Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board

Linux people have no respect?

"If there’s a glib, nutshell synopsis for why Linux desktop software tends to suck, it’s this: Raymond and his ilk have no respect for anyone but themselves."

Friday, April 2, 2004

"Talented programmers who work long full-time hours crafting software need to be paid. That means selling software. Remember the old open source magic formula — that one could make money giving away software by selling “services and support”? That hasn’t happened — in terms of producing well-designed end user software — and it’s no wonder why. In Raymond’s own words, the goal is:

    software that works so well, and is so discoverable to even novice users, that they don’t have to read documentation or spend time and mental effort to learn about it.

It’s pretty hard to sell “services and support” for software that fits that bill. The model that actually works is selling the software itself. This is politically distasteful to open source zealots, but it’s true — and it explains the poor state of usability in open source software."

I like this guy.

My Cousin Vinniwashtharam
Friday, April 2, 2004

The article has good points and bad points.

Good: correctly points out that this is not an "Aunt Tillie" (oh, and can we please find a less demeaning term? bleh.) problem; this is a problem for anyone who's not a CUPS engineer.  The reason for this is fairly obvious: the UI originated in the minds of people who understood networked printing at a deep technical level, and probably assumed everyone else followed the same patterns of thought. I'm typing this in Mozilla: probably the worst-obfuscated preferences there are those for security certificates and validation, because the UI was designed by people who spent all day working with these things and wanted to be able to control options that are completely incomprehensible to anyone else, programmer or no.

Also mentions mpt's (not an affectation, as far as I know, but the result of referring to him by his email address) essay on Free Software usability, which should really be the starting point of any serious discussion on the subject.

Bad: evidently using a parallel port for the printer is hopelessly old-fashioned, but home networking is right out, which I guess means that the average user only uses USB printers. A little more consistency and a little less snarkiness would have been preferable here.

The wrap-up, which I might crudely summarize as "Usability is *hard*, you communist pissants, so don't bother trying to do it without the aid of your well-paid betters," seems to me like the sort of whistling in the dark that's been going on about FLOSS for years. "Ha! Those hobbyists with their toy Unix knock-off will never accomplish anything." "OK, it's not so bad for servers and some scripting, but desktop software doesn't scratch anyone's itch." "Alright, so they've written a browser and some office software. The UI's always going to suck, though, because they're all ignorant code monkeys."

In reality, I think that a large portion of the FLOSS open source problems can be solved by persuading people simply to treat UI with the same "respect" they would code. In any project, there's going to be a (relatively) small group of people who actually call the shots over what code does and doesn't enter the product. By encouraging them to exercise "strong ownership" in rejecting attempts to add unnecessary and confusing UI, cross-checking each other's UI to be sure it's comprehensible to people who aren't printer engineers or whatever the case may be, and co-ordinating to achieve a consistent interface, I think you're pretty close to the standard for the average Windows program.

This will satisfy most people and drive Mac people, who are sensitive to the most miniscule (though admittedly real) defects in the UI absolutely insane. That can probably only be solved by getting one of the contributing companies to put a UI engineer on the project instead of/in addition to a developer, but that's hardly impossible.

Indeed, I thought one of the best things Netscape could have done while they still drove Mozilla development was bring in a trained UI designer to produce and maintain a UI specification; what we got was a less-than-clueful graphic designer whose activities were limited to 1) claiming he was working on a spec and disappearing for long periods of time, causing UI improvements to grind to a halt as people waited 2) reappearing from the woodwork to object when people were about to check in improvements 3) fighting with mpt. This more or less fits in with the general thrust of Netscape management decisions, which usually lacked the good sense God gave gravel.

Oh, and the "FLOSS usability needs to suck so they can make money" is a complete red herring. The kind of services that make money are helping some company build a big macro framework that runs in your product and automates a bunch of their tasks, or customizing and rebranding the app for their use, not running a call center for people who need help setting up their printer.

Chris Hoess
Friday, April 2, 2004

This is the second thread on this article. the other is here

Stephen Jones
Saturday, April 3, 2004


I have not seen Mozilla's Security UI on Windows, but I have seen it on Linux. It is identical to the Netscape (7.0) one on the Mac (OK, there are some bugs in the Mozilla one which make the actual UI dialog pop UNDER the setting dialog. Does anyone ever test these FLOSS things?). So I don't realy get your "Netscape would have done it right" message.

Just me (Sir to you)
Monday, April 5, 2004

Sorry Chris,

I seem to have misread your piece.

(need coffee, badly)

Just me (Sir to you)
Monday, April 5, 2004

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home