In one of its standard product-release events, Apple announced last week an upgrade of it’s line of tablets. The iPad Mini will have higher resolution, and the full-size iPad will be slimmer — to the point of having its name upgraded to iPad Air. Both devices will have better processors and faster internet connections.
Since technology gadgets tend to get smaller and faster, most people were not impressed by last week’s event. Nick Bilton at the New York Times even complained that the Apple event itself was boring, since it followed the same routine of previous ones, designed around the showmanship of the late Steve Jobs.
Mr. Bilton has a point. Nevertheless, Apple in fact announced something interesting and genuinely new last week: the new version of the Mac OS X operating system (called Mavericks) is now free of charge, as it is the iWork suite — a set of softwares aimed at competing with Microsoft Office — for anyone who buys a new Mac, iPhone, or iPad.
The free release of iWork with new devices is very welcome, but Apple would have caused more impact — an actual impact — if it had made the suite free as in “free speech,” not just free as in “free food.” I’m referring, of course, to free software as defined by the Free Software Foundation: a software that allows the users freedom to run, study, copy, modify, improve, and redistribute the product.
The philosophy of free software has been around for about three decades now, and has great audience in software development and academic circles. Besides the appealing features of no charge and freedom to tweak the software to comply with the particular needs of users, proponents argue that there are more subtle advantages with respect to the so called “proprietary software.” According to free software guru Richard Stallman, for instance, free software implies that “much wasteful duplication of system programming effort will be avoided,” so that the effort “can go instead into advancing the state of the art”.
There’s in fact a lot of duplication in what concerns software for office usage, as not only Apple (with iWork) but at least Google (with Docs) and Sun Microsystems (with Open Office) have products similar to Microsoft Office.
Some Mac, iPhone and iPod users will undoubtedly benefit from a free-of-charge, compatible, well designed, office suite, but the chunk of market interested in using a free version of Microsoft Office has likely already been taken by existing high-quality free products, such as Google Docs. Given Apple’s large asset of worldwide developers, and the reach if its products, not only the company but our entire society would do better with an office suite that is truly free.
(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)