Earlier this month, Muse Group purchased the free audio editing program “Audacity” – a brand and a tool that has been a mainstay of podcast creators since it was originally published to SourceForge in the year 2000 as Open Source software.
(Good) Open Source software is increasingly hard to find
And that’s probably because people have to work to keep their software useful, and work takes time, and you’re supposed to get paid for your time, but when you’re not charging for the thing you’re spending your time on, it’s hard to keep spending your time on it. For this reason, Open Source software doesn’t often stay Open Source forever, eventually it caves to the need to sustain itself financially.
When Muse purchased Audacity, my first impression was “Okay, great, Audacity will get an update to its aesthetic and perhaps also will be improved functionally.” but my second thought was “That means it might stop being free.”
It remains yet unseen whether or not Muse Group will transform Audacity significantly and if that transformation will come with a new price tag, but last week they attempted to make a change to the software that the community managing the open source code on GitHub reacted swiftly and negatively to: a request to add “basic telemetry” to the software.
What is Basic Telemetry?
At a very high level, it is a tool by which user behavior data can be collected.
“User data” and “collected” are not two words most of us like to see, but Open Source advocates like to see it even less because of the scope of what “basic telemetry” can include. I won’t get into that, instead I will talk about Muse’s stated intentions:
Muse wants to be able to collect data on how (now) their software is being used so that they can compile that data and determine where improvements can be made. For example, if Audacity/Muse/Whatever was to add a new button to the toolbar in Audacity, basic telemetry would allow them to know how often that new feature was being used (this can also be done for existing features). This sort of data is useful from a product development standpoint because it can show developers what things are used a lot, what things are used rarely, and what things are used rarely but should be used a lot (something that would suggest the feature could be re-located and displayed more prominently so it was easier to find).
It’s important to mention that the way they wanted to implement this was utilizing Google and Yandex. So they’d be collecting data and sending it to Google and Yandex for… let’s say analysis. This is the real sticking point – Google and Yandex are massive data collectors and aggregators and people don’t trust them… or, at least, the Audacity GitHub community doesn’t trust them.
There are Open Source options that could stand in for Google and Yandex that the community might be more open to, but Open Source (as I’ve already said) is often saddled with limitations because it relies on volunteers and has no budget, and so Muse doesn’t want to use those open source options because they won’t do everything they want them too.
So it’s not telemetry itself that users take issue with (though some do), it’s the Google/Yandex/Personal data aggregation with big corporate entities thing that most are taking issue with.
The original Pull-Request (which is like asking permission of the Open Source community to make the change) can be found here.
The followup to the community’s overwhelmingly negative response can be found here.
It’s also worth watching Unfa’s video on the topic:
Basic telemetry, if used for good, can help developers create a better product…
Basic telemetry, if used for evil, can collect personal information, store it, and (if the possessors of that data so chose) sell it to advertisers for marketing purposes.
Nobody likes that risk and, though Muse has been involved with Audacity updates in the past and the developer community is not wholly unfamiliar with them, nobody trusts Muse Group so implicitly that they’ll allow this sort of thing to be added to their beloved free audio editing program without causing a major stink about it – which they did.
My dreams of Audacity being updated to something more functional will be waylaid at least a little bit by this strong show of force by the Audacity community (and good for them, I’m proud they stood up for what they thought was important and I’m happy that Muse yielded) because basic telemetry would have made this data collection easier and thus results could have come faster… but I think it’s more important that the users who have shaped, shepherded, and held sacred this essential basic audio editor for more than 20-years, have a strong influence over what is done to their work.
After all, it’s all of ours… but it’s also their baby, and I feel it’s best that any changes or improvements to the software be majority (if not unanimously) approved.
Guess we’ll see how it goes.