Doom and gloom upon the offing of Google Reader

This week, Google announced that it’s shutting down Reader. This is the first of Google’s “sunsets” that hits me personally – Reader has been a crucial part of my internet use for the better part of a decade. I happen to think, like Marco Arment, that in the long run the loss of Google Reader will probably be good for innovation in RSS readers and for RSS in general. Google’s hamstrung app has been just good enough for people like me, but non-approachable for non-geeks. A year from now, I’m hoping that there’ll be many more quality players. So, in the long run, I’m reasonably optimistic.

More immediately, though, a couple of causes for concern:

  1. Finding an alternative to Reader. My RSS reading habits are too ingrained for me to abandon them, even for a short time. More than that: following RSS feeds is beyond mere habit, but is check on my intellectual honesty. I follow many blogs whose authors I frequently disagree with, or even dislike. (Contrast this with Twitter, where I’m pretty fickle about whom I follow, and how many tweets/links I pay attention to.) So RSS is, for me, a partial antidote to the echo chamber tendency. That means that I’ve got to find a new app, and migrate over, and I’ve got to do it quickly.

    There have been a number of posts over the last couple days listing Reader alternatives. A number of them are cloud/service based, and for practical reasons (such as, um, Google Reader) as well as philosophical reasons (see below), I’m only considering alternative tools that I can run either locally or on my own server. A couple that spring to mind:

    • Fever. I’m interested in this one because (a) the screenshots make it look nice, and (b) it comes highly recommended by people I respect, like D’Arcy Norman. I like that it’s self-hosted. I don’t like the fact that its sustainability model is to charge for downloads. It’s not that I don’t think the author shouldn’t be paid – I would be happy to pay $30 or $300 for a great RSS reader app. It’s that the success of the single-developer model is contingent on the willingness of that developer to keep working on the project (paid or otherwise). I’m far more comfortable with software that is community developed under a free license, ideally using a set of technologies that would allow me to modify or even adopt the project if the main devs were to abandon it.
    • Tiny Tiny RSS. tt-rss also comes recommended by someone I respect (Mika Epstein, in this case). And it’s community-developed, which I like. It doesn’t look as pretty as Fever, but aesthetics are about fourth or fifth on my list of requirements.
    • PressForward. As Aram describes, the PF team (of which I’m pleased to be a member) is working on a WordPress-based tool that, among other things, does RSS aggregation and provides some feed-reading capabilities. PressForward is really designed for a different kind of use case – where groups of editors work together to pare down large amounts of feed data into smaller publications – but it could be finagled to be a simple feed reader. Mobile support is a particular pain point, as 50% or more of my RSS intake is done on my phone, and PF has nothing in place to make this possible at the present time. So, PressForward may not be quite ready for primetime, but I do think that it has promise.
  2. Get the hell off of Google. We all know that Google is a company with shareholders and profit goals to meet. Yet we often act like Google is some sort of ambient benevolent force on the web. Since I started Project Reclaim, I’ve been working on extricating myself and my data from the clutches of Google (among other corporate entities). Reader’s demise is a wake-up call that the time for dilly-dallying is over.

    For my own part, I still use a few Google services besides Reader:

    • Gmail. I don’t use Gmail primarily anymore, though many people do still email me at my address, so obviously I have it open and I check it frequently.
    • Picasa. I use the Picasa desktop app on OSX to export photos from my cameras and organize/tag them. I also use Picasa Web Albums as one of my many photo backup services. (Seriously – I back up my photos to no fewer than six different local and cloud services. Nothing is more important or irreplaceable than my family photos.)
    • Drive/Docs. Aside from the occasional one-off collaborations, I use Drive to maintain a number of spreadsheets and other documents that I share with members of my family, etc.
    • Calendar. I’m not a heavy calendar user, but when I do use a calendar, I like Google because of its integration with my Android phone.
    • Chromium. Not Chrome, but still largely Google-reliant, Chromium is not my main browser, but I use it daily for doing various sorts of development testing.
    • Android. This is maybe the one that steams me the most, because at the moment there are no truly free alternatives. (Firefox OS, please hurry up.)

    In some of these cases, there are easy ways to get off of the Google services. In others, it’ll be a challenge to find alternatives that provide the same functionality. In any case, the Reader slaughter is a harsh reminder that Project Reclaim has stagnated too long with respect to Google services.

    More than myself, I’m worried about others – those who aren’t as technically inclined as I am, or those who simply don’t care as much as I do. Google’s made it pretty clear (as is their right, I guess) that they’re not an ambient benevolence. Those who rely on Google then, especially for critical services like email, should take this warning very seriously. Please consider carefully what you’re doing when you make yourself wholly dependent on the whim’s of Google’s product managers, and consider options that are either free-as-in-speech, or services that you pay for in a traditional way.


A bunch of stuff happened in 2011.

Like 2010, 2011 was a year of transitions for me: in my relationship with academia, in the way I earn a living, in the way I present myself as a citizen-builder of the internet. Being a parent is the biggest transition of all, forcing me to put into perspective the ways I spend my energy and the ways in which I define myself and what has value to me. (This transition has been overwhelmingly a Good Thing.) Continuing to strive for the right balance in these areas will, I’m sure, be a hallmark of my 2012. (Thankfully, I have no plans to have a child or get married in 2012. A man needs a year off from major life events!)

Happy new year!

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.

I develop free software because of CUNY and Blackboard

For two reasons, Blackboard is the key to why I develop free software.

The first reason is historical. I first got into free software development because of my work with the CUNY Academic Commons project. As spearheaded by Matt Gold, George Otte and others, the Commons is intended to create a space, using free software like WordPress and MediaWiki for members of the huge community of the City University of New York to discover each other and work together. The project is not pitched as a Blackboard alternative, for a number of reasons (primary among which is that the Commons’s Terms of Service prohibit undergraduate courses from being held on the site). Still, the Commons was conceived, at least in part, out of frustration about the near lack of collaborative tools and spaces in CUNY. And more than anything else, Blackboard (by which I mean Blackboard Learn, the proprietary learning management software that has been CUNY’s official courseware for quite a few years) is the embodiment of what can be so frustrating about academic technology at CUNY: central management, inflexibility, clunkiness, anti-openness. In this way, Blackboard begat the CUNY Academic Commons, and the CUNY Academic Commons begat Boone the developer.

There is another reason why Blackboard is integral to my free software development. It is ideological.

Short version: I love CUNY and I love public education. Blackboard is a parasite on both. Writing free software is the best way I know to disrupt the awful relationship between companies like Blackboard and vulnerable populations like CUNY undergraduates.

Here’s the longer version. I’ve been affiliated with CUNY in a number of capacities over the last decade: PhD student, adjunct lecturer, graduate fellow, full-time instructional technologist, external contractor. I’ve seen many parts of CUNY from many different points of view. Like so many others who have philandered their way through CUNY’s incestuous HR departments, my experience has rendered a decidedly love/hate attitude toward the institution. You can get a taste of the what CUNY hate looks like by glancing at something like @CUNYfail. The love runs deeper. Those fortunate enough to have “gotten around” at CUNY can attest to the richness of its varied campus cultures. In every office and every department on every campus, you’ll meet people who are innovating and striving to get their work done, in spite of a bureaucracy that sometimes feels designed to thwart.

And the students. CUNY is the City University of New York, the City University. It belongs to New York, and its history is tied up with the ideals of free education for New York’s residents. While the last few decades have seen the institution (as a whole, as well as a collection of campuses) evolve away from these ideals in various official and unofficial ways, it’s impossible to step into a CUNY classroom without getting a sense that CUNY still serves as a steward for New York’s future. CUNY is too huge and its population too varied to make general statements about the student body, but I’ll say anecdotally that, of all the universities I’ve been associated with, none even approach the level of racial, economic, and academic diversity that you find on a single campus, to say nothing of the system as a whole. CUNY is (to use a lame but apt cliché) a cross-section of New York: her first-generation Americans, her first-generation college students, her rich and her poor, her advantaged and her vulnerable. (See also Jim Groom’s I Bleed CUNY, which makes a similar point with a lot less abandon.)

Public education is a public trust, maybe the most important equalizer a state can provide for its citizens. CUNY, with the population of New York City as its public, could demonstrate the full potential of public education in a more complete and visible way than perhaps any other public university. It’s for this reason that it breaks my heart and boils my blood to see CUNY money – which is to say, student tuition and fees – poured into a piece of software like Blackboard.

In virtue of their age, undergraduates are inherently a vulnerable population, and CUNY undergraduates – reflecting as they do the full demographic spectrum of New York City itself – are doubly vulnerable. Many CUNY undergraduates go to CUNY because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t go to college at all. This imposes certain moral strictures on those responsible for managing and spending the money paid by CUNY students in tuition and fees. Wasting CUNY money is a far worse crime than wasting, say, shareholder money in a private company. Shareholders have freedom; if they don’t like your management, they vote with their feet/wallets/brokers. CUNY students, by and large, do not have the same freedom; it’s safe to say that, for most CUNY students most students, big-ticket NYU and Ivy Columbia are not reasonable alternatives. CUNY students are, in this sense, captive, which means that their hard-earned tuition money is captive as well. Thus it is a very bad thing to spend that money on things that aren’t worth it.

And Blackboard is not worth it. Vats of digital ink have been spilled expounding Blackboard’s turdiness, and this is no place to rehash all the arguments in depth. A short list, off the top of my head:

  • The software is expensive [EDIT 9-21-2011: See this post for more details on cost]
  • It’s extremely unpleasant to use.
  • It forces, and reinforces, an entirely teacher-centric pedagogical model.
  • It attempts to do the work of dozens of applications, and as a result does all of them poorly.
  • Blackboard data is stored in proprietary formats, with no easy export features built in, which creates a sort of Hotel California of educational materials
  • The very concept of a “learning management system” may itself be wrongheaded.
  • As recently reported, the software may be insecure, a fact that the company may have willingly ignored.
  • Blackboard’s business practices are monopolistic, litigious, and borgish

In short, Blackboard sucks. Blackboard supporters might claim that some, or even most, of the criticisms leveled above are false, or that they apply equally to other web software. Maybe. And I certainly don’t mean to downplay the difficulty of creating or assembling a suite of software that does well what Blackboard does poorly. But the argument against spending student money on something like Blackboard goes beyond a simple tally of weaknesses and strengths. As Jim Groom and others have argued for years, shelling out for Blackboard means sending money to a big company with no vested interest in the purposes of the institution, which in the case of CUNY is nothing less than the stewardship of New York City’s future, while the alternative is to divert money away from software licenses and into people who will actually support an environment of learning on our campuses. Frankly, even if Blackboard were a perfect piece of software, and even if its licensing and hosting fees were half of what it costs to hire full-time instructional technologists, programmers, and the like to support local instances of free software; even if these things were true, Blackboard would still be the wrong choice, because it perverts the goals of the university by putting tools and corporations before people. The fact that Blackboard is so expensive and so shitty just makes the case against it that much stronger.

As long as our IT departments are dominated by Microsoft-trained technicians and corporate-owned CIOs, perhaps the best way to advance the cause – the cause of justice in the way that student money is spent – is to create viable alternatives to Blackboard and its ilk, alternatives that are free (as in speech) and cheap (as in beer). This, more than anything else, is why I develop free software, the idea that I might play a role in creating the viable alternatives. In the end, it’s not just about Blackboard, of course. The case of Blackboard and CUNY is a particularly problematic example of a broader phenomenon, where vulnerable populations are controlled through proprietary software. Examples abound: Facebook, Apple, Google. (See also my Project Reclaim.) The case of Blackboard and its contracts with public institutions like CUNY is just one instance of these exploitative relationships, but it’s the instance that hits home the most for me, because CUNY is such a part of me, and because the exploitation is, in this case, so severe and so terrible.

On average, I spend about half of my working week doing unpaid work for the free software community. Every once in a while, I get discouraged: by unreasonable feedback, by systematic inertia, by community dramas, by my own limitations as a developer, and so on. In those moments, I think about CUNY, and I think about Blackboard, and I feel the fire burn again. For that, I say to CUNY (which I love) and Blackboard (which I hate): Thanks for making me into a free software developer.