you're pretty much guaranteed a pleasant user experience.

Unfortunately, that's not always the case in the open source world. And I'm not going to get into an argument about the value of open source software because I use quite a bit and I like it. But I use Apple and Microsoft products as well. That's probably partly me and partly my job. As a tech consultant, I don't think I can afford to be seen as an evangelist or shill for any particular product line. I also see advantages and disadvantages to all of them.

I think the challenge for librarians is to provide simple and elegant solutions instead of complex ones. And I think that's a big challenge. We want to provide all the options and answers while our customers often just want something that works. We librarians can get rather ideological and rigid in our positions. And that might prevent us from compromising and adding alternate solutions. Even if we're dedicated to running an open source based library, we may want to have a few computers or gadgets running Mac OS or Windows software for the comfort and convenience of our customers. And the same goes for libraries that primarily run Windows or Apple. They should also try to find some open source apps and gadgets for people to try out. From my happy place, I'd like see librarians making decisions on ILS, databases and other software primarily on the basis of usability. We need to focus on finding the best tools for the task at hand. Kudos to Nicole Engard for her example of going with proprietary software when it makes sense for her to do so.

I always hate to see librarians wasting energy battling each other on ideological grounds. In the meantime, our customers are finding our solutions too complicated and are turning to simpler ones like Google search, Kindle books, and iPad apps. We've got to turn our attention in that direction as well, if we're to stay in the game.

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