TinyOgg, software freedom and convenience

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jan 16, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

One of the last gaps in free software for desktop computing is a Flash player. Even if you are committed to free software, you are likely to want one two or three times a day. The Gnash project does its best to provide, but it is still not fully functional, despite years of effort.

Now, GNU Generation, the Free Software Foundation's (FSF's) organization for pre-university students, is offering another solution: TinyOgg, an application that converts Flash files to Ogg format. It's a worthy idea, but an impractical one that highlights one of the issues of encouraging people to use free software.

An entry in the FSF's blogs suggests that TinyOgg is preferable to Gnash because Gnash is designed to work with a proprietary format from pages that may use proprietary ActionScript. In addition, Flash formats are covered by software patents. Of course, all these objections apply to TinyOgg as well, but TinyOgg is still an improvement since, once you convert a file, you are dealing with a free format, and not downloading or sharing a proprietary format.

Testing TinyOgg

TinyOgg is currently available as a web service (http://tinyogg.com), although it could easily be adopted to other uses such as a browser plugin, since the code is free. You enter the address of the Flash video you want to view, and specify whether it is a video or audio file. You can also tick a boxes to make the converted file visible in the site's queue for conversion or its search engine and to make the converted file the highest possible quality. Files are available for only 48 hours, on the grounds that, most people will only want to watch each file once.

Once you have chosen the options for the conversion, you click the Convert button -- and wait. And wait, reloading the queue page to see your chosen file's status move from queue to downloading to converting to done.

If my experience is typical, it takes about five minutes before a four minute video is ready. Should you want to download the file, you need to add another minute or two. Then, when you play the file, you will probably need to shrink your browser window, because most conversions are likely to be too low-quality to display well in your preferred window size -- let alone full-screen.

Considering that the conversion needs to work around the vagaries of Internet connections, those are respectable times. However, I wonder if they are too slow for all except the most devoted free software advocates.

Most people, when they click on a file, expect to watch or hear it immediately. Should the download be slower than the playback, they get impatient. What are the odds, then, that people are going to wait five minutes before they can access a file of their choice? The way that many people surf, they might be four or five sites further on by the time TinyOgg completes the conversion, even if TinyOgg is implemented as a browser plugin. They are also likely to resent having to resize the window for decent viewing.

This situation is hardly TinyOgg's fault -- it's simply the reality of the web and how people use it. But any application that does not take work habits and expectations into account has to struggle for acceptance. I suspect that, even among those who try TinyOgg, a significant number will revert to Gnash or -- more likely, I regret to say -- the non-free Flash player, simply because they are more convenient.

Software freedom vs. convenience

Except among its strongest advocates, free software succeeds when it offers functionality that is equal or superior to proprietary alternatives. But, unfortunately, that is not what TinyOgg does. Instead it asks people to add several minutes' wait each time they want to view a Flash file. Over the course of the day, that wait time could easily stretch to fifteen or twenty minutes.

For many people, that is too much of a sacrifice in the name of software freedom. Perhaps I take too cynical view of the average user, but, from my observations, when you ask people to choose between freedom and convenience, the majority will choose convenience nine times out of ten. The exception is a minority of idealists who are willing to endure a degree of inconvenience in order to live up to their beliefs.

The case is similar to that of security. You can explain to people the importance of a strong password, and frequently they will still opt for a weak password or none at all, because the extra few seconds to type a user name and password is a frequent nuisance to them, and the chances of being cracked seem remote. In the same way, the nuisance of waiting to convert a format is probably more immediate to many users than the advantages and satisfaction of software freedom.

TinyOgg is a well-meaning project, and, should its developers wish to continue to make it, they naturally have every right to do so. However, as a free solution for dealing with Flash, I doubt it will catch on.

Personally, I think I would rather make a donation to Gnash the next time I have money. Gnash may not be perfect, for all the reasons cited on the FSF blogs, but a fully functional version will have the advantage of being software that more people will actually use.

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