Saturday 21 April 2007

I am not an enthusiast

I am not an open source enthusiast. That is not to say that I am not enthusiastic about open source, bacause I am, but I am not an enthusiast in the same way that I am not a car enthusiast. I do not spend my spare time tinkering with the hood up adjusting petrol mix for optimum performance, nor do I subscribe to glossy magazines informing me which form of alloy trim is in vogue. Don't get me wrong, I don't have anything against those who do, it's just that I don't.

I have been an IT professional for over 25 years. I have been in my time developer, sysadmin (many OS's), db admin, hardware support, cable puller and all the rest. I have no issues with doing any of that stuff, it's just that it's not what I do now. When I'm doing what I do now, I'd like computers to just work. And for that matter, when I'm not working, and I want to play some music, I don't want to have to google the latest encoding schemes and determine which codec I need to update. I want it to just work. Therein lies a hurdle which Open Source has negotiated poorly to date - one of product management and marketing. And the reason that that hurdle remains is largely in the makeup of the FOSS community.

Open source communities are made up of enthusiasts as a rule (yes, there are exceptions to the rule but not many) and it is inevitably (and to some extent, rightly) that community which determines what happens to a product - which features, bugs and developments are prioritised. Enthusiasts in the community, though, not only don't mind tinkering under the hood, but often prefer a product which requires tinkering. The result is a package which looks great from a developer's and enthusiast's point of view, but not necessarily from an end user's.

Why does it matter? It doesn't as long as FOSS remains bounded by its communities. But there are increasingly commercial enterprises working on a variety of business models. Ubuntu is a good example. Cononical clearly would like Ubuntu to be considered the desktop Linux of choice and would like to break clear of the community boundaries. In my opinion, though, the packages that comprise Ubuntu (and other distributions) are not yet adequately focussed on what that target audience needs to make the switch from Windows.

Of course, many aspects of Linux based desktops (including Ubuntu) knock the socks off Vista. But many are little better that Windows 95, and for that target audience it isn't enough that a package will just about do the job, eventually.

It isn't for nothing that organisations like Microsoft spend millions on market research, focus groups, usability testing and the like. Early on in my entrepreneurial career I was told a truism which I have held central ever since, that the best way to ensure you sell what you make is to ensure you make what you can sell. If FOSS wants to break into the non-enthusiast market, then this must be addressed. Even the otherwise excellent book 'Producing Open Source Software' by Karl Fogel (available here) barely mentions the marketing function.

But how could marketing functions be included in the OSS process? Should the marketing itself be considered to be as open as the source? There may be a platform for opening up the information in a Creative Commons license, but the framework under which the information is derived is unclear (to me anyway). I think it likely that that framework will be different to traditional commercial products.


Anonymous said...

I think Linux is at a crossroads. Do they sell-out those who have been with them since the beginning to attract Windows users or do they remain true to their base and take a smaller market share?

Or do they find a way to do both? Sometimes taking away the ability to tinker is also taking away the ability to make the program work under your specific circumstances. I've had problems in Fedora and Ubuntu that the pretty GUIs couldn't solve. I had some unusual hardware or an unusual setup. GUIs can only help the masses, but must, by design, ignore corner cases.

If people can be open minded, I think, in the end, that we will end up in a market dominated by open standards so that people can use any desktop: Windows, OS X, Linux, Haiku, BSD, Syllable and it won't matter. The files will be transferable via open standards such as Open Document and PNG. So if the user wants to tinker he/she can use Linux or BSD. If they want everything done for them there will be Windows, OS X, and ReactOS. If they want a system that's awesome for video editing then they'd go with Haiku.

That's why I think that open file standards are important. People are scarred from the 80s when there was DOS, Amiga, Commodore, etc and none were compatible. But, open source has shown that we can have open standards that everyone can use.

When this happens people only shell out hundreds of dollars on MS Office if they think it will give them a benefit over OpenOffice, not because they are locked in by doc files. I truly have no beef against proprietary software, if only they will stop being evil and monopolistic. Allow open standards and then produce software that makes people WANT to buy your software, not HAVE to buy your software.


Amos B. Batto said...

What is missing from this analysis is any comment about the legal and political hurdles which face the FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software) community. There are legal and political reasons that GNU/Linux hasn't conquered a sizable portion of the desktop market, and it isn't just the fault of the "tinkers" and "enthusiastists" that GNU/Linux doesn't "just work" for the average user.

First of all, Fedora, Freedows, OpenSuSE, Debian and all the other distributions which are true FLOSS distributions will never be able to "just work" as long as they can't legally include proprietary codecs like mp3, mpeg, avi and essential bits like Adobe's Flashplayer and SUN's Java.

The ridiculous intellectual property laws which make it legally impossible to reverse engineer a Codec are a much bigger barrier than the attitudes of the ethnusiasts who like to tinker. Yes the command line tools are there for the enthusiasts, but almost all the major distributions include a very easy GUI which aren't any harder to use than the MS Windows GUI.

Look at the Ubuntu interface. Can you honestly tell me that it is harder to use or harder to understand than MS Windows? Is it any harder to alter the background screen, change your keyboard, set your clock, change the volumn settings? It is only harder because you are more accustomed to the Windows' design than design. But for a new user who has no preconceptions, the Windows interface isn't any easier than Ubuntu's. Look at FireFox, OpenOffice. Can you honestly say that they are any less user friendly than Internet Explorer and MS Office? Yes, some applications like the GIMP are more difficult than their proprietary competitors, but the applications that the majority of users need on a daily basis aren't any more difficult to use.

Why is GNU/Linux hard to use? It isn't the enthusiasts who are making it hard to use. The reason that GNU/Linux is harder to use is because it doesn't play my favorite CDs and my favorite DVDs when I stick them in the optical drive. It doesn't show my favorite websites because Flash and Java don't work properly. When I hook my USB modem and my USB wireless receiver, they fail to run. When I want to play my favorite game, the 3D doesn't work on nVidia or my ATI graphics card. These things don't work because we have let large corporations take away our rights through intellectual property laws.

Until we get organized to fight these laws, these things will never work. Until we can legally reverse engineer proprietary codecs without fear of patents and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, we will never have a FLOSS OS that "just works".

There is another reason why all your favorite hardware doesn't "just work." The Bush administration pandered to a big campaign contributor and dropped the Justice Department's against Microsoft with a slap on the wrist. Essentially the Bush administration has given Microsoft the go-ahead to continue using illegal monopolistic business practices which make it virtually impossible for the average buy to find a computer without MS Windows loaded on it. Microsoft knows that it can continue twisting arms in the industry and threatening computer manufacturers if they dare try and sell a desktop computer with GNU/Linux. When Microsoft can illegally threaten to cut off the 70% discount which it gives Dell, HP-Compaq, Gateway-eMachines, Sony, Acer, and every other big manufacturer, none of them will dare to sell a machine with GNU/Linux. Since all the hardware manufacturers know, that GNU/Linux will never be sold on machines at Best Buy or CompuUSA, why bother writing drivers or trying to support GNU/Linux. The FLOSS distributions will never "just work" until the US government starts to enforce its anti-trust laws. How do we get our government to act? We get organized politically and demand change.

So we can blather on about how difficult GNU/Linux is to use, but the reality is that it isn't the fault of the FLOSS programmers or the enthusiasts who like to tinker. It is own fault, because we as Americans have become so politically slothful, that we have allowed special comercial interests to hijack the public interest.

Confused but getting better said...

Amos I agree completely. There are many challenges facing FOSS but I do think that the groundwork needed to resolve those issue is being done and it will not be very long before the trend to OS previously closed software, formats and protocols will deepen.

Don't get me wrong I'm certainly not saying it is the fault of FOSS programmers. Within the context that FOSS has grown up, the ange, depth and quality of available software (and support) is quite remarkable. If however (big IF) FOSS wants to reach out beyond that boundary, it must ask:

1. Who is the 'target' market?
2. What decisions do they need to make to adopt (for example) desktop Linux.
3. What do we as a community need to do to accomodate those decisions.

It is a fact of life (unfortunate but a fact nontheless) that individuals in those markets are coming from a position of comfortable familiarity with MS/Windows. That is not to say that the way forward is to produce a Windows look-alike. To dislodge individuals from that comfort, however, requires an acceptance that they are there in the first place.