Tuesday, July 23 2019

palm pilots and free software

Dear Journal,

In seventh grade I saved up my money and bought a Palm Zire. I was really excited about this upgrade, because it would be the first Palm Pilot I had with a color screen and support for viewing pictures. You could load your personal files on an SD card and insert the card into the device, and the coolest part about this was that you could even use your own picture as a custom background image. The Palm Zire was everything I hoped it would be - the battery lasted long, writing with the stylus was snappy and responsive, and the enormous 12 square inches of screen seemed like almost too much rel estate.

A few of my other friends at school also had Palm Pilots, and before school we would pass around each other's SD cards and trade games and apps. I always felt a little guilty about it, because I had assumed it was technically stealing, and that even though copying the app to a friends device happened to work, if you wanted an authentic copy you had to buy a CD-ROM, install it on your desktop at home, then sync it over to your palm pilot while it was docked (that was a very gratifying ritual as well - you would press a big glowing green button and the "HotSync" process would cause your device and computer to display a loading par simultaneously).

My friend gave me an application called "Yesterday". It's icon had a little apple and steno pad. It was a to-do list program made specifically with students. Not only could you quickly add tasks to a queue, but you could group them by class and even create a list of books you would need to bring home that night. The benefits of this app were self evident after only a few days of use. It actually made me excited about getting work done. It was gratifying tap the completed items with the stylus and watch a thin back line run through the middle of the text, and when you were all finished with your work, it would display a icon of a beach, implying that it was really time to relax now that your work is completed.

But the more I used this app, the guiltier I felt. For how much mileage I was getting out of this nifty little application, I felt a little bad that I wasn't running an authentic copy. One day, I got curious and started poking around the menus, and I found the README. "YESTERDAY is shareware", it said. That was the first time I had ever seen that term. "You may buy a copy, but please share this program with as many friends as possible." My guilt immediately vanished. Was it really that simple? I didn't realize that someone could intentionally give their program away like that.

That was the first time it really clicked for me. I had always admired people that can tastefully automate something, and I was really inspired by the generosity of forgoing clunky activation tokens and tacky "trial expired" error pop-ups for the sake of just helping as many people as possible. To write a program that helps people, then to just give it away for free - what a wonderful thing to do for the people around you.

I think there's a trick in software, and it's counter intuitive. You would think that the more expensive something is, the better it is, right? Well in software, it's usually the opposite. You want to use as many free programs as possible, because free programs are written by people that were just trying to solve a problem, then had the meekness and generosity to just give it away. Perhaps free software is better because the author is more focused on the problem than making a quick buck. The Yesterday program felt like it was written by a real student who was fed up trying to find the right program that fit a student's work load. Maybe it's better because people that are thrifty with their wallet are more resourceful with what computer resources their program uses. You know what I really think it is? At the end of the day, I think generous people just have good taste.

What's your favorite computer program? Did you pay for it, or was it free?