Monday, June 24, 2013

The Value of Simplicity

Navigating information technology often means navigating through layers of competing platforms. For every choice in operating system, there are choices for word processors, browsers, chat applications, media players, etc. As a fan of GNU/Linux, I'm also a fan of choice, so I have no complaints about the options. As long as you know what you want or are willing to explore, you can find an operating system and software suite that at least mostly meets your needs. I find that most people are really not interested in doing so and as such just use whatever they first learn.

If all software were created equal, there would be no problem with taking applications as you find them. Unfortunately, there are merits and demerits to every choice, and, even worse, there is a cost to switching. A quirky application you know is better than a quirky application you don't know, especially when productivity is an issue. As such, it's often to a user's benefit to survey a few options. Of course, competition for users causes a bit of standardization, so trying out a new application (or even a new OS) is really not all that difficult. I had my students do just that with Ubuntu a few semesters ago, and I really enjoyed reading about what they learned when they tested the waters.

Having as much experience as I do, I've developed some pretty clear preferences on OS and application, and I keep an eye on new developments to test or revisit other options. Nevertheless, I've found that as I've learned more, I find I need less out of an application. Take word processing for an instance. I like LibreOffice, and I can use Word with about an equal level of proficiency, but nothing beats LaTeX for formatting control and (with BibTeX) citation management. While there is a somewhat steep learning curved to LaTeX (I recommend testing the waters with LyX, a more user-friendly presentation), one of the main benefits is that I can edit a document with nothing more fancy than a text editor. 

Converting documents from one format to another often creates artifacts or errors that have to been cleared up by hand. In general, it's best to stick with one application and one format, especially for a document in process. When without access to the preferred set of tools, compromises will have to be made, and sometimes compromises harm productivity. Furthermore, unless you've in the Apple-verse, mobile devices have made working cross platform even more important. As such, I really value the ability to open a file on any device and work with it.

In this process, I've gained a appreciation for simple text editors like Kate and gedit. When composing simple documents such as this post, I don't need tend to need italics or citations. Even less so when putting together reading notes or early drafts of longer articles. I do need a program that opens quickly (no splash screen), doesn't offer formatting assistance, and has inline spellcheck (negotiable). I get all of that with any text editor, including the one on my phone. No matter the platform, I can write, so I don't have to lose time just because I can't access my computer.