Computing and the American West

Computer history has some interesting parallels in the history of the American West. After the initial forays of Lewis and Clark and the first set of explorers, early settlers crossed the plains in covered wagons. But the West wasn't accessible to most Americans until the age of the railroads, when the Union Pacific Railroad put tracks across the continent and started running regular passenger service.

To ride the trains, you needed to pay a fare to the railroad companies. Railroad companies became huge monopolies, the only way for the average person to cross the country--for a time. Until the advent of the automobile, the railroads were it, and as long as the tracks went where you wanted to go, the rails were the cheapest, best way to get there. And after all, the major cities all developed along rail routes, so where would you want to go that you couldn't get to by rail?

Of course, with the advent of the automobile, that all changed, and today, while trains still exist and still go to most of the same places, they are a shadow of their former dominance of the transportation landscape, used by commuters in some cities, by tourists, and aficianados. Most of us drive, because we have the freedom to go wherever we want, on our schedule. It still costs money to get there--we have to pay for upkeep of our cars and fill them with gas. We've all paid for our roads through taxes, tolls, and other means. While there have been three big, dominant auto manufacturers in the US, none have had a monopoly on sales--we all like different things in our cars, and make different choices based on our likes and needs. And we all need to go through some sort of drivers training before we're safe on the roads, yet hundreds of millions of us take this for granted.

Microsoft is the Union Pacific of the computer world. Windows provides the tracks. In the computer world, we're in the very early days of the automobile, say in the 1920s--the railroads are still dominant, and go nearly everywhere you might want to go. But you have to go on their schedule, and you have to pay a fare to get on board. While there are dirt roads all over the place, few are paved, the trains will get you to your destination faster, and you pretty much have to be a mechanic to keep that Model T running over any large distance. But the car is clearly the future, and we're starting to build the freeways now.

Free software powers those cars. While there are still a couple of cities you can't drive to yet, you can pretty much go anywhere, including places you now can't get to by train. Free software will get you nearly everywhere you can get with Windows. There are great free word processors, spreadsheet packages, presentation programs, desktop publishing programs, astronomy tools, databases, everything imagainable you might need to get where you need to go. But these programs aren't from Microsoft, or Adobe, or the other "standard" rail car manufacturers, which don't run on your average dirt road.

Once upon a time, only 15 years ago, there were several different word processing programs considered "standard." Anybody remember Word Perfect? It had a much bigger market share than Microsoft Word. Yet today, everybody expects Word documents and little else. At that point, having a different word processor was like having a rail car that fit a different set of rails--you couldn't just open a WordPerfect document in Word and expect it to look the same.

Times have changed. In the open source world, where programs need to communicate with each other, they use established, open standards. A new document format has emerged, called the Open Document format. Unlike Word Documents, you already have a choice of several different programs that will read and write these documents without issues:, StarOffice, KWord, AbiWord to name a few. The state of Massachussetts recently mandated that all their office documents be stored in this format, to prevent being locked into a single vendor. Naturally Microsoft is complaining--if they can't maintain their advantage of being the only vendor capable of flawlessly working with their own office format, how can they maintain their monopoly? They would inevitably get a whole slew of competitors--bad for them, but good for the rest of us. Do you really want to be forced into paying Microsoft time and time again to keep buying access to your own documents? The state of Massachussetts decided, at least for them, the answer was no.

You can free yourself from vendor lock-in, too, by going to and downloading the full office suite, entirely free. Version 2.0 is coming out in the next week or two, and it will even have a database to rival Access--the current versions already provide excellent replacements for the other Office products. Writer is better than Word in several areas:

  • Bullets and Numbering
  • Outline numbering
  • Page templates
  • Predictable page formatting
  • Master and Sub documents, for those book authors out there
  • Drawings with connectors that stick to objects as you move them around, like Visio

Naturally, it does have some drawbacks, too: not as nice an Outline view, incompatible with any macros you've developed (and Word Macro viruses), envelope printing is confusing, merging to a catalog list doesn't seem to exist. Are these features worth the extra $300 per seat in your business?

In the 19th century, the land grant railroad companies were granted rights to pick and choose a swath of land across the country to lay down their rails. Did they choose the best route for their rails? Not necessarily. They picked the most fertile land, the most valuable land, and planned their rail route so that they could get the most dollars for the land granted to them by the government. A great-great-great-great grandfather of mine was on a crew that helped move the rails to a more sensible route, after the land grants were complete.

Today, it's Microsoft doing the land grabs, trying to bundle as much functionality into their operating system as possible. First it was the web browser. Lately it's the media player. There have been dozens of other small companies unable to compete with the software giant, who have gone out of business--and as a result, we have fewer choices as a whole. When Microsoft asks, "Where do you want to go today?" think customer survey: they're trying to find out where they should build their rails so they can extract more fares from you in the future. Never mind you can probably drive there today with free software.

Free software is about giving you the freedom to drive wherever you want. It's not free of cost--you have to buy your PC (the car), you have to pay a mechanic periodically, you need to learn how to drive, and there are taxes, toll roads, and potholes all over the place. But when given the choice between a railroad and a car, most of us choose to drive, simply because we have the freedom to go when and where we want, not just because it's cheaper. In many cases, the railroad is cheaper, especially in these days of escalating fuel prices. But the more people who choose to drive free software, the more roads will get paved. And if you need a mechanic, a map, or a custom vehicle, that's what Freelock Computing can provide!

Freelock News

Lots of news going on around here. First of all, we're growing. Bryce Brown is the newest member of the Freelock team. He's helping by answering the phones, organizing billing and projects, and making me stay on top of the business growth. He's currently working half-time, and he'll be growing into a web development role, learning how to implement web site templates.

Mambo has a new name

Speaking of web site templates, we've been doing a lot of template-driven web sites using Mambo. Only Mambo isn't Mambo any longer--the core developers of this open source project have broken away from their corporate sponsors. Now, one thing developers often lack is good marketing sense. The new name of this project sounds more like a vacuum cleaner than a web site management system--we'll try to tell you about it with a straight face. New versions of the software are called Joomla. Here at Freelock, it's our job to find great software to meet your business needs--if Joomla doesn't turn out to be a significant improvement over Mambo, you can be sure we'll continue to increase our offerings to find you the best software for your needs.

New firewall project

Joomla came about because of a mutiny by the core developers and users of the Mambo software. The parent company, Miro, set up a foundation without including key people from the community, and the community revolted. Our next bit of news is our own little open source rebellion. Freelock Computing is leading a new open source project, taken from the Multi-Network Firewall project created by Mandrake (now Mandriva). We've deployed earlier versions of this firewall at a few clients, and while it's not the easiest of the free firewall packages, it's perhaps the most capable.

Mandriva stopped making the firewall freely available, only providing commercial downloads. We have branched the project, and are hard at work putting together a new distribution that is still free. So far about 80 developers and users have joined our efforts, and we just set up shop at I got a new installation of the firewall up and running a couple weeks ago, which should resolve our previous office phone issues and expand our hosting capabilities substantially.

About Freelock Computing

So we're hard at work getting many different systems up and running. We'd like to welcome the 8 new customers who signed up in July and August, and other people continue to be interested in our offerings. Right now, we're especially looking for businesses who want to upgrade their web site to something they can manage themselves, or who need a web site in the first place. If you or someone you know could use this, please send them our way!

We provide technology strategy, implementation, and maintenance for our partners at a low monthly rate. We focus on general business processes: marketing systems, sales management systems, operation support systems, financial systems, and reporting. We provide integration of these systems, with particular attention paid to security. We provide custom development services and superior documentation. If you know any small or growing businesses who need a technology partner, send them our way!

Until next time,
John Locke
Manager, Freelock, LLC

This newsletter is available online at /news/0905.php. Feel free to forward on to anyone you'd like! Also note that any links to Amazon in this newsletter and on the Freelock sites are affiliate links--if you purchase a book by following one of these links, I get a small commission.

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