Why work for nothing (2)?

Why work for nothing (2)?

In the second part of this series I’ll be looking at how the internet has put a new pressure on ideas of ownership and value.

The internet has a fundamental affinity with the idea of “free”. It was not created for profit, but by the US military and the academic world to enable collaboration, and knowledge sharing.

It’s interesting that the most important and disruptive economic force of our age was not the child of capitalism, and in many areas the world of business is still trying to understand what this means for how you get paid. This incomprehension may threaten the conditions that made the internet so successful in the first place. As I write a dispute is playing out between Netflix and Comcast, which could prove a test case for the future of “net neutrality” (the principle that all traffic should be treated equally – in practice keeping the playing field level like this has ensured a progressive uplift in quality to the benefit of all, as well as the proliferation of innovative services).

In truth the dispute threatens the reality of net neutrality but is not an argument over the fundamental principle. It’s more about simple greed, reflecting a phenomenon apparent elsewhere in the corporate reaction to the digital revolution, an unprecedented rapaciousness. Comcast has an ISP business. It sells access to the internet to consumers, who pay a monthly fee for a certain amount of bandwidth. Comcast has turned around to Netflix and demanded an extra fee because Netflix’ product (TV and film streaming) uses a lot of bandwidth. It has argued that Netflix is not paying the true cost of its business, and so is making profits at Comcast’s expense.

This seems a dubious argument. Comcast is already being paid by its end customers to supply a certain amount of bandwidth. If Comcast cannot maintain quality of service without further network investment, then that’s an issue for its pricing to those consumers. If anything, because nobody needs or buys bandwidth for its own sake, you could say that ISPs should be paying content providers for creating something that makes their bandwidth desirable. It’s as though Comcast has looked at the profits being made by Netflix, and because the latter’s business depends in parts of America on Comcast’s transmission networks, decided that it deserves a share of those profits, even though its own business depends just as much on the content providers using its networks.

This wilful blurring of established boundaries isn’t unprecedented. The head of EA Games notoriously lambasted high street outlets selling secondhand games as if they were stealing from his company, highlighting the thorny question of what is actually happening when you buy a game (a question which applies as much to software, or indeed music and books). In the past there was never any question about this: if you bought a book you had no claim on the intellectual property it represented (you weren’t allowed to extract the text and reuse it elsewhere), but you certainly owned the physical object, and could resell it at your leisure. There was an established principle of first sale, and publishers accepted that they had no claim on the secondhand market. The same applied to music (and video/film) recordings.

Computers enabled a new world of digital copying, which raised understandable concerns about loss of legitimate income, but in unilaterally redefining the customer transaction as a licence rather than a sale (ostensibly to protect themselves from copy violations) software and creative content publishers have practised their own piracy, imposing draconian restrictions on previously well-established consumer rights (the right of resale is now a seriously grey area).

We’re entering a new phase, with large software publishers unilaterally reclassifying what were once clearly products as “services”, requiring a rental fee than a purchase payment. There’s some sleight of hand here. It’s become normal for bug fixes to be issued during the lifetime of a software product, but this is not a service: it’s only putting right what should not have been wrong in the first place (I appreciate that software is often complex, but in the past publishers have rightly included the provision of such fixes in the purchase price). The publishers will also throw in new features over time as part of the “service”, but this is ironic indeed: the reason they have resorted to this new pricing model is because people no longer needed or wanted the new features they were being asked to pay for. It’s true that most of these software products include an element of “cloud” integration and synchronisation, so files and configuration are replicated across multiple devices, which is certainly nice to have, but then it can be largely achieved using existing (and often free) services. If the cloud element was offered as paid-for add on I doubt it would find much take up (at least outside the enterprise, and enterprises manage their software and costs in very different ways).

For most users outside the enterprise this shift to software as a service effectively is a demand that the publisher be paid for existing. Rather surprisingly it’s proving successful, though it would be interesting to see how well the sales are going outside enterprises.

In a rational world this shift would be kicking the door wide open for alternative software providers, not least because the most convincing alternative to Microsoft Office, LibreOffice, is available completely free. In fact as a professional writer I prefer LibreOffice Writer to Microsoft Word; it takes a bit of configuration, but that’s partly the point – unlike Word you can set it up to work pretty much the way you want it. LibreOffice is widely used, and these days its compatibility with Microsoft formats is reasonably good, but Microsoft’s increasingly restrictive practices have not caused a wholesale switch to the open source world. Perhaps people just don’t know about it.

LibreOffice is maintained and developed by The Document Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation co-ordinating the voluntary work of programmers and other professionals across the world. Some of these programmers are technically employed by sponsoring enterprises, which then donate their employees’ time to the project. Others do it for love.

And that’s interesting.

There’s a small section of society motivated entirely by money, and perhaps the sense of self-importance that easily goes with large amounts of money. If you work in the City of London there’s not much else to keep you going. But most people are not like this. It’s true that the widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else is likely to be fuelling resentment and frustration at work (I heard it said recently that in the US some 70 per cent of the workforce would happily leave their current jobs), but it’s also apparent that most people want more than money from their work, and are prepared to do a great deal for no financial reward at all.

In a way this has always been so. For plutocrats like Britain’s prime minister it seemed to offer a handy way to redescribe a full frontal assault on the public sector (which he called The Big Society). In my next entry I want to think some more about how the ideas of “free” inherent in the way the internet has evolved mesh with this evident but little-considered element of our culture. And I want to look at some of the bigger questions about ownership, capitalism, and productive assets that have emerged in parallel with the new freedoms offered by the internet.

The best writing tools

The best writing tools

This blog is mostly about pretty high minded things, but it can’t hurt occasionally to deviate into the practical.

I make my living as a commercial writer. I’m old enough to remember typewriters, and though I had one at college I hated using it. Correcting mistakes (and I made a lot of mistakes) was just too cumbersome and the results unpleasant. I looked into computers as a possible way forward, but it was another five years or so before PC-based word processors began to be available in a useful and affordable form. But when they were, that changed everything for me.

I discovered Microsoft Word. It was a DOS program, white characters reversed out of a dark screen, and menus that worked well with a mouse. At the office (an ad agency) we were forced to use Word Perfect, but I always preferred Word, and its market triumph when it moved to the graphic environment of Windows only vindicated my preference.

I looked at alternatives: AmiPro, Star Suite (which became OpenOffice) but nothing threatened my allegiance to Word, until Microsoft launched Office 2007 with the notorious ribbon. It wasn’t the ribbon itself that put me off, though as a power user familiar with Word’s menus I didn’t find it particularly helpful. But I use styles all the time for formatting, and for reasons best known to itself Word 2007 buggered up style management.

OpenOffice seemed the obvious alternative, but there was much I didn’t like about it. Its interface design was ugly, and simple but important functions like a word count were buried in menus (you could with some effort customise the interface to make things better, but back then it took quite a lot of work). Its compatibility with MS Office documents was far from perfect, and because I need to exchange documents with clients using Word, this seemed a show stopper.

Reluctantly I persisted with Word. Then two or three years ago, having been taken over by the unsympathetic Oracle Corporation, most of those working on the OpenOffice project went to a new project, LibreOffice. Things began to move fast enough to rekindle my interest, while in Microsoft land with each new iteration Word just seemed to get worse, less flexible, and often harder to use.

LibreOffice became my tool of choice, particularly its writing module, which is the component I use all the time.

I’m writing this in the upcoming 4.2 release. It has fully incorporated and begun to refine the “sidebar” from the now discontinued IBM Symphony (itself a fork of OpenOffice). The toolbars in Symphony were an incoherent and inflexible mess. In LibreOffice the sidebar shows Microsoft how the ribbon should have been done. What’s more, because it’s placed at the side of the window it makes much better use of the widescreen aspect ratios of most modern monitors.

MS Office compatibility still isn’t perfect: page headers and text boxes particularly can cause problems, so I keep a copy of MS Office to check and refine these elements when I need to share a document with a client using the docx format. But I never do the initial work in Office. It’s too clunky. I can’t see myself ever buying another MS Office licence, and LibreOffice rather wonderfully is free (you can always make a donation).

LibreOffice Writer is in many ways superior to MS Word. You can configure almost everything about the way it looks, the colours, the icons, and the visible toolbars. There is still a full screen view so you can work without any visual distraction on your text (something Microsoft abandoned for no apparent reason with the advent of the ribbon). Style and template handling is simple and effective, and there’s a very useful navigator feature which gives you an overview of the different elements in a document (headings etc) and lets you move easily between them (Word 2013 has finally caught up with this feature).

Here’s a quick guide to the customisation I like to apply. Not all of these elements will be possible in versions earlier than 4.2 (though most of them will). You can download it from www.libreoffice.org, though at the time of writing you’ll need to go to www.libreoffice.org/download/pre-releases/ to find version 4.2 (I’ve found the release candidate to be stable, though the final version should be available soon).

  • In the View menu, uncheck the Ruler, Text boundaries and Field Shadings. In the toolbars uncheck the “Formatting” toolbar (it’s largely replicated in the sidebar, while other toolbars will appear automatically in the sidebar when you’re working on a picture etc). Enable the Sidebar.
  • You’ll be left with the standard toolbar at the top of the screen. I usually edit this (right click in the toolbar and choose “Customise”) to reflect the way I actually work. For instance I use keyboard shortcuts to cut and paste, so there’s no point in having those functions in the toolbar.
  • From the Tools menu go to Options, then select View. Under icon size and style choose “small” and “Sifr” (finally LibreOffice has a modern icon set, though it could still do with some refinement on the sidebar). 
  • Still in the Options menu select Personalisation, then Own Theme. You’ll be taken to the Firefox themes webpage. Find one you like (I’m using one called Abstract Black), go to its page and copy the web address, then paste it into the box in LibreOffice. Click OK … 
  • Still in the Options menu select Appearance. Choose an Application background you like (I use Grey 7). Also deselect Object boundaries, (unless you want to see a line around them). 
  • Still in the Options menu under Language settings/Writing Aids, disable grammar checking. Like all grammar checkers its views of your sentences are often debatable to say the least, and I find it more irritating than helpful. Then look at English Sentence Checking for some useful options about word spacing, quotation marks and apostrophes. Choose the options that suit you. 
  • Finally under the Options/LibreOffice Writer/Basic Fonts menu you can change the default fonts for your documents. I used Charter BT at 10.5 for body text and Zapf Humanist at 14 for headers. 

You can also set default fonts effectively using templates. You manage these from the File/New/Templates menu, which allows you to import templates you may already have created, and set one of them as a default. I use a customised standard template to set fonts, line and paragraph spacing. I have other custom templates for letters and commercial copy with different headers and page elements.

Other programs, platforms and thoughts
LibreOffice Writer is my preferred tool for most of the documents I need to create. It is a good cross-platform solution that runs on Windows, Apple OSX and Linux and if you use its native Open Document Format you should find perfect fidelity across those platforms.

Sadly ODF is not really supported on Android (or iOS as far as I know). On my Android tablet I’ve found by far the best writing tool is Mobisystems’ OfficeSuite Pro, which can now display ODF files, but doesn’t let you edit them (although you can always copy any text into a new document and then edit in docx format). I hope this situation changes soon, but for the moment I have to save my LibreOffice work in the docx format so I can edit while away from my desk.

Most of the recent development in MS Office has been about enabling collaborative document creation via the cloud. This is largely irrelevant to the way I work, and it’s also the emphasis of Google Docs. I found the latter fine for very basic text creation, but too limited to be anything but frustrating in everyday use.

On the other hand there’s Literature and Latte’s Scrivener. I use it for creative writing, because I find it helpful to use a different software environment from my commercial work, and it’s a fantastic tool. It de-emphasises formatting to help you concentrate on text creation, with a number of features to help you gather and manage your research materials, as well as tools to help you keep the overall structure of long documents visible and flexible. You can achieve most of this in LibreOffice too but Scrivener keeps things tidy and always at hand. Once you’re happy with your text you can “compile” it for final formatting in a word processor, or indeed for direct export to e-publishing formats. It’s inexpensive and well worth the outlay if you’re producing long or complex multipart texts.

It’s also cross-platform, available on Apple OSX, Windows, and with a beta version for Linux. You can find out more at http://literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php