In one of its standard product-release events last week, Apple announced an upgrade in the speed and slimness of its line of tablets. Most people were not impressed. The predictability of these events has become somewhat monotonous. Nick Bilton of The New York Times even called the event boring, as it followed the same stale routine. Mr. Bilton has a point.
Nevertheless, Apple in fact announced something interesting and genuinely new last week. The new version of the Mac OS X operating system, called Mavericks, is free of charge, along with the iWork suite for new buyers.
The free release of iWork with new devices is welcome, but Apple would have caused more impact — an actual impact — if it had made the suite free to modify rather than just free to use. I’m referring, of course, to free software as defined by the Free Software Foundation — a software that allows the users freedom to run, study, copy, modify, improve and redistribute the product.
The philosophy of free software has been around for about three decades now, and has a supportive audience in software development and academic circles. Besides the appealing features of having no charge and allowing programmers freedom to tweak the software to comply with the particular needs of users, proponents argue open software also have more subtle advantages compared to proprietary software.
Tech guru Richard Stallman said that free software would mean a lot of “wasteful duplication of system programming effort will be avoided,” so that the effort “can go instead into advancing the state of the art.”
There’s in fact a lot of duplication in software designed for office usage. Not only Apple, but also Google and Sun Microsystems have products similar to Microsoft Office. Apple’s iWork simply cannot compete with either Microsoft as a priced product or Google as a free one. Yet none of these companies have provided truly free software for customers to modify and redistribute. The fact that Apple has lost the battle as both a priced and free office suite implies it would gain much more by making their software truly free.
Some Mac, iPhone and iPod users will undoubtedly benefit from a free-of-charge, compatible, well designed, office suite. Yet the chunk of market interested in using a free version of Microsoft Office has likely already been taken by existing high-quality free products, such as Google Docs. Given Apple’s large asset of worldwide developers and the reach of its products, not only the company but our entire society would do better with an office suite that was truly free not only to use, but to modify.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 29 print edition. Marcelo Cicconet is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]