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Improving Open Source: A First Step

In this weekly post, we talk about ways that Linux, and the overall open source community could be improved.  The focus is on providing constructive criticism and feedback to the open source community to drive development towards better offerings that can as a whole better compete with the classic commercial contenders.

A lot of people talk about ways that Linux can be improved, but Linux is only the sum of its parts, and a lot of those parts are separate projects.  Firefox is great, and that might be the first thing to come to mind.  But there’s so many other applications, some which compete adequately with big names like Adobe and Microsoft.  On the other hand, there’s a cacophony of others that are not so good.

With the release of Windows 7 on the masses just around the corner, there’s some low hanging fruit that can be picked.  One thing that the big M$ does at least decently across much of its product offering is give users some form of information that does in fact help them figure things out, unless it’s some bonkers issue, like a hardware issue.  It didn’t used to be that way, but if you’ve payed attention, error messages are getting more useful, and pretty much everything has some form of description, either a tooltip, or more consistently, a help topic.  In Word for example, if you don’t know what some button actually does, you simply look it up in help, and I can almost be positive that it gives you a basic understanding, if not better.

In a lot of open source projects however, that’s not always the case.  Even for projects that a great many people use, this can sometimes be a fault that even advanced or power users find frustrating.  One great example is Compiz Fusion.  As a little history, Compiz has been on the scene spicing up the user interface in X Windows based systems (basically, Linux) since like, a long time ago (I’d say 2004, but I can’t remember, and a quick search turned up dirt).  At some point, the project split up into Compiz and Beryl, then merged again to form Compiz Fusion (Wonder Twin powers, activate!).  That was around release 0.5.7, and we are now graced with all the progress up to 0.8.2, and Compiz now comes out of the box in the mainstream Linux distributions.

So, what’s wrong with it?  If you open the settings manager, you’ll find a host of plugins.  A good number of these are self explanatory, but many are not, and upon further investigation within the UI, you don’t get any closer to unraveling what the plugin does, or what the behavior even is in some cases.  What makes it worse, is that users many times can’t even figure it out the same way you learned how to first use a PC: by playing around with it.  There may be a keyboard shortcut for an action, but it doesn’t work, or some sort of gesture, but no result.

Now, what happens next is usually some searching on the vast Interwebz, and possibly an answer (sometimes not though).  If the open source community wants to become a bigger player in the hearts, minds, and PC’s of the masses though, it needs to aim for a higher standard, because the age of everyone being patient with a piece of software that doesn’t work right away is gone.

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Posted in Open Source, User Experience, Weekly Updates. Tagged with , , .

One Response

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  1. Scott Augé said

    Until O’Reilly came around, the biggest problem with open source has been documentation. This “read the code” business has come to a halt in my life. I am not going to wade through quarter of a million lines of code (written for a compiler and not a human) to see what software can do.

    For me to even consider a piece of software, I need installation instructions and a feature list. If there is a user guide, administration guide, and programmer’s guide – all the better! Developers who want to develop professional code need to know that code isn’t the only thing they should be developing. There is a whole infrastructure around it.

    It doesn’t even need to be a book (though one might be able to sell some of them) – but a screen cast so I can see it in action and some of the gotcha’s.