[Series] Open Software, Open Content, Open Translation Part I

One of the main goals of the Open Translation Tools conference was to get a strong sense of the state of open tools to facilitate the translation of both open source software and open content. As you can tell, this community really likes the word open. But first it’s important get a better sense of just what it is that defines open source software and open content, and why we need open tools to translate both into many different languages. This post, the first in a series of four, will provide a brief overview of what defines ‘open source software.’ It’s not meant to be authoritative (for that, go to Wikipedia). Rather, it’s for my mostly non-technical friends – the majority of whom are interested and intrigued by the idea of ‘open source’, but who get frustrated and annoyed by the language (or lack thereof) of geek-speak.

For most of you, open source software is Firefox and WordPress. Back when Internet Explorer used to be even uglier, you wanted a better browser, one with tabs and different themes and plugins that let you interact with your blog and delicious account. So when Microsoft wouldn’t give you those features, you chose a browser that would. You’re not alone. Just a couple years ago Internet Explorer was used by about 90% of all people who visited this website. Now, there are consistently more visitors who use Firefox than IE.

Not only does Firefox give you many more features than Internet Explorer, but if you know a little bit of programming, then you can adapt the tool for any of your customized needs. Not so for Internet Explorer. This is the real importance of open source software – it puts you in complete control of what the software is able to do and how it manages your information. If you’re not happy with it, you’re able to go into the source code and do what you want with it to suit your needs.

Which is why so many bloggers eventually switch from the proprietary service Blogger.com to the free and open source tool, WordPress. (WordPress.org has since started a commercial service, WordPress.com, in addition to the open source version of the software which complicates things.) Blogger.com is great and easy to use. Two of our Rising Voices projects use it because it’s so easy to get started with. But when you want more features on your weblog and more control over how it deals with your content, it’s best to use WordPress. And if WordPress, as it is, doesn’t do everything you need it to, you can go into the source code and make any adjustments necessary to suit your needs. (This is what Boris and Jeremy have done in order for the Global Voices site to do everything we need it to.

And then there is the issue of language. Internet Explorer is currently available in 24 different languages. Firefox, on the other hand, is available in over 40 different languages. But the real important distinction is that if you want to take the time to translate the software yourself so that it’s available in your own language, with Firefox you can, with Internet Explorer you can’t. This is also true with Blogger.com and WordPress. Blogger is available in 36 different languages. WordPress is available in more than 50. And, again, if it isn’t available in your language, you’re able to do the work so that it is.

Still, most of us use commercially licensed software on a daily basis. We do this because it is easier to use, more prevalent, and better documented. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t piss us off. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the disappointment of buying songs from iTunes and not being able to burn yourself a CD so that you can listen to them in your car. Or, here’s another example: last week I was helping Mari take a screenshot of a DVD from one of the Oakland city hall meetings. Neither Windows Media Player nor Mac OS X’s DVD player let you take a screenshot while a DVD is playing. Absurd! You could be the creator of that DVD and yet you’re still not allowed to take a screenshot of it. So, instead we used the excellent VLC media player, which not only allows you to watch video in many more formats than Mac’s bundled applications, but also let’s you take a screenshot. And if it didn’t, since it’s open source, you could change the code yourself. Once again, if VLC isn’t already available in your language than you can translate it yourself so that it is.

Hopefully this gives you an overview of what open source software is and what some of its advantages are, especially for those who speak non-colonial languages. Personally, I’m not ready to say goodbye to my Mac yet, but I do have Ubuntu installed on here and slowly but surely I’ll start playing around with all of the apps listed on Mark Pilgrim’s essential Mac > Ubuntu migration list.

Next post in the series: what defines ‘open content’, how it differs from traditional content, and why it is important.


  1. Great Summary David,

    One correction just for the sake of historical accuracy, Boris and I almost always use the plugin API that is part of WordPress to extend Global Voices, rather than editing the source code itself. It might seem picky but it’s an important distinction, as programs like Firefox use also use Plugin APIs to allow control rather than direct source editing. One effect of this is that programs that are not open source can in many ways be just as extensible as open source ones as long as they have a robust well-documented api (Movable Type is one example, though there are a lot less plugins than for wordpress). So that’s another kind of open-ness that can improve the quality of software, but doesn’t necessarily require GPL or open source code.

    However, in practice it seems like Open source software tends to have better APIs than non-open software, which rarely offers plugin systems. Maybe it’s because there are more programmers that want it when the software is open source, or maybe it’s just that people can use API’s better when they can look at the original code and use it in their plugins (or have their plugins informed by information only available in the source). I know that even though I almost never make changes to the WordPress source code (because it would make it hard to upgrade later). I look through the source code to learn things on an almost daily basis.

    Also, good luck with the linux switch on slow-mode. i’ve been doign it for two years now. So hard with mac laptops compared to dells and stuff, but there are a few awesome Dock replacement applications for Linux that I think will make it a lot easier in the near future.

  2. I’m glad u mentioned VLC, because you’re right, I recently upgraded my Mac OS as well and I found myself trying to take screen shots of my own DVD’s for campaign materials, well of course, i quickly learned this was not possible. I didn’t have time to figure it out, so i went to my old small compressed quicktime movie files of the same movie to get the video still exports, but it was definitely a lucky and only by chance workaround. thanks i’ll use VLC from now on.

  3. A tiny bit of advice … If you’re using Ubuntu … trying it out as it were … I’d strongly suggest installing the K desktop environment (KDE) along side of Gnome which is the standard that Ubuntu begins with. I’ve found over a 2 year period after seriously putting both desktop environments to a tough comparison that KDE is simply better. It’s much much more customizable, more elegant, and is easier to do those customizations that you mention that is the foundation of what opensource software is all about. Take in mind, though, that the coding language that Gnome is built upon (GTK) and the coding language KDE is built upon (QT) … both open source … are compatible no matter what desktop environment you primarily use under Linux. This is one of the primary benefits of Linux but also creates confusion with the average computer user because they do work differently. And … their are other desktop environments … KDE and Gnome are simply the main two battleing it out for supremacy. I use KDE as my main desktop and have finally (mainly to make room on my drive) completely removed Gnome. But the beauty of using either is that they are both layered on top of the Linux kernel itself so GTK and QT based programs generally will work in either desktop environment.

    For Office … both have OpenOffice.org as the best office suite by far.

    For CD/DVD burning, writing, etc. … the QT based K3b.

    Watching DVDs, mpegs, etc. … Kaffeine … which also, btw, will allow you to take screenshots while watching a DVD. Really clear ones too.

    Multi-protocol instant messenger … Pidgin … every protocol I can think of combined in to one program. Simple GTK based program that simply works.

    Other free, though proprietary programs are also available for Linux such as Skype, Google Earth, and Picasa.

    Firefox .. definitely the most superior browser even over the KDE included Konquerer (which … btw … is what Apple based the initial Safari on).

    Amarok … best digital jukebox … QT/KDE based … completely compatible with ipods and lots of other mp3 players. Also workable for podcasts and internet radio (including shoutcast).

    I could go on … but I’m digressing again. I need to talk Ubuntu with you some time ….



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