FOSS Good Enough? Definitely!

19 July, 2021

Recently I was culling some notes and I came across one from early 2008. A note that somehow escaped various attempts at pruning over the last 13+ years. A sign or just blind luck? I’ll let you decide ...

The note in question was about a post at a now-defunct blog about open source. One quote I extracted from that post pointed out something that I’d been saying for a (long) while:

There are some functionality that isn’t available for the free options out there yet, but the actual portion of people that need that specific functionality is so small.

Believe it or not, most free and open source (FOSS) alternatives to commercial software are fine for most people. And they have been for a while.

What Does Good Enough Mean?

I often talk about what I called the power user fallacy: the tendency of so-called power users to think that a majority of people use software in the same way that they do. That’s far from the truth. Especially when you take the usage patterns of home users, who fall comfortably into the category of the so-called average or ordinary users, into account.

Think about how a majority of the people, intelligent (I’d hope!) but not particularly tech savvy, in your circle use software. Those people could be friends or parents or siblings. Their needs are probably quite simple. They use word processors to write letters, to do school work, and the like. They use spreadsheets to track household accounts. They use email clients to ... well, to send and receive email. They use graphics applications to view photos and, maybe, crop or resize them.

Chances are these people use, at most, about 20% of an application’s features. They don’t care about macros, IMAP, applying moire patterns, revision tracking, cross linking, scripting, database backends, and a host of other features and functions. They want to carry out the tasks that they need to carry out. Nothing more.

For the so-called average user, good enough doesn’t mean lack of features. Good enough means having the features that they need, that they use. And maybe a couple or three more that they might use in the future.

Choosing Free and Open Source Software

And guess what? Free and open source alternatives can handle those tasks. Often, they can handle a whole lot more. You can write quite comfortably with any number of word processors or text editors. You can track your expenses very effectively nicely using LibreOffice Calc. You can edit your photos using Pinta.

One argument that I constantly hear about FOSS applications is that the interface is different from [fill in the name of a commercial application here]. That’s true to a point, but does that even matter? I generally see humans as being very adaptable. It might take a while, but they can adapt if they try. Over years, I’ve known several people who dumped Microsoft Word for LibreOffice Writer or, before that, OpenOffice Writer. Although the interfaces of these programs differ from that of Word, the people I mentioned got used to their new applications within a few days.

Not everyone uses software in the same way or for the same purposes. For many people, FOSS alternatives to commercial applications are good enough. They’re often more than good enough. True, some professionals will find FOSS software lacking in certain key areas. But for the average user (and other who aren’t average user), FOSS is a viable alternative.

Scott Nesbitt