Category Archives: edtech

Martha Burtis on hacking a WordPress hacking workshop

Martha Burtis, instructional technologist extraordinnaire at University of Mary Washington, wrote earlier today about some WordPress development workshops she’ll be leading at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in the upcoming days. She’s responding to my prodding, and in the process, demonstrates with aplomb a few of my central points:

On the overlap between web development and education:

I got into Web design/development years ago because I loved how it allowed me to architect experiences. I got into higher education at the same time because I really do believe that education is one of our society’s highest callings. Blending my passion for education with my passion to craft experiences is basically what drives me […] I believe strongly that the fundamental nature of the code we work with speaks to the values we’re trying to embrace in the practices that our code enables. I love WordPress because it affords me possibilities. It affords me possibilities because it is open.

On how she plans to frame the technical parts of the workshop:

People are always amazed when they find out I studied English as an undergrad. I never quite understand why. Don’t they know that code is poetry? Seriously, I’m going to talk a bit about the relationship between code and poetry — a relationship that I’ve always found fascinating. I’m also going to talk about code as a tool for building experience. Finally, I’m going to talk about the way our values and politics (small “p”) inhabit the code we work with.

Martha illustrates the value that WPedu can bring to the broader free software project. People working with WordPress inside of the university approach their development (design, etc) with a focus on the user, and the benefits that the open nature of the software bring to the user experience. And people from academic backgrounds are trained to reflect critically on the way that software mediates our relationships with the world and with each other. This is a breath of fresh air in what can sometimes be an overcommercialized and results-focused community. Rock on, Martha!

Bebop is totally rocksteady

File this under “WPedu is killing it right now”.

The team at the Centre for Educational Research and Development at University of Lincoln (UK) has just announced the first public release of Bebop, their new BuddyPress plugin. Read more about the release and about Bebop itself. (Disclaimer – I have done some consultation for the Bebop project, though I’m writing this blog post outside of that consultant role.)

I find Bebop compelling because of what it does, and also because of how it was built. In a nutshell, Bebop is an aggregator for Open Educational Resources, or OERs. ‘OER’ is a term of art among open education folks, referring to learning resources that are available for free use, under an open license. (See OER Commons for a longer definition.) In practice, this can mean anything from videos to lesson plans to games to websites. Bebop is designed to allow members of a BuddyPress community to collect their own OERs from various web services – Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, etc – for display on their BP profiles. It’s a nice demonstration of how BuddyPress can be used as a tool for aggregating work done elsewhere on the web. It also demonstrates another way in which universities can use a free platform like BuddyPress as a non-commercial, locally hosted home for students and faculty, while recognizing that valuable work happens in spaces not under the university’s control. And from a technical point of view, I like how Bebop uses BP’s Activity component and profile metaphors to creative ends.

Bebop was built as part of a “rapid innovation” project. To put the term “rapid” in context: In the context of universities, projects usually move forward glacially. Getting approval and funding may itself take years, and by the time development begins, the original idea/technology is already obsolete. Bebop, in contrast, was conceived and developed over just a couple of months. It’s great to see these kinds of (relatively) rapid projects happening in universities – they can demonstrate to funders the benefits that come along with a bit of agility and risk and freedom.

If you’re running a BuddyPress installation in a university, you might consider taking Bebop for a spin. Get it from the plugin repo or follow development at Github.

WordPress in education, meet the free software community. And vice versa.

There’s a huge, amorphous community of people using WordPress in education. Let’s call it WPedu. There’s another huge community of people involved in the WordPress free software community. Let’s call it WPorg.

WPedu, meet WPorg. WPorg, meet WPedu.

WPorg should know that WPedu is killing it right now

I’d like WPorg to know that WPedu is kicking some serious ass. Take DS106 as an example. DS106 is a distributed course on the topic of Digital Storytelling (that’s the “DS”), where students all over the world – some of whom are enrolled in credit-bearing DS courses at their colleges, some of whom are just tagging along for the ride – use their blogs to complete assignments of various sorts. WordPress, FeedWordPress, BuddyPress, and a bunch of custom hacks are used to aggregate content from hundreds of participants into a single stream. The whole thing is built around the idea of openness: existing, open standards like RSS are being used to federate standalone instances of WordPress (alongside any other system that outputs RSS).

People working on free software – like you, WPorg! – should be flipping out over how awesome that is.

Similarly impressive innovations can be found all over the WPedu world. The innovation is motivated by the love of the work, and by principles: education should be open, individuals should control their data and their online identities, software should be free as in speech. These are the very same principles that are close to the hearts of free software enthusiasts.

People involved in the WPorg community should be spending more effort reaching out to WPedu people. The software developers, instructional technologists, faculty members, and other people working in WPedu are a huge, largely untapped resource for the free software project. People working in K-12 and universities, especially those working in public institutions, often have an incentive (even an imperative) to be sharing their work out to the larger community. (Contrast this with the fact that for-profit WP devs actually have a disincentive to contribute, an issue I wrote about recently.) People in WPedu are experts at piecing systems together, at writing documentation, at community moderation, and so on. They often enjoy flexible job descriptions and fairly loose oversight, and they’re less beholden to financial issues than people working in the private sector. Thus, for many WPedu people, it’d be quite concievable to shoehorn some free software work into their workweek. Most of all, WPedu people are totally awesome people – you have to be pretty awesome to put up with the lackluster pay and ridiculous bureaucracies that education folk have to deal with. Start talking to these awesome people. They have incredible ideas about where WP should go, and they have the resources to help get there.

WPedu should start tooting its own horn

On the flip side: WPedu, you are doing some cool shit, and deep in your heart, you know it. So don’t be afraid to talk about it. It’s true, ome of you are blogging, and that’s great. These blogs are usually addressed (understandably enough) to fellow WPedu people – “here’s a cool new way to use WordPress in a university”, etc. But you should stop qualifying yourselves: Lots of the stuff you’re doing is legitimately a cool new way to use WordPress, period, and you should be proud of that. Own your excellence and innovation.

I come from WPedu, so I say this from experience: there’s too much modesty, bordering on mousyness, among WPedu innovators. Many – most? – of you were never formally trained in software development (or design, or support, or documentation, or whatever). I know I never was. And being embedded in institutions founded on the very notion of Expertise – you can’t spell University without PhD – makes you too unsure of your own skills to reach out and get involved. Here’s a secret: Most of the people in the WPorg community came from non-technical backgrounds, too. (IMO, that’s one of the things that has made WordPress successful, but that’s a topic for another post.) You deserve to be involved, just as much as any of the current community contributors. Three-quarters of expertise is having the confidence to get involved.

If that’s not enough persuasion, here are some practical considerations.

  1. When you build systems using a piece of software – like, let’s say, a student blogging system using WordPress – you become dependent on the future development of that software. By getting involved in the community – submitting patches, doing beta testing, participating in support forums, writing plugins and themes, blogging, etc – you can earn a seat at the table where decisions about WP’s future are made. When your voice isn’t heard, someone else’s voice will be heard in your place. And, as someone who straddles WPedu and WPorg, I can say with confidence that edu and non-profit voices are way underrepresented in the WP project.
  2. Very Important People, such as your boss, your promotion committee, public and private grant committees, and so forth, will be Very Impressed by a list of contributions to free software projects. If you can tell funders that your software has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times (as we are unashamed to do with the CUNY Academic Commons project), and if you can tie this into a broader narrative about engaging meaningfully with a broader public, it can help to guarantee your financial continuance, if you know what I mean.
  3. It’s the right thing to do. The work that you’re doing at your institutions is helping your students in a huge way. If, by putting in just a bit of extra work, you can increase the potential beneficiaries of your work by ten- or one-hundred- or one-thousand-fold, why wouldn’t you do so?

I shouldn’t make it sound like there’s no overlap between WPedu and WPorg. There is. But it’s much smaller than it should be, given the direct parallels between the ideological goals of the free software project and the ideological goals of the educational enterprise

I’m working on a couple ideas that I think will help to bridge some of the gaps between WPedu and WPorg. I’ll share more about them when they become more well-formed. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about how to move these mutually beneficial connections from the realm of the practical to the actual.

BuddyCamp – it’s about time

Yesterday the first ever BuddyCamp was announced. BuddyCamp Vancouver 2012 is the brainchild Cyri Jones, a Vancouver-based educator and entrepreneur who works a lot with WP and BP. I think it’s going to be a very cool event.

The idea of a BuddyPress-specific event along the lines of WordCamp has been tossed around a lot in the past, at least between the most active members of the BP community. Some have argued that BP is a bit “niche” to serve as the foundation for an event like this (see some of the comments in this WP Realm post, for example). However, while it’s clear that BP has far fewer users than WP, those who do use BP on an everyday basis are often very passionate about it. I think that the community is plenty large at this point to support local events of this type.

In the past, John Jacoby has suggested that a more general “WordPress Plugins Camp” might be a logical precursor to a BuddyCamp – after all, there are lots more plugins than just BuddyPress, which translates to many more potential attendees. I think a general Plugins Camp is a pretty kickass idea, and devs/designers working with BP would have a lot to bring to such an event. But it’s worth noting that this first BuddyCamp will be about a lot more than just devs and designers. I’d wager that over half the attendees will be people who are using free software to build online community space, from a non-technical point of view. These people may not know the first thing about building a WordPress plugin, but they have lots to say about how software can facilitate community – and this is something very specific to a BuddyPress event. So I think there’s really a need for something like a BuddyCamp, where the people who are building the software can get in the same room with the people who are pushing it to its practical limits in real-world scenarios.

Also, while I wish that the whole thing had been arranged a few months sooner (sometimes the best ideas happen at the last minute!), I think the timing of BuddyCamp Vancouver is really great. It’s sandwiched between two events, also being held in Vancouver, which should have huge overlaps in terms of interested attendees: WordCamp Vancouver and Open Ed 2012. I’m hoping that, in particular, a lot of people coming into town for Open Ed will think about coming a day or two early to talk about BuddyPress and its uses in supporting online learning communities. Spoiler alert: I may be talking about this very topic in my own BuddyCamp Vancouver session 🙂

I’m hoping that this is just the first of a series of BuddyCamps. I can easily imagine that there’s enough interest in BP to support a handful of similar events around the world each year. If you’re a motivated fan of BuddyPress, you may want to think about planning such an event in the future!

Project Reclaim update

Back in March 2011, I kicked off the Project Reclaim project. Since then, others have picked up where I’ve left off – most notably, Doug Belshaw and D’Arcy Norman (who have surpassed me both in the reclaiming and in the blogging about the reclaiming). Behind my radio silence, though, has been a flurry of recent reclaiming activity:

  • I’m mostly de-Mac-ified. I recently bought a Samsung Series 9, which is serving as a stopgap full-time machine until I have the time to set up a desktop Linux rig. On day one, I wiped the Windows 7 installation and installed Arch Linux. It took some time to get set up, and I’m still using my Mac for a couple of things (Picasa, Skype, the old Adobe AIR Tweetdeck), but I’m almost totally moved over. I may write a post or two in the upcoming weeks about specific parts of the transition – there were some pain points, to be sure, especially in the initial setup. But, in general, it’s been smoother, easier, and more pleasurable than I would have guessed. Using Linux full time makes me feel like I’m back in the driver’s seat of my computing life, and it feels extra good to know that 95% of the software on my full-time machine is non-proprietary.
  • At the same time that I moved to Linux, I also switched to Vim. I’d been a user of BBEdit, which is a really great piece of software, but moving away from the Mac meant I had to choose something else. So I figured I’d go for the powerhouse of all text editors. Vim has a certain allure. When I was younger, I studied jazz piano. I remember watching my instructor play and being driven nearly to tears: I understood, in broad strokes, what he was doing and why it sounded the way it did, but it crushed me that I couldn’t translate that knowledge into the same kind of performance magic that he could. I feel much the same way about Vim masters. I’m far from a master, but I’m getting much much more fluent. Also, of course, Vim is non-proprietary, and it gives me major geek cred. So, big win all around. I should note that the Vim transition has actually been far more difficult than the Linux transition, and it was only after about four or five weeks of full-time use that I started to feel like I was back to my pre-switch level of productivity. (In this sense, it was a lot like switching from QWERTY to Dvorak.)

The big proprietary services and software products left in my life are Dropbox and Twitter. Moving away from Dropbox is fairly simple – see D’Arcy’s great posts on his experiments with Owncloud – I’ve just been lazy about it. Twitter is far more complicated, both technically and socially, as well as far more pressing, given Twitter’s recent NBCishness. So that’s the next mountain to climb.

How many others have been Reclaiming over the last year or two? Would love to see more projects along the lines of D’Arcy’s and Doug’s.

“I am not a programmer”

I am not a programmer.

Spend a few minutes in a place where software users interact with software developers – support forums, dev trackers, face-to-face team meetings – and you’re bound to hear this phrase used (or one of its relatives: I am not [a geek|a developer|a coder|tech-savvy], etc). It’s a statement of fact, and a useful statement at that, since the kind of help offered to a “programmer” is obviously quite different from what’s offered to someone who’s not.

But The Phrase is so much more than that. It’s a strategic move in a social game. Its uses fall into roughly two categories: a cry for empathy, and a deflection of responsibility.

A cry for empathy

I am not a programmer often means Go easy on me. Ask yourself: Why would someone go out of their way to ask for empathy in this way?

Sometimes it’s a way for a n00b to test the waters. Newcomers to a software community don’t always know the community conventions for asking for help. Labeling oneself as “not a programmer” is a gentle way of gauging how others react to new folks.

More frequently, in my experience, I am not a programmer is used by people who have been burned in the past. Maybe the user once asked a question and got an answer that was over her head. Maybe the discussion turned sour when the developers looked down their noses at someone who couldn’t understand a few lines of code. When this happens, I am not a programmer is a shield, a preemptive attempt to guard against the abuse that the asker rightly or wrongly expects to receive.

I wrote a post a while back on how this looks from the developer’s point of view. The gist, so far as this use of The Phrase is concerned, is that developers should be as empathetic as possible in these situations. For one thing, treating people with kindness is just the right thing to do. Beyond that, it’s important to the future of the community to extend a hand to potential contributors.

A deflection of responsibility

The other common use of I am not a programmer is something like: I’m not technical, so don’t even try to get me to crack the hood, which often amounts to I refuse to make an honest attempt. Do it for me.

This phenomenon is, in part, a side effect of the fact that I work with WordPress. WP is unusual among free software projects in that “ease of use” has always been central to its development strategy. The Dashboard, the inline updater, the plugin installer, the five-minute install – all are the result of a conscious effort by WP devs to make the barrier for entry as low as possible. And it’s worked. Without touching so much as a semi-colon of code, you can set up a beautiful and powerful website using WP and the some of the thousands of readily available plugins and themes.

On balance, this is a Very Good Thing. But it also sets up, in the mind of the average user, a certain (incorrect) understanding and set of (unreasonable) expectations about how free software works. In the world of commercial software, the development process is deliberately shrouded from end users. Apple (to take an example) has support forums. But the solutions offered here are always “click here” and “type this”, never “change this code” or “hack this” – if for no other reason than that the software is designed to be un-hack-friendly. In the case of open source software, the source code is available. Thus there is no enforced distinction between those who write the code and those who use it. For users of free software who are accustomed to the proprietary model, it’s hard to get your head around the idea that you can – and should! – be hacking it as part of the troubleshooting process.

Moreover, people who are accustomed to paying for software are used to getting a minimal level of functionality and support in exchange for their license fees. Free software has no license fees. But there persists a sense, in the minds of some users, of “How could you release something that is not 100% working?”. They approach support as a consumer transaction; the idea that troubleshooting could be a collaborative endeavor between users and devs, and that this troubleshooting is part of a larger arc of software development, is totally foreign to them. This seems especially true in the case of WordPress, which is so easy to use that it sets user expectations very high.

It’s perfectly understandable that the move from proprietary to free software would be jarring for users. But it’s not OK for these users to attempt to force their commercial expectations on a non-commercial community. The blurring of the line between user and developer, where users occasionally take a deep breath and crack open the hood, is a crucial part of the way free software is developed. It’s how bugs get fixed, and it’s how new devs emerge from the larger community. I am not a programmer, when it means I refuse to step outside my comfort zone, does active harm to the software project. It’s not that everyone has to become a “programmer” – it’s perfectly fine if you have no desire to get technical. But to deflect the issue altogether – especially with incredulity or anger, as if it’s totally unbelievable that you may be asked to do something technical – is a violation of the free software ethos.

So, next time you see a support request prefaced with “I am not a programmer…”, show a little empathy – but not too much 🙂

Sowing the seeds

Today I devoted an unusually large amount of time doing free user support for BuddyPress and WordPress (in IRC, over email, through some Trac tickets, and on WordPress StackExchange, the latter of which I’ve been experimenting with for the first time, and I find pretty cool). I say “unusually large” because while I used to do a lot of this sort of thing, it now falls to the bottom of my list of priorities – I do paid work, and when I’m not doing that I do free software development, and when I’m not doing that I try to get the hell away from my computer. As one of the leaders of the BuddyPress project, I usually justify this balance to myself by saying: There are lots of people who can provide user support for this software as well as I can, but there are few who can do productive development for it like I can, so my time is better spent developing. Generally, I think this is a pretty good argument. But I’m glad that days like today come along occasionally, because they remind me of some basic things about the nature of the community around a piece of free software that you can forget when your head is buried too deep in the codebase.

As an aside, I should note that I use the word ‘community’ in a measured way. The word is often overapplied, as if calling a bunch of people working on similar things “the WordPress community” or “the Digital Humanities community” or “the CUNY community” will, in a feat of performative metamorphosis (like how the Queen’s saying “I dub thee Sir Boone” would ipso facto make me a knight), bring into being the thing it purports to describe. Terminological misgivings to one side, there is an undeniable sense in which the work that we do – and by “we” here I mean specifically free software developers, though the point is quite a bit more general than that – is done in a community, or at least (more formally) a network, insofar as those who work on a common piece of free software never really work in isolation from one another. The development process that underlies these software projects depends on the existence of feedback loops, from the end user to the administrator of the installation to the community leaders to the developers themselves, in the form of bug reports, software patches, feature suggestions, support requests, blog posts, and so on.

These feedback loops are not unique to free software development; they’re not even unique to software. But in free software circles the loops are perhaps uniquely malleable, and the distinctions between user and developer uniquely permeable. Each user is a potential contributor, be it through code or advocacy. But the potential is not realized automatically. It’s obvious enough that users who hate using the software and developers whose patches are ignored will never become part of the community. More interesting is the case where a newbie approaches the community with enthusiasm and skill, but where their offerings are not nurtured and so never become real contributions.

I think this happens more than we would care to admit, and I am happy to take my share of the blame. As a developer, I become emotionally attached to the project, and as a result I sometimes interpret criticism as a personal attack. The parts of development that are least exciting – hunting down and fixing the obscure bugs that affect only a small number of users but, for those users, are ruinous – these make me defensive and sometimes angry, as they take my attention away from the more generative work I’d rather be doing. I value my time so highly that I occasionally get annoyed when someone requests some of that time to answer a “simple” question. In each instance, my attitude as a developer and leader of the project could have the effect of chilling what might otherwise have been a fruitful engagement.

Taking the time to do some “support” is the ideal way to fight these tendencies. People ask questions about the software, contribute patches, suggest improvements, etc, because they like the software and want to use it. These people are friends of the project, and should not be treated as enemies. Taking the time to work directly with users is a way of closing the feedback circuit, of sowing the seeds of future collaboration and contribution. If one out of five people recommends the software to someone else, and one out of a hundred contributes back to the software in the form of documentation or code or advocacy, that’s fruitful enough to make the engagement worthwhile.

Do something about SOPA

Hey you! Do something about SOPA and PROTECT IP..

The Stop Online Privacy Act (and its cousin in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act) are inching closer to passage. Time is running short for you to do what you can to stymie this legislation, which could very well destroy the open internet as we know it. (Don’t know about SOPA? Get a nice overview in this short video, or check out Jeff Sayre’s helpful bibliography of resources about the bill.)

Why you should care about this

If you are reading my blog, you likely fall into one of a few camps, each of which has a vested interest in preventing the passage of SOPA and PROTECTIP:

  • If you are a developer, user, or advocate of free and open source software, you have several reasons to be concerned about the proposed legislation.

    For one thing, the small-to-medium sized web organizations that are most likely to be targets of SOPA’s blacklisting protocols make up the bulk of the clientele for many web developers I know. These organizations generally do not have the visibility or high profile to put up a stink when and if they fall prey to overzealous “copyright” claims, nor do they have the deep pockets to fund the necessary legal defenses. The danger is especially great for websites that accept – or are built on – user-generated content, like many WordPress and BuddyPress sites; SOPA provides for the blacklisting of entire domains, based merely on the a few pieces of “offending” content, even if the content was not created or posted by the domain owners. Over time, these threats and constraints are bound to make the development of these kinds of sites far less feasible and attractive, resulting in less work for developers – and less development on the open source projects that are largely subsidized by this kind of work.

    On a deeper level, those who are interested in the philosophical underpinnings of free software – the rights of the user – should be terrified by the prospect of media corporations gaining what amounts to veto power over our most fecund channels for the exercise of free expression. Free software lives and dies alongside a free internet. When one level of our internet infrastructure (DNS) is under the control of a self-interested few, it makes “freedom” at higher levels of abstraction – like the level of the user-facing software – into an illusion.

  • If you are an educator or an instructional technologist, especially one who endorses the spirit of open educational movements like (the OG) edupunk and ds106, you should be flipping out about SOPA.

    At an institutional level, thoughtful folks in higher ed and edtech have been fighting for years against a FERPA-fueled obsession with privacy and closedness. They’ve made strides. Platforms that foster learning in open spaces – stuff like institutional blog and wiki installations – have become increasingly commonplace, demonstrating to the powers that be that, for one thing, the legal dangers are not so great, and for another, whatever legal concerns there may be are far outweighed by the pedagogical benefits to be reaped from the open nature of the systems. The threats put into place by SOPA are likely to undo much of this work, by tipping the scales back in the direction of fear-driven policy written by CYA-focused university lawyers. Advocates of open education, and the platforms that support it, should be keen not to let their efforts go to waste.

    At the level of the individual student, the case is more profound. The most promising thread in the story of higher ed and the internet – the thread running through Gardner Campbell’s Bags of Gold and Jim Groom’s a domain of one’s own – is, in my understanding, founded on notions about student power and agency. Users of the internet are not, and should not be, passive actors and consumers of content. Instead, they should take control of their (digital) selves, becoming active participants in the construction of the web, the web’s content, and their own avatars. SOPA and its ilk are an endorsement of the opposite idea: the “ownership” of creative content on the internet is heavily weighted toward media companies, which is to say that you are allowed to be in control of your digital self until it causes a problem for a suit at MPAA or RIAA. The entire remix/mashup culture of ds106 is impossible in such a scenario. If you think that this culture, and the ideology of student personhood that underscores the culture, is worth saving, you should be fighting SOPA tooth and nail.

What can you do? Write a blog post. Join or support the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Most importantly, if you are an American, contact your representatives in Congress. The Stop American Censorship site makes this easy, and gives you all the talking points you’ll need. (“This bill is a job killer!”)

Do it now!

Project Reclaim and the email dilemma

One of the main 2011 goals for Project Reclaim is to get my email out of Gmail. Heavy reliance on Gmail raises a number of red flags. For one thing, email is central to my business and personal life online, and provides the best archive of my online past (get the important stuff first). For another, Gmail is ad-supported, in a way that has rankled since Gmail went public: it “reads” your email and serves ads based on what it finds. No one really talks about it anymore, but it still kind of bugs me – so I want to move to a non-free system (paying is better than getting something for free).

It’s taken me a while to make the move, though, for two main reasons.

  1. Email is tricky. Good, free mail server software is easy to find. But it’s not necessarily easy to set up and maintain. If the outgoing server isn’t configured correctly, your messages will get marked as spam. If you haven’t got constantly monitored spam filters on your incoming mail, you’ll be inundated with garbage. And the issues of backups and reliability, while certainly important in the case of (say) self-hosted websites, are many times more important with email: if the server goes down, emails may get altogether lost in the ether.

    I’ve set up and configured email servers before, and it hasn’t been very fun. When deciding how to solve the Gmail conundrum, I needed to take this fact into consideration. I started to do a bit of research on paid email hosting, and found good reviews of Rackspace’s hosted email service. The service is pretty affordable, and I knew from years of Slicehost use (now owned by Rackspace) that customer service and support would be good.

  2. I needed a good address. I own a lot of domain names, but most of them are lame, and none lent themselves very neatly to an email address. For instance, when your domain name is, what’s the email account name? ‘boone’? The cool factor there is pretty low. And I am a cool guy, so that’s important.

    Some of the obvious domains are taken. is wasted on dry-erase boards. could never be wrested from the clutches of “one of the oldest family owned Volvo franchises in the United States”. But there was hope – or should I say había esperanza – that I might get the fairly unused In fact, my brother and I had been working on that project for a couple of years, but it was only a few months ago that the owner finally relented, and the domain name was transferred to the Gorges boys.

So, about two months ago, I made the switch. For now, I just set it up as another account in Thunderbird (more on my Thunderbird setup). I created a generic “Archive” directory on my account (to mimic Gmail’s All Mail) and pointed my ‘Y’ shortcut to that directory. I’m using K-9 Mail on my Android phone, which I set up to save the entire Archive directory, so I’d have good local email search on my phone. Little by little, I’m moving over my email correspondence to the new, awesome address. Bye bye, Gmail!

Done with Apple

In my 2010 year-in-review post I made a passing mention to my decision not to buy any more Apple products. Most people who know me can probably guess the reasons behind the decision, but recently I’ve had some discussions that made me think that it’s worth a blog post to spell them out.

First is my ongoing project to move away from proprietary software in general. All things being equal, it’s better to use software whose source code I can view and modify; even if, in fact, I never do these things, the fact that I could is a kind of safeguard against a number of frequent aspects of closed-source software: data lock-in, data rot, restrictions on hardware compatibility, secret surveillance, etc. As the operating system is in many ways the foundation of all other tasks I do on a computer, so it is of fundamental importance to use an open OS.

Second. I believe in the Web as an open platform for communication and expression, and Apple is increasingly anti-web.

You often hear hoopla about how digital technologies can radically democratize and transform x (fill in your favorite x: scholarship, education, publication, politics, etc). The success or failure of these transformations is tied up with the Web’s openness as a platform: open standards like TCP/IP, enablers of decentralization like distributed DNS, free software like Linux and Apache to run servers. Putting any of these technical details under the control of a single agent, especially a corporate agent that answers only to shareholders, threatens to limit free expression and disenfranchise vulnerable groups of potential users. If a robust, widely-used, open Web is important to the future of equality and democracy, and if such a Web can only be defended by keeping out proprietary interests, then it’s important to fight against interference from those interests.

I take it as fairly obvious that Apple (and not only Apple, though they seem to be the trendsetters) is anti-Web. Consider their distribution models. iTunes makes it so that you have to buy apps, music, and movies through an application, rather than through web pages. Know that annoying “feature” where, when you click on an iPhone app link on the web, you get a page informing you that you’ve clicked on an iTunes link, whereupon iTunes proceeds to open? That’s anti-web. The increasing focus on “apps” is a more troubling anti-web move. As was nicely illustrated by an article I read a while back (can’t find the link), you can spend a whole day doing stuff on an iPad – using Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Yelp, email, Google Maps, etc – without ever viewing a web page (though they all use web services that use HTTP as a transport). In this way, Apple is doing an end run around the web.

The nature of the end run is particularly troubling. Apple is the arbiter of the software that runs on its devices (completely, in the case of iThings; increasingly, in the case of the AppStorified Mac). This creates unnecessary bottlenecks when it comes to bugfix or security releases. It creates a single point of failure for apps and therefore for devices; if Apple goes under tomorrow (or, more likely, changes their mind completely about whatever they please), how will you continue to update your apps? Worst, it puts Apple in the position of policing for content, which, whether driven by a well-intentioned desire to avoid offensive content or by a malevolent puritanism, is a Bad Thing.

Anyway, all of these points have been made over and over again, by many different people. My own bottom line: I believe in the value of the open web to such an extent that I’ve devoted my career to it. Thus, it feels wrong to keep using, and indirectly encouraging the use of, technologies like Apple’s. That goes especially for iOS and its devices, the area where I think the threat to the web is worst. But it extends to the Mac as well. Even if you maintain that the Mac will never merge into iOS (a position I find disingenuous), there’s no question that spending money on Mac hardware is a way of indirectly feeding the beast. Next time I buy a laptop, I’ll be sad not to be getting a pretty MacBook, but, on balance, I feel more comfortable giving my money to a hardware manufacturer that’s less pernicious.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that mine is a decision that everyone must, or even should, make. Using Apple products brings pleasure to a lot of people, even people who largely share my ideologies about the free web. It’s perfectly legitimate to decide that the benefits you get from using those products outweigh the downsides. But, for me, it’s past the tipping point, which is why I’m done buying Apple products.