Phillip Smith

Simplicity, dominos, and free software

Last week I lost my iPhone. I lost it the same way that I lost my previous phone (a “crackberry”): futzing with it in the back of a taxi, only to miss my pocket and leave it on the seat. As usual, I stood there looking longingly after that taxi, suddenly filled with despair, wondering if it might miraculously stop, turn around, and come back.

Of course, the taxi never returns, and neither does the phone.

It’s been a few days now, and – at first – as my friend Ingo joked, it was like losing an arm. But, as time passes, not only am I feeling less loss, I am also feeling more freedom. And, frankly, I’m not sure I’ll go back any time soon.

Oddly enough, after the initial “you stupid idiot, how could you lose your f#*$ing iPhone” thoughts passed, my mind snapped to – of all things – free software. Thinking about what enables a device like the iPhone to be so, well, um, addictive, it’s hard not to think about the software. And, as I went up the ladder in my mind, it’s the same thing that makes my (overpriced Apple) laptop addictive too (not that I want to part with it just yet).

But all that software came with a price. Not just a financial cost, but a cost in terms of added layers of complication. Sometimes that complication was the licensing, other times the learning curve, or – more often than not – just the opportunities that it provided (think Twitter) that inevitably added to the “noise” of everyday life.

So, I decided to look at what software I actually use. And, no big surprises, it turns out that I spend more than 80% of my time in five applications:

  • BBEdit - My faithful text-editing program for almost ten years
  • Apple Mail - A simple, yet capable, e-mail client
  • Preview - A straightforward document and image viewer
  • Evernote - Where I keep all my notes, drafts, screen captures, bookmarks, etc.
  • Terminal - Where I communicate with colleagues (via SILC and IRC) and do other “Web stuff”

However, if I look at the Applications folder on my hard drive, it has over fifteen gigabytes of software that – by most measures – is hardly ever used. Clearly, if I thought my addition to expensive, Internet-connected, communications devices was bad, it is nothing compared to my addiction to collecting software.

There have been a few pokes and prods recently that probably put the seed of free software back in my mind. First of all, I have noticed friends who’ve recently made the move back to using mostly free software, and then I have the colleagues who’ve never known anything else, and finally there are the comrades that have made it a political commitment. In the past, I’ve explored both the practical and the political reasons for using free software, but now I want to be addicted to simplicity and I wonder if it’s part of the answer.

So, I go into this week realizing that I’ve lost something, and that I’ve gained something. Though, in writing this, I’m a bit fuzzy on what, specifically, I’ve lost and what I’ve gained. But, perhaps, these things happen to provide us with a small opportunity to – for an instant – see how less can lead to more.

And maybe, just maybe, simplicity is like dominos: once the first domino goes down, if things are lined up just right, the rest are likely to follow.

I’ll let you know how it all works out.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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