The Free Desktop

Bryce Harrington has posted an insightful commentary on running free software communities. A couple highlights:
It's easy to just copy what the proprietary guys do. After all, we like to think they're doing scientific market research and usability studies to uncover user needs. Or at the very least, users grow accustomed to the way the proprietary apps work, so if you make a good clone, you can get into the “well, at least you won't have to bother learning anything new” niche. That's actually a pretty good niche to be in, but at best it's a nibbling-from-below strategy.
However, in my view FLOSS has a secret power for achieving exactly what users need built right into the model. I'd credit a large share of Inkscape's success to simply being utter whores at taking advantage of this.
Basically, the best way to get what user's want and need into your application is for the developers to BE users.
Users have a gut-feel for what they want and need, and gut-feels are tough to express in requirements documents, bug trackers, and surveys. You know when you're developing some thingee for your own personal use what corners can be skipped, and what ones are worth polishing; you know what compromises can be made, and can immediately notice the value of some unexpected potential as the code's developed.
The reason open source has this special power is because of its openness, transparency, and (usually) ease of getting involved. Proprietary companies by their very nature are characterized as secretive and controlling, and do not consider individual users as able to contribute anything of value to their product but money.
FLOSS projects have a different value model than proprietary ones. Value in FLOSS comes not from users spending money, but on users and developers who are contributing enhancements (code, docs, translations, word-spreading, etc.)

So to the point – how can the free desktop succeed? Just cloning OSX or Windows isn't going to be compelling enough. Competing on a feature matrix against proprietary companies is hard since they can pull some new feature out of hiding at any point.
No, the key to success with FLOSS is its core attribute – it's openness to community-scale collaboration. Focus on energizing a strong community and empowering new users to bring their new ideas and energy in. Give them lots of room to experiment, and assist them with paving a good foundation for them to build atop. Give them invitations rather than rules, and infrastructure rather than bureaucracy. Make it easier for people with little technical skill to participate, and treat them as first class citizens when they do.
Don't think of the free desktop simply as an alternative to proprietary desktops. Instead think of it as a platform for large scale open collaboration. For us technical users sharing code, it's already hands down the best collaboration platform; the next step is to work to make it just as good for non-technical users, who are driven to collaborate on everything from clipart, encyclopedia articles, music, schedules, designs, fonts, education, games, politics, and so on. Take the rules, tools, architectures, and lessons we've gained in software collaboration and recast them for “data development”, and I think the free desktop's success will be impossible to stop.

He's absolutely right on multiple points. It's critical that you make it as easy as possible for people to get involved. Part of that comes from making it clear that you don't need to be a ninja coder to be helpful to a project. Be an evangelist, write some documentation, contribute to the projects wiki or submit good bug reports. A user that can post high quality bug reports that include all needed info and clear instructions on how to reproduce the bug are worth their weight in gold, even if they are technically unable to provide a patch. Getting community involvement is something you'll see in almost all of the so called winners. As Bryce mentions, it's sometimes easy for large projects to become insular. That can be, and in fact has been, extremely poisonous to a project and needs to be something the project leaders are cognizant of.
His point about cloning proprietary software is also extremely apropos. Sure, in some cases it's necessary or even desirable. But, it should not be the default action. Working to our strengths (and we have many) will get us much further. If you are considering starting a new software project and will be in charge of the community, you should read the linked article… digest it… then read it again. Community is that important.
BTW Bryce, I couldn't find a link to your RSS feed anywhere on your site or in the HTML source. If you don't know how blosxom lays things out, you might not even realize you had a feed.


One Response to The Free Desktop

  1. Anonymous says:

    I agree…getting users to bug test is great. However most users are not interested in spending time on bug testing for you. It is worthwhile finding somebody who understands the software and is methodical. Of course, clearly defining your project is most important and needs to be done from the beginning. Use of software like MPMM is so important.

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