Amy Alexander on Sat, 20 May 2000 05:48:57 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> OFSS01: First Orbiten Free Software Survey]

On Thu, 18 May 2000, Benjamin Geer wrote:

> That said, I agree that there ought to be a forum where non-technical
> users could discuss ideas for new types of software, or new approaches
> to existing problems, with programmers who might be interested in
> working on such projects.  Many projects start either to fill a
> programmer's need, or to meet the programmer's conception of an
> end-user's need.  

Definitely. I think most open source programs still have a way to go to be
responsive to the end-user, rather than to programmers making other things
out of them. The project mailing lists are generally populated by
programmers,  not end users, with rare, apologetic posts from
non-technical end-users. More than once I've written to the author
of an open source program or posted to the mailing list, and said, "I've
read the docs and haven't figured out - can it do so-and-so?" and had them
respond, "Hey, great idea, why don't you write the code for that?" Many
open source apps seem to be written with little expectation that there
*is* an end-user, except that the end-user him/herself might program
something useful out of the source code. Maybe the end-user should be
renamed the "end-programmer". :-) ... 

I realize that it's important to develop toolkits and so on for other
people to build onto, and that not everything *should* be an end-user app,
but, with the open-source stuff, there seems to be an inordinate
percentage of apps that seem to be end-user apps on the surface, but which
then turn out to be "some-assembly-required" sorts of things.

In some cases, licensing is behind the trouble. This seems to be the case
with mp3 encoders, e.g. ...  you have to get the front-end from this place
and the engine from that place, and it appears to have something to do
with licensing. On the other hand, there's LAME (Lame Ain't an MP3
Encoder), whose docs convinced me that I would have to download and
compile  some other piece because, after all, it Ain't an MP3 Encoder, but
then it turned out to somehow be a very good, fully-functional MP3 encoder
after all.

Huh? (Well, I'm glad it worked out, but... ? Six years of UNIX experience 
and I couldn't tell the players without a scorecard... )

But another part of the problem may be cultural - meaning, geek culture.
Many a slashdot, et al, discussion has centered on true, pure, geekdom as
meaning that one codes for the pure love of coding, not to achieve a goal.
This comes up quite frequently in the context of the monstrous "why are
there so few women geeks?" debate. There are always quite a few male geeks
who argue, "Women code to get a particular job done. Men code for the joy
of coding. Therefore, men code things that can be used by many others to
create apps, while women code specific apps that spawn nothing further.
This is why almost all the famous open source geeks are men." OK, men are
the artists and women are the artisans? Men fertilize many projects while
women have the babies?  Suspicious metaphors aside, one thing that's very
significant here is that there is quite a bit of incentive in terms of ego
gratification (and potential for career enhancement through
reputation-building) for people who code things that are *not* for
end-users, and not so much for people who code things *for* end-users.

All that said, the open-source movement seems to be waking up, albeit
slowly, to the needs of the end-user. The article at
entitled "It's the User, Stupid", was interesting because:

a) They ran an article about these problems.

b) It was ironically, posted on the website of sendmail, one of the most
notoriously difficult-to-use open source programs. (Although most desktop
users don't currently need to use sendmail, running one's own mail server
(that's what sendmail is) can have some privacy and diskspace advantages.)

c) The article, addressing basic usability issues, appeared in January
2000. Just curious - what took them so long?

> I suspect that there might be a fair number of
> programmers out there who would find it especially satisfying to work
> on something that a significant number of people had already said they
> wanted.  All you'd really need would be a mailing list (with archives)
> and a web page.

This is a good idea, especially specifying that it was a forum for
geek/non-geek interaction...  


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