Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Audacity: Why Free Software is Better Than Proprietary Software

My annoying travails with Cubase continue. I decided to give it an honest effort to release a very short podcast just making a couple of announcements tonight, and the editing experience was a far cry from Adobe Audition (running the Windows VM for this stuff is starting to look better and better). Not nearly as intuitive as Audition, no ripple delete function from what I can tell, just overall not good. Again, I was making an honest effort before I throw the product out the window (because no, they won't take it back; they claim the use of the dongle is "well documented" and I should have known before purchasing that it worked this way).


So after I made a couple of cuts I went to export the file to MP3 format. Even exporting completely sucked--it wouldn't export anything unless I manually set the left and right markers. Why the hell can't it just export everything intelligently and figure out when there's no remaining audio?


I wasn't totally surprised not to see MP3 as an option in the export list so I did a bit of searching, and sure enough exporting to MP3 is not built into the product. I realize that MP3 is (another!) proprietary technology and that they might have to pay for that to be included in their product but FOR CRYING OUT LOUD JUST BUILD IT INTO THE COST OF THE PRODUCT!


Thinking "in for a penny, in for a pound" I went to the website to see about buying the add-on. 15 euros, OK fine, but they don't list Cubase Essential, only Cubase SE and LE which are the older versions of the "lite" edition of Cubase. I'm annoyed enough that I call the sales number to ask, and I could not have hoped to get a more clueless guy on the phone. He had to go to the web site himself to see what they list there, and then he said "Essential is a new product so I'm not sure what's going on with that." So I asked, "Are they PLANNING on releasing an MP3 encoder for Essential?" His response was to have me call tech support tomorrow and ask them. Brilliant.


Then I decide to download the new Audacity beta for the Mac. Talk about a night and day better experience:




  • It's downloadable! What a concept!


  • It's free (not to mention open source)


  • The download took a matter of seconds


  • Installed in seconds--no dongle required!



I've used Audacity before so I knew what was going to happen when I went to export to MP3, but since that's where I was with Cubase when I ripped the dongle out of my USB port in frustration, I thought I'd just walk through it to compare the experience. Remember that in Cubase's case, MP3 just doesn't even show up as an option, and even their sales guys can't SELL it to me because they're so clueless. Here's what happened with Audacity:




  • Chose "export" from the menu


  • Chose MP3 and set my encoding rate


  • Clicked export


  • It nicely told me I didn't have an encoder but in that dialog box it had a link directly to the LAME MP3 Project


  • I downloaded LAME and extracted the zip


  • The dialog box in Audacity was still open, so I pointed it to LAME and hit export again



In short, I went from not having Audacity on this machine to exporting the MP3, including downloading and installing the MP3 encoder, in less time than it took me to be told by Steinberg that they didn't know anything about their own product.


Please note that I'm not comparing Audacity to Cubase in terms of features. I know Cubcase is an infinitely more capable product. It's also infinitely more frustrating to use, and I have to pay for that displeasure.


Comments



What are your thoughts about Coldfusion vs open source alternatives like Python, Java or PHP? Doesn't the same thing apply to programming languages?





I don't know that your title reflects your content.


Audacity was a better experience for you than Cubase.


Sounds like a design/forethought advantage, completely unrelated to free vs proprietary.


If you had had a positive experience with Cubase, you would have never downloaded Audacity on that day.


The price of the software in question doesn't guarantee that it will be a better or worse experience in any individual case, however you would think that people getting paid for making it would be more professional about what they create, but that isn't always the case.





@Calvin--you're focusing on "free" meaning cost. That isn't what I meant. I was pointing out how an open source (aka "free software") solution was, in this case, far better than an antiquated proprietary solution.


To me that gets at the heart of the free software movement. In Steinberg (the maker of Cubase's) case you have a commercial company and the #1 thing that comes across in dealing with their product is "DON'T STEAL THIS SOFTWARE!" They don't give a care about the user experience or having happy customers who feel good about using their product.


On the other hand you have people building free software and their #1 concern is making the experience good for the user. If I'm giving someone money for a product, don't you think that should be THEIR #1 concern as well?


I think my title reflects the point I was trying to make, but maybe I didn't make it very well. My point is that if you build software with "everyone's trying to rip us off" in the back of your mind the whole time, that certainly comes across in the final product and user experience. If the software's free and open source you don't care about that, so you can focus on the things that SHOULD matter in software, namely creating a good experience for the users.





Matt,


So when do you plan to drop ColdFusion and go with a free open source web development solution? I've already decided that Django looks much better to me than ColdFusion even if my work disagrees for now. But when we have to spend $50000 to run WebSphere and ColdFusion, Django looks much better. Not to mention that its a framework that has 0 lines of XML configuration in it. There's a reason that open source works. Its not written based on marketing results.





@Thiks and Jeff--there are things I can control and things I can't, and also what comes into play with the ColdFusion argument is what you get for your money, not to mention that even though CF is technical proprietary software, I don't feel like Adobe treats me like a criminal and has such a nasty anti-customer stance.


So while I'm a huge advocate for open source/free software, in the case of CF, it does what it does extremely well and I find that for me the cost, features, etc. all justify its use. This is the same reason I use Macs as opposed to Linux as my primary machines. I love Linux, I've used it on and off over the past 12 years or so, and while I realize that Macs are proprietary hardware running (largely) proprietary software (although OS X is based on Darwin, which is an open source BSD variant), I'm willing to give up some of my freedom for something that does a job extremely well.


Some people aren't willing to do this, and while I don't go as far as they do, I applaud their steadfastness and think that their efforts are having an extremely positive impact on the industry and even how people think about software.


This post was really intended to be but one example of how a free software solution, in this particular context, provides a vastly superior experience from a setup standpoint, and this is solely because in the case of Cubase, the proprietary software licenses get in the way and make for a horrid user experience. From the dongle to Cubase's inability (or refusal) to include MP3 encoders in their product, it just puts quite a burden on me to even be able to use the product as a paying customer. Free from all the licensing concerns, the free software solution gets in my way a helluva lot less.


By illustrating these points using this specific example, what I'm hoping to point out is that draconian companies like Steinberg can learn an awful lot from the free software community, and that they should think much more carefully about how they treat their customers.


In the case of ColdFusion, I'm perfectly happy with the balance Adobe has struck between protecting their assets vs. me being able to use it as a paying customer. I don't have to stick a dongle in a server and worry about losing it or it becoming defective thereby rendering the product unusable. Also CF isn't a small desktop app I'm using to do hobbyist type stuff, it's a proven enterprise-level solution and that's worth the license fee in this particular case.


In short, I'm a free software advocate but at the end of the day I'm a pragmatist, and CF gets the job it does done extremely well while not treating its users like criminals. With the open source edition of BlueDragon on the horizon, we'll have that as an option as well, so there soon will be a "free" (both in cost and freedom) option for CFML developers.





Isn't "No Dongle Required" the name of a Phil Collins album?





I've been using Audacity on Windows for a couple years now for light editing, and I've been thoroughly pleased with it. I'm no audio expert, but I was able to be productive with it in minutes and have not needed to do anything that it could not handle.


I have used expensive audio editing suites in the past (it was a long time ago - CoolEdit Pro - which eventually became Audition) and they were expensive and still awful to work with. Audacity is a great Open Source success story.





Audacity is really great software. If you are not professional user.


Like GIMP. It looks a bit strange, but very functional.





is enouph to learn





As an audio pro, I have to weigh in that I find audacity pretty awful compared with protools/logic/wavelab or pretty much any pro editing application. For the simplest tasks it's adequate but pretty clunky, and the quality of some of the effects processing is frankly dreadful. Wish it wasn't so but there ya go.



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