The Best Tool for the Job

This guest post was written by Gregory Barendt and originally appeared on

We pretty much all agree that the best tool for a particular job is probably the one that should be used to complete said job. The FOSS-or-Death! crowd will tell you that openness trumps all else because one day your great little tool will become crippled with DRM and your old work rendered useless. Or the creators will go out of business and you’ll be forced to start from scratch with a new tool. Or any of a half dozen other nightmarish scenarios.

The world, unfortunately, is rarely so black and white. On ideological grounds, I’d love to use FOSS for everything, but it just doesn’t cut it all the time.

  • Cost: I’m cheap. Really cheap. I’ll pay for software only if it is (a) the only tool for the job or (b) significantly better than the alternatives. This means I pay for upgrades to OS X (when I’m traveling with my PowerBook, I want everything to just work), but emacs is still my editor of choice. Obviously, FOSS tends to fair pretty well in this category.

  • Effectiveness: Just how well does the aforementioned tool complete the task at hand, all other considerations aside? Notepad might be cheap, but it’s a horrible way to code Python. This is the big reason I spend more time in OS X than Windows and why I move to an Ubuntu box when I’m working with certain projects. It’s also the reason I spend any time at all on Windows - it’s the only effective way to write the .NET apps my clients so enjoy.

  • Likelihood of Screwage: Just how likely am I to be screwed by DRM/forced upgrades/etc? With open formats this is nearly zero, but with an MS Word doc or an iTunes track it could be a lot higher.

  • Severity of Screwage: This is an important one. If my PowerBook dies tomorrow, the world probably won’t end. I can recover data from the hard drive. I can pull my photos out of iPhoto reasonably easily. I can even, with the help of a borrowed Mac, burn-and-rip my purchased iTunes files and then happily continue my life with Ubuntu. Though this is a moderate to huge hassle, these aren’t mission-critical files we’re talking about. If all of my company’s financial records are in an MS Excel spreadsheet with embedded macros, on the other hand, I’m a little more hurt by any screwage Microsoft might want to inflict upon me.

Each of these considerations has different weight, of course, based on your situation. In any case, there’s more to life than using open tools and formats. If using closed software that works better gets me out of the office and on to the beach an hour sooner, then I can live with it.

— 2006-06-29