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The Open Source Design Conundrum 322

Posted by Soulskill
from the too-many-chiefs dept.
Matt Asay writes "Walk the halls of any open-source conference and you'll see a large percentage of attendees with ironically non-open-source Apple laptops and iPhones. One reason for this seeming contradiction can be found in reading Matthew Thomas' classic 'Why free software usability tends to suck.' Open-source advocates like good design as much as anyone, but the open-source development process is often not the best way to achieve it. Open-source projects have tended to be great commoditizers, but not necessarily the best innovators. Hence, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst recently stated that Red Hat is "focused on commoditizing important layers in the stack." This is fine, but for those that want open source to push the envelope on innovation, it may be unavoidable to introduce a bit more cathedral into the bazaar. Without an IBM, Red Hat, or Mozilla bringing cash and discipline to an open-source project, including paying people to do the 'dirt work' that no one would otherwise do, can open source hope to thrive?"
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The Open Source Design Conundrum

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  • by walshy007 (906710) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:43AM (#28503731)
    Thing is apple laptops are usually pretty good in design, so even OSS people will buy one and then put distro of choice on it, problem? not really. Good hardware is good hardware.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Chabil Ha' (875116)

      To that end, good software is good software no matter the development methodology, license, etc. I would hope that one of the hallmarks of open development includes an open mind.

      • by lorenzo.boccaccia (1263310) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:03AM (#28504361)
        Ubuntu seems going on the right direction, with its one hundred papercut project

        https://edge.launchpad.net/hundredpapercuts [launchpad.net]
        • by segedunum (883035) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @01:03PM (#28505539)
          This is basically just a gigantic band aid, and is unlikely to be successful. Most of what needs doing is to fill in glaring gaps of functionality in software that is now ten years old or more. Much of what people will put in there will already have bugs in an upstream Bugzilla somewhere - years old with no resolution other than WONTFIX. I fail to see how that will change.

          I really hate that term 'usability' that a lot of people never define and expect to be the answer to their troubles. It gets thrown around by many in the open source desktop world mainly as a response to mask the internal troubles in the software that they're using and if someone starts talking about 'usability' and 'Mac OS' as benchmarks then maybe people will think 'Hey, they're going to be as cool as Macs!' and that they're doing something about the issues and it will all go away. Usability is about far more than making some sad Mac clone. It's about developers, developers, developers, developers - creating the useful applications and functionality that people want, making it easy for developers to create it and getting that functionality to users. Windows has that. Mac OS has that (albeit with a few speed bumps), and can run the open source software most open source developers use, so it's what you're going to see most of them use.

          The Linux desktop is not the answer. It doesn't have to be that way but it's going to take a distributor to really grab hold of the situation, make sensible software choices on behalf of developers and users and identify just what system it is they're putting together. Given that we have desktops in the open source world that have limited functionality in the name of 'simplicity' (read JoelSpolsky on 80/20 method of software development - http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000020.html [joelonsoftware.com]) and we have brain damage such as PulseAudio that distributors readily lap up without any thought then I really cannot see who's going to do it. 'Just Works' is so far away it's just stopped being funny.
          • by node 3 (115640) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @02:50PM (#28506445)

            Usability is about far more than making some sad Mac clone. It's about developers, developers, developers, developers - creating the useful applications and functionality that people want

            No, usability is not about functionality, it's about how that functionality works. Specifically, it's when the functions are designed to work in a way that better matches the way humans function. Open Source tends to focus more on how the computer functions as a computer and not enough on how it functions as something for people to use.

            This focus on human-computer interaction is something the Mac excels at. People don't point to it as inspiration because it's pretty. They point to it because it's more usable. Its prettiness is just one aspect of its usability.

            To be clear, functionality is important, but it's not the same as usability. To be usable, a system needs functions, but merely having the functions doesn't make a system terribly usable.

            • by noundi (1044080) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:00PM (#28509633)
              Unfortunately you're as biased as the next guy. I grew up during the DOS/Win 3.1 era and have been using PCs all my life. Around the year 2000 I started experimenting with Linux, I'm saying experimenting because I didn't fully use it until a few years later, and for some reason I had no troubles what goes for the usability. Nowadays I use Ubuntu and there's nothing as simple to use as Ubuntu. I'm saying this because today I was in a recording studio that belongs to a friend of mine, and [un]naturally he uses Mac for his audio mixing. When I sat down to play around I was lost. I'm not saying I couldn't adapt to it given enough time, but the natural human-computer interaction you speak of does not exist. Humans aren't built to understand computers, it is, just as any language we speak, taught to us. We adapt to a certain language and improve at using it the same way as we do with operating systems. This might sound paradoxal since I just claimed that Ubuntu was the easiest, however given that the hardware you have is fully supported by Windows, OS X and Ubuntu, the procedure going from installing the software to opening your browser and visiting google is by far most logical and easiest in Ubuntu than any of the others above, this of course doesn't mean that a person with no computer experience can just hop in and drive. I'm not saying that the others require an astrophysicist, and that they are even difficult enough for this to even be relevant, but the argument persists. The problem isn't that these OSs aren't easy enough, the problem is that people ask for the impossible - just as impossible as learning a new language in one day. Some people claim that we should dumb things down, I claim the we should smarten people up. After all if we all here in /. can do it so easily, I refuse to believe that others can't, given enough time to practice. And if someone thinks that we here are some sort of an elite that someone is nothing but arrogant.
              • by node 3 (115640) on Monday June 29, 2009 @12:45AM (#28510303)

                All you're saying is that since you already know Ubuntu, it's the easiest for you to use. That's fine. Usability needn't be the most important criteria for choosing an OS.

                You extrapolate this to state that Ubuntu is the easiest OS of all to use, which is fundamentally absurd. You even admit this inadvertently when you state that instead of "dumbing down" the OS, we should "smarten up" the users. In doing so, you've made two drastic errors. The first is that you equate usability with "dumbing down". The second is that you want people to learn things that they neither need to nor want to.

                And lastly, you've made the mistake that usability and easy are interchangeable. They are related, but at some point, as you make an interface easier and easier, it will likely go from being ever more usable to drastically less usable.

                A mistake a lot of Linux users make when assessing Mac OS X is to think that it's a simplified, underpowered system, mistaking the usability for simplicity. I can assure you, being intimately familiar with Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, that Mac OS X is extremely powerful and complex. So much so that in some ways, it make Linux looks simple and dumbed down. LaunchDaemons, AppleScript, and application bundles come to mind. I'm not saying this to put down Linux, but to point out that Mac OS X is by no means a simplistic OS. It's just so well engineered from a usability standpoint that most users will never even know any of that stuff exists behind the well-polished GUI.

      • by tixxit (1107127) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:32AM (#28504639)
        Yep. I think some people just need to realize that there are lots of people that use OSS simply because it is good software and not because we are zealots that hate Microsoft or Apple or whatever.
    • by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:46AM (#28504201) Homepage

      Thing is apple laptops are usually pretty good in design, so even OSS people will buy one and then put distro of choice on it, problem? not really. Good hardware is good hardware.

      The hardware's fine, but I'll agree with the original Thomas article [archive.org], the user interface is the key. As Thomas said, "once you have more than one designer, you get inconsistency, both in vision and in detail." Not to mention his comment that OS developers, "because they are hackers, they are power users, so the interface design ends up too complicated for most people to use."

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by gbarules2999 (1440265)

        "...so the interface design ends up too complicated for most people to use."

        Written by someone who's never used Gnome, I see.

    • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

      by Mad Merlin (837387)

      Thing is apple laptops are usually pretty good in design, so even OSS people will buy one and then put distro of choice on it, problem? not really. Good hardware is good hardware.

      Except that Apple laptops are junk. None of them have nipples, they only have a single mouse button and they're all shortscreen. Mind you, most laptops are shortscreen now, but that doesn't make it any better.

      • The new Apple trackpads are amazing. You just push down anywhere to click--feels like a touch interface. You can scroll in any direction with two fingers and "right click" by pushing down with two fingers simultaneously.

        On laptops like HP or Thinkpad I've always used the nipple because their trackpads were so small and crappy. I don't miss it at all on my MacBook Pro. In fact I miss my Apple trackpad when I use my Dell laptop from work.

      • Except that Apple laptops are junk. None of them have nipples, they only have a single mouse button

        Having switched from Windows PCs I love my MacBook Pro. As do many others. Nipples? The only ones I want are on breasts. Single mouse button? I have three. Just as I was able to alt-click or ctrl-click in Windows I can do the same on my Mac. Or I can use a 2 or 3 button mouse with it. I don't though, instead I prefer to use my 3 button trackball.

        Falcon

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by RWerp (798951)
        "Except that Apple laptops are junk. None of them have nipples"

        As a true geek you probably were unaware of this fact, but most nipples are found on women.
    • I thought so, too... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by SanityInAnarchy (655584) <ninja@slaphack.com> on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:49AM (#28504827) Journal

      I bought a Powerbook, for that reason. I figured, I'd never run Windows on it, so may as well put Linux on the best laptop ever, right?

      Didn't work too well. I never quite got it working, and just ended up using OS X.

      In fact, from personal experience, the reason people choose Macs seems to have less to do with the overall UI, and more to do with specific things Just Working that Just Don't on Linux. Example: Maybe it's gotten better, and there's a nice GUI for this somewhere, but when I plug in a second monitor to my laptop, I restart my X server -- I could never quite get Xinerama or the nvidia stuff to cooperate without a restart.

      Contrast this to a Macbook -- just plug it in, and it works. Open System Settings if you want it to behave other than as a clone.

      So, I still use Linux, and I really don't get the people who would be into open source and use an iPhone, but I can certainly see why people would choose a Mac. Everything just works, just about all the commercial software you want, and a decent (not great, but decent) Unix under the hood for development.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by dave420 (699308)
        Everything does just work, most of the time. When it doesn't, you can wind up screwed :) I agree with nearly everything in your post, but not painting OS X as a bulletproof, unfuckupable OS.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          You're right. In fact, that's one reason I use Linux -- when things go wrong, I can fix them. When things go wrong with a Mac, I'm pretty much lost.

          However, the fact that I still have to edit xorg.conf is pretty embarrassing.

      • Example: Maybe it's gotten better, and there's a nice GUI for this somewhere, but when I plug in a second monitor to my laptop, I restart my X server -- I could never quite get Xinerama or the nvidia stuff to cooperate without a restart.

        I don't even think that it's "gotten better", I think you just have terrible luck. I've never had an issue with plugging extra monitors in with Linux (from adding new ones to my main PC back in 2003 when I first started using Linux, out to when I bought myself a new projec

    • by westlake (615356) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:51AM (#28504857)

      Thing is apple laptops are usually pretty good in design

      They are also built on a rock-solid UNIX foundation. Tell me why you need Linux for Open Source.

    • Thing is apple laptops are usually pretty good in design, so even OSS people will buy one and then put distro of choice on it, problem? not really. Good hardware is good hardware.

      I agree that Apple makes good hardware, and software. However I've been researching on how to install Ubuntu on my MacBook Pro and it's not so simple. Some people have trouble with their keyboards, specific keys such as function keys, or backlighting. Others, with their WiFi, and still others with their net connection.

      And the th

  • Already handled (Score:5, Insightful)

    by clang_jangle (975789) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:47AM (#28503755) Journal
    This is already being done. Many of the most successful FOSS projects have corporate contributors, so this "design conundrum" doesn't really exist. As for the popularity of Apple devices among FOSS developers, well, a lot of Apple software is based upon FOSS. In fact Apple, like it or not, is a pretty good example of how to monetize FOSS. Can't say I'm thrilled with the methods they employ to achieve that, but it's still a fact that they do achieve it.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by TheRaven64 (641858)
      Apple, also, don't innovate much. The best things about OS X and the iPhone were published in academic journals years ago; some as much as two decades ago. Apple is good at spotting good ideas, implementing them well, and selling a polished final product. There is probably more innovation coming from the Free Software world than from Apple, the problem is that the big Free Software projects tend to pick poor examples to copy, while Apple is much better at finding good ideas to copy.
      • Re:Already handled (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Old97 (1341297) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:14AM (#28503973)

        The best things about OS X and the iPhone were published in academic journals years ago; some as much as two decades ago.

        Your statement is generally true for all software. Just about every important thing we do in software was thought of by 1980. There have been refinements, polish and some interesting synergies gained by combining things - innovations, but few if any important inventions. It's just a lot of these ideas were not economically viable to implement until hardware improvements, materials and costs made them so.

        You should also credit Apple for excellent execution - since Jobs returned at least - in a number of key areas which left them well-positioned to implement the good ideas once they identified them. One thing neither FOSS or Microsoft can fix is difficulty in aligning hardware and software designs when both are moving targets and only one is in your control.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by tixxit (1107127)

          Just about every important thing we do in software was thought of by 1980.

          As a grad student in CS, whose research is in algorithms, I cannot stress how wrong you are. CS research is very fast paced. You'd be amazed at some of the stuff that is published in the last year, let alone the last 10 or 20. Just because you don't see it on your desktop, doesn't mean it isn't there.

          • by ceoyoyo (59147)

            If you assume "we do" means "we do on the desktop" then his statement is correct.

            Personally I'd tend to read "we do" as "we do on the desktop" rather than "we have done somewhere, maybe only once or twice in a lab, but somewhere."

      • Re:Already handled (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:51AM (#28504257) Homepage

        Apple, also, don't innovate much....

        You say that almost as if you think it's a criticism.

        There's nothing more annoying than innovation that's implemented solely for the sake of innovation. There are places where you might enjoy that, sure, but for a machine that you use every day to get work done, you only want innovation that makes your work easier.

        ...while Apple is much better at finding good ideas to copy.

        A desirable trait.

        • Re:Already handled (Score:4, Insightful)

          by TheRaven64 (641858) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:53AM (#28504867) Journal

          You say that almost as if you think it's a criticism.

          So far, everyone who has replied seems to have made this assumption, and I'm not really sure why. The original article made the point that Free Software doesn't innovate much as if Apple did. This is simply not true. My point is that the iPhone is not easy to use because it contains new and innovative ideas, but because it contains good executions of ideas that other people have had. Open source doesn't suffer from a lack of innovative ideas, it suffers from an excess of copies of bad ideas.

      • by teg (97890)

        Is every single idea Apple has championed unique and their own? No. But the execution, the productization - and combination - has been very innovative. Look at the iPhone... it changed what many expect of a cell phone, and has revolutionized the space. Today, almost every high end phone is being positioned as an "iPhone killer" and has an interface looking quite a bit like them. The touch screen, the app store, the focus on usability over providing every feature under the sun... it changed the space.

        The

    • by StCredZero (169093) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:44AM (#28504193)

      This is already being done. Many of the most successful FOSS projects have corporate contributors, so this "design conundrum" doesn't really exist.

      That's not how I read it. FOSS projects have corporate contributors as a weapon used to commoditize their rival's products. (IBM versus Sun, to make it impossible to monetize Java) FOSS projects are also funded in order to create commodity complements to company's products. Sell servers? Commoditize software that runs on servers!

      http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/StrategyLetterV.html [joelonsoftware.com]

      There's a problem with this. It reduces FOSS to ammunition. A tactical move. If FOSS can't produce really slick interfaces, then FOSS will always be a lackey of the corporations in order to achieve first-rate success. If the corporations don't like you or can't use you, then you're left out in the bush leagues, the farm teams. Just look at the software out there. Almost every piece of software that gets widespread corporate or consumer traction is being used as a weapon or market driver.

      In fact Apple, like it or not, is a pretty good example of how to monetize FOSS. Can't say I'm thrilled with the methods they employ to achieve that, but it's still a fact that they do achieve it.

      The problem is that it makes FOSS critically dependent on the corporate masters if a particular project wants to be "first-rate." It's as if FOSS is like indy music/film, and the corporations are the music industry, and everyone is trying to get signed. Maybe that's how things should be. But it would be better if we never had to admit, "can't say I'm thrilled," about how our funders are treating our ideals. FOSS needs its equivalent of bittorrent, Pirate Bay, and independent musicians who can give the finger to the big music distributors, yet still turn out first-rate product. Where's our Protools for interfaces? (Actually, the problem is likely cultural and not technological.)

      • I have to disagree with your premise that non-corporate sponsored FOSS lacks "first rate product". While admittedly I am not a typical consumer/end user, I do find that Gnome is just as professional and useful ("first rate") as OS X's Aqua -- and I do switch between the two regularly. When I'm using one there are features I miss from the other, and both definitely have their annoying little bugs and quirks.

        Actually, the problem is likely cultural and not technological.

        Bingo.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by teg (97890)

          I have to disagree with your premise that non-corporate sponsored FOSS lacks "first rate product". While admittedly I am not a typical consumer/end user, I do find that Gnome is just as professional and useful ("first rate") as OS X's Aqua -- and I do switch between the two regularly.

          Gnome is corporately sponsored... Red Hat, Novell and I think even Canonical are contributing resources to GNOME. Read more on the GNOME Foundation pages [gnome.org]

    • by westlake (615356)

      Many of the most successful FOSS projects have corporate contributors, so this "design conundrum" doesn't really exist.

      For "many," I would be strongly tempted to substitute "all."

      Especially for apps which must find anchorage in the needs and values of the non-technical end user.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:53AM (#28503803)

    That many developers feel it is beneath them and gets in the way of them developing. In the commercial space, developers rarely interact with customers in a support role or in UI design. Many would quit before performing this role, but developers in some cases are the only ones who can properly address this.

    In one company I worked for, developers had to eat their own shit in that they were forced into part-time customer support of their code. When your interaction with code begins and ends with the source code control system, you have one view. When you actually are forced to see where the rubber meets the road in your customer, you think much more about the interfaces, the update processes, and the support code and scripts that get working code into working systems.

    In the commercial space much effort and resources is applied in these critically important areas. With the journeyman programmers, this rarely if ever happens.

    • by coryking (104614) * on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:32AM (#28504631) Homepage Journal

      UI design isn't dirt work; it is actually very fun and rewarding. The thing is it is hard to wear both a "UI Design Hat" and a developer hat at the same time. Why? The UI guy in you wants a usable UI and the programmer wants a usable codebase--those two goals are often highly conflicting. Good UI design often requires code that often needs to deal with crazy edge cases, or code that has to turn fuzzy human illogic into clean, elegant programming. If you try to wear both hats, the developer in you will fight the UI guy in you because the UI guy wants you to create a feature that the programmer in you knows will be a messy pain in the ass.

      Once an organization gets large enough, you can have different people wearing the hats. This works great in an environment where there is a communication process for the two to talk to eachother. In the open source world, such communication channels typically donâ(TM)t exist--there is no process that has really been established. You might get UI guys dropping golden nuggets on the project mailing list from time to time, but you donâ(TM)t have the UI guy meeting up with the developers on a daily basis.

      If you want the UI guys to be in on the party, the culture of open source development will have to shift to make use UI guys are not only included in the entire development cycle, but more important--they are seen as equals in the process. If the UI guys says "this design sucks", the developers don't implement it. I dunno if that is part of the culture nor am I sure how or if such a thing could ever be pulled off. UI guys get the props they deserve in paid jobs simply because there is a financial incentive to listen to them. Without that financial incentive, the only incentive to spend your time working on open source is the joy of programming. When you are doing programming for the joy of it, you donâ(TM)t want some UI guy (even if it you) raining on your pretty looking, well designed code :-)

      • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @06:06PM (#28507823) Journal

        The UI guy in you wants a usable UI and the programmer wants a usable codebase--those two goals are often highly conflicting. Good UI design often requires code that often needs to deal with crazy edge cases, or code that has to turn fuzzy human illogic into clean, elegant programming. If you try to wear both hats, the developer in you will fight the UI guy in you because the UI guy wants you to create a feature that the programmer in you knows will be a messy pain in the ass.

        This is very true, and here's a very simple yet pervasive example of this.

        If you want an UI that feels responsive, it should never, ever hang on any operation. Which means that all operations have to be pushed onto background thread/process, with all the synchronization complexity that it entails, and all the safeguards that you have to do to make sure that two conflicting actions aren't being pushed to background and executed at the same time. As an UI designer, you understand that, while the effect may be small and hardly noticeable, it does take away the nagging feeling of annoyance that inevitably comes up when working with blocking UI. But as a developer, you understand that code complexity will increase manyfold.

  • by flyingfsck (986395) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:54AM (#28503805)
    It is only a small part of the Apple Mac software that is non-Free and you could even run Darwin which is Free. The bulk of the software on any Apple Mac is GPL.
    • The bulk of the software on any Apple Mac is GPL.

      Wrong!! The bulk of the Software on OSX is either closed source or under the BSD license not the GPL, which Apple avoids as though it is infected with the Plague. Yes I do know that Apple has contributed to GPL projects, things like webkit but the only time I've seen any contributions to a GPL project is when it benefits Apple by improving Interoperability with Windows, otherwise they prefer the BSD license model as it means they can keep things close to their vest or even stay completely proprietary and n

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by PsychicX (866028)
      Oh, cool! Where's the source to iTunes, Quicktime, iPhoto, any piece of iLife, XCode, Safari, iMovie, iDVD, Aperture, and iWork? I've always wanted to see that and I'm so thrilled that since most of the software on a Mac is GPL, most of that is surely available to me.
    • by nxtw (866177)

      It is only a small part of the Apple Mac software that is non-Free and you could even run Darwin which is Free. The bulk of the software on any Apple Mac is GPL.

      Darwin without the closed soruce bits is just another Unixlike (or UNIX) operating system, and not a particularly good/useful one. Without the closed-source window server and applications, there's really no reason to use Darwin.

  • Window managers (Score:5, Interesting)

    by buchner.johannes (1139593) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:56AM (#28503817) Homepage Journal

    While this might be true for apps -- they change too much to settle on a thought-through UI concept, and new ones are constantly created for the same task by not so experienced UI designers -- I'd like to add that IMHO Linux has the best window managers out there. That is one of the reasons I don't use Windows and would put a Linux distribution on a Mac. Because I need to move and resize windows without finding the borders (e.g. Alt-click or Alt-doubleclick and drag). And I need sane virtual desktops for more screen space and for grouping my windows.
    These are UI features lacking in non-open-source. Granted, it is not something the novice user will miss.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      You don't miss it until you've used it, when i was on (ms) windows i didn't really use windows at all they took too much space for boarders and most used so much space for menubars/toolbars that everything had to be run maximised, now between my moded firefox/kde i regularly have 3 or even 4 windows in use at once.

    • Re:Window managers (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Seth Kriticos (1227934) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:33AM (#28504651)
      Fully agree, and add to it:

      And there is much more, like the middle button select pasting (you laugh once you realise how ineffective copy/pase is).

      I also love the (non default) functions of compiz, like workspace and window overview zoom and application switcher (basically Alt-Tab) mapped to a click on one of the corners of the screen.

      Workplace switcher mapped to a click on the edges of the screen.

      And so on. Seriously, every time I have to sit in front of a Windows machine, my basic productivity drops 95% as everything is so cumbersome, slow and ineffective. Not to mention that it lacks a basic tool-set.
  • I see some Apples, but more often I'm seeing netbooks. It depends on the venue and demographic of the conference; student-heavy get-togethers only have Apples if the students can afford it, and despite Apple's best attempts to offer student discounts, their little white books are still too fuckin' expensive for most of us.

    Of course, I should disclose that I boycott Apple for other reasons. :3

  • KDE is very usable (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:02AM (#28503877)

    I disagree with the premise that FOSS usability is always bad. I'm not a developer, I can't write code, but I use *nix exclusively for my home computers, running KDE. And they are WAY more usable than my windows computers at work. Small things make such a huge difference--with windows, when you move the mouse wheel, the active window scrolls, even if you have 2 open side by side. You have to click on the one you want to scroll. With KDE, the window that your mouse cursor is hovering over scrolls. This is so intuitive it took me a month or so to even notice. I've found all kinds of other small usability tweaks.

    My KDE desktop at home is so much more usable and intuitive than my windows xp box at work that I often work at home just for the pleasure of using KDE.

    • by trybywrench (584843) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:25AM (#28504055)
      this is called "sloppy focus" it's available on windows but you have to download and install the feature. It's the one of the first things i put on new windows installations.
      • Yeah, but here we like things that "just work". I'll keep my Ubuntu, thank you very much.
      • by Locklin (1074657)

        Actually it's a bit different (than sloppy-focus on X11 anyway). Raise a window (say text editor) then move the mouse over another (say web browser). You can continue to type in the text editor because it is active, while scrolling the web browser without stealing focus.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Danny Rathjens (8471)
      It's even worse than that due to inconsistency. In mac/windows, in a program such as a mail client like outlook, the list of mail subjects will scroll when the mouse cursor is in that subwindow and the body of the mail will scroll when the mouse cursor is in that subwindow. So they have click-to-focus between windows and sloppy focus between subwindows. I had a difficult time explaining this to my grandfather.

      I'm also quite unclear on why mac has this reputation for good usability/interface because in
      • by coryking (104614) *

        So they have click-to-focus between windows and sloppy focus between subwindows.

        Like all engineering, it is a tradeoff. I'm sure there have been many of whiteboard meetings to discuss this behavior. If you had sloppy focus between windows, yes it might be consistent, but it could also cause confusion of its own. You've got people like me who will play with the mouse wheel or people who are click/scroll happy and would accidentally alter the state of applications that they are not using "aka out of focus

    • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

      by nurb432 (527695)

      So, i take it you haven't "upgraded" to KDE 4.x yet. :)

      • I run KDE, both the 3.5.* version and the current 4.3.* version. The non-focus scrolling feature was always available on KDE, even in the far gone years of 4.1.*. The KDE migration from 3.5 to 4.0 may have had left a lot of features behind but scrolling focus was never one of them.
      • So, i take it you haven't "upgraded" to KDE 4.x yet. :)

        I take it that you haven't upgraded to KDE 4 either, or you'd know that the functionality described by the GP works just fine in KDE 4.

        Oh, wait, that would mean that you couldn't make a snarky comment about KDE 4. Never mind, then.

    • I agree, either it's carefully crafted FUD or a Windows weeny that just loves every proprietary UI he's accustomed to like TOAD [softpedia.com] and some [buigallery.com] others [mac.com].

      On the other hand I've known quite a few persons that went for the "OMG Ponies" kind of "usability": Look my iPhone's screen tilts when I turn it! and Wohow, MS Surface rocks...

      • Look my iPhone's screen tilts when I turn it!

        Give me one good reason a device shouldn't automatically flip from portrait to landscape based on how it is oriented in your hand. I'd say if the device doesn't know how it is oriented in your hand, the said device is pretty... well.. stupid.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Zerth (26112)

          If your are oriented to gravity in any other direction than feet down, it becomes a huge pain.

          I was trying to use my bbstorm to look up a spec sheet while headfirst in some industrial machinery and it "helpfully" rotated so everything was upside down.

          Fail.

  • M O N E Y !!! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by redelm (54142) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:02AM (#28503879) Homepage
    The reason proprietary projects can be "more innovative" (really more risky) is there is greater [monetary] reward to compensate the risk. Most new products fail, and FOSS doesn't have much margin (compensation is sponsored and time-based).

    That said, the entire Internet was built by FOSS and FOSS-like processes. From ftp and telnet through WWW/mosaic, it was all someone who had an idea and wanted to see if others liked it too.

    For hardware, Apple's can be of higher quality because it is higher priced. It can be higher priced because it is perceived good value -- mostly the interfaces are less botched than their competition.

  • Macs can run Windows, Linux and Mac OS X (duh). The machines themselves are crafted with attention to detail. Versatility in a neat package. What is not to like?

    Bert

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by dave420 (699308)
      The price?
    • by Duradin (1261418)

      Well, apparently, Apple is just "bad" and "evil". Otherwise we should have seen Microsoft mentioned in the blurb as well as other cell phone makers that don't allow people to run whatever the hell they want to.

      Soon we'll be replacing Redmond with Cupertino in all the old Mordor jokes.

  • by mevets (322601) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:12AM (#28503947)

    Commercial applications have long separated the appearance and behavior of the application from the implementation for good reason. The obligatory strained car analogy, I like cars that are quick and responsive, but I don't want one made by an engine designer. No matter how talented the engine designer is, s/he will most likely make a car suitable for engine designers.

    Balancing the viewpoints of "real world users", experts, and various designers is required to do it properly. Are all these sets well represented in the FOSS contributors?

  • by mjeffers (61490) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:12AM (#28503951) Homepage

    First corollary: Every contributor to the project tries to take part in the interface design, regardless of how little they know about the subject. And once you have more than one designer, you get inconsistency, both in vision and in detail. The quality of an interface design is inversely proportional to the number of designers.

    This isn't necessarily true. It's true that great design is typically the result of a unified vision but design focused companies solve this problem by having a lead designer establish guidelines and standards that are then used by the team to create all the bits and pieces. You don't need one person, but you need one person in charge. For an Ubuntu, RedHat or OpenOffice where you have a corporate structure behind you, this level of design quality is achievable and I think they have it now. For a project of volunteers or a team that's widely distributed this has to be much more difficult.

    Second corollary: Even when dedicated interface designers are present, they are not heeded as much as they would be in professional projects, precisely because they're dedicated designers and don't have patches to implement their suggestions.

    Without the ability to write code, designers depend on an organizational structure that recognizes and values good design and will work to make sure that the end result meets the design goals you initially set out. This can fail in a non-OSS project and could succeed in an OSS project but a hobbyist project will probably never have a structure that allows a designer to do great work.

    Another issue that I think isn't addressed here is that OSS projects are typically (necessarily?) started by people who can code. Once you have something running it takes a huge amount of effort to redesign away some of those early design decisions. You'll also forever be in a mindset that views design as window-dressing that gets applied to APIs. I'm not familiar enough with the history of OSS projects but are there examples of projects that started with a design process?

    • by Blakey Rat (99501) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:27AM (#28504599)

      There's a little more to it than that.

      It's not just that the projects are started and nursed along by people who can code, but they're started and nursed along by people who can code and also:
      1) Don't know the purpose of a GUI
      2) Don't understand the value of a GUI

      There are tons of techniques that can be used, even by a programmer, to ensure that their program is more usable than the competition.

      At the most basic level, they can follow all the UI standards of the OS/DE in which they're planning to run-- that one's simple, but it's completely missed by a lot of projects. If your program is running in Windows, and your font isn't rendered with ClearType-- it's a usability bug! Fix it! If you're running in OS X and pressing the down arrow on the bottommost line of text results in a beep instead of moving the insertion point to the end of the line-- it's a usability bug! Fix it! (And a very frequent one, since a lot of OS X programmers come from the Windows world now.) If you're not following all the standards of the OS you're running in, there's your starting point.

      Secondly, every time you code something with a GUI, do a hallway usability test. This consists of grabbing someone walking by in the hall, and asking them to perform whatever task your application is designed to do using the new GUI you just wrote. The less that person knows about programming, the better-- you want normal users, not power users. The point isn't to assign a simple "pass/fail" to the UI, but to get their comments and feedback. Do one of those a day, and you'll hammer out 80% of the usability flaws before the product is even released. (Of course, this involves talking to other human beings, sometimes even *gasp* girls!, so I guess that's why it doesn't get done.)

      Thirdly, understand the GUI. Discoverability, most importantly. Emphasizing the use of spatial memory, which the vast majority of non-geeks are better at than rote memorization. Understand how the basic widgets work, and why they work that way. (When you understand why widgets work the way they do, you'll hopefully have talked yourself out of "just write your own!" Writing a menu or listbox is *hard*. Writing an open dialog is *incredibly hard*.) Be able to answer the counter-intuitive question: "what five places on the screen can the user put the cursor on the quickest?" and learn why Macintosh menus are stuck to the top of the screen. Understand Mac Classic, which got closer than any other GUI to perfection. (IMO, of course. ;)

      There's no reason any programmer can't do these things. They just don't want to. That's a whole different article, though, going way back to the woefully-obsolete "high priesthood of technology" attitude.

      Random examples:

      Just recently Slashdot covered a new open source FPS game. It's main window looks like this: http://schend.net/images/screenshots/alien_arena.png [schend.net] I can't even enumerate the hundreds of things wrong with just that one window. That the developers thought that UI was "good enough" to craft a *release* around... I don't even know how to reply to that.

      Awhile back, I filed a bug against Notepad++ (a highly recommended-to-me text editor for Windows) because their menus didn't work. Their DROP DOWN MENUS. The ones attached to the top of the window. One of the most basic elements of a GUI, one that's been perfected for 20 years, and they don't work!! Again, I have absolutely no words for that.

      • by Blakey Rat (99501) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:31AM (#28504623)

        Damn, one more thing I forgot:

        Know the capabilities of the OS/DE you're running in. I don't use GTK+ apps on Windows, because they don't work with Microsoft's voice recognition or handwriting recognition features. Which is really a shame, because those features work automatically if you use the native widgets. (Heck, they work in Firefox and I'm pretty sure they aren't using native widgets.) It's a huge pain on my tablet.

        Open source projects almost never support drag&drop, but drag&drop has been around long enough that it should just be expected to work. (Kudos to the open source projects that get this right, BTW.)

    • I'm not familiar enough with the history of OSS projects but are there examples of projects that started with a design process?

      If you broaden the scope beyond "end-user software" and dive into things like protocols you might find some things. Usability doesn't just apply to the GUI--it helps when you have a well designed protocol or file format. Is EXT3 well designed? What about the FreeBSD ports tree--did that start with code or with design?

  • by delire (809063) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:16AM (#28503997)
    While I haven't seen Apple laptops comprise a great proportion of machines at the FOSS conferences I've been to here in Europe, those I have seen are often running something other than OSX (if stickers and/or a peek at their WM is anything to go by). It's not so unimaginable that someone might choose to run something other than OSX on a Macbook especially if they have little need for proprietary software and prefer an OS tailored to their needs (or just don't like the design and feel of OSX altogether - some don't).

    Regardless, in the last couple of years I've seen a lot of X and T series Thinkpads but moreso netbooks at hacker and FLOSS meetings in the EU. I hear from friends that the build quality of their MacBooks is a bit disappointing. Perhaps this is a reason, among others.
  • many companies, large and small benefit directly from open source.

    Those companies making significant profits could be asked to contribute to a central pool, a non profit or mutual benefit co. - that hires small teams to make useful open source tools more polished, secure, and user friendly.

    everyone wins.

    • by williamhb (758070)

      Those companies making significant profits could be asked to contribute to a central pool, a non profit or mutual benefit co. - that hires small teams to make useful open source tools more polished, secure, and user friendly.

      I suspect most open source foundations already are politely asking those companies. And in the open source world, since we can do little more than politely ask, I suspect we've got all we're getting.

  • by YokoZar (1232202) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:31AM (#28504119)
    Why link to the outdated version of Mathew Paul Thomas' article when he wrote a much newer one here: http://mpt.net.nz/archive/2008/08/01/free-software-usability [mpt.net.nz] Appropriately, it's titled: Why Free Software has poor usability, and how to improve it
  • Most attempts to make software easier to use fail because the developers try to wrap their minds around the "stupid" users instead of concentrating on the damn code and doing things properly.

    If a system is so well designed that I can jump right into the middle of a startup script and instantly understand it without tracing obscure dependencies, then it's user-friendly for me. And I speculate that the cleaner the basis is, the easier it is to put a GUI on top of it without obscuring things.

    See sig.

  • The useability problems with Linux comes from several areas. One is the lack of hardware support which results from the lack of a stable binary driver ABI between versions. This is basically a great disincentive for hardware manufacturers to not support linux and providing a driver. The open source drivers are often late, becoming avialable months of years after the hardware was released, buggy and does not support many hardware features. Vendors tend to carry out a lot of testing on the drivers which they

    • by serviscope_minor (664417) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:40AM (#28504729) Journal

      stable kernel ABI

      Oh, this old, tired and debunked canard again. Now your blaming poor quality drivers on it? Are you trying to claim that Windows for instance has nothing but excellently written, high quality drivers? Pure OSS drivers have many advantages, such as working for ages, supporting all features of the hardware and so on. If yu purchase with care you will have no trouble under Linux. If you fail to do so you will have trouble on any system.

      Proprietary progeams needing 15 versions

      If the proprietary application comes with all the .so's it needs, or statically linked, then it will work on any distro. I have several proprietary applications and they all run just fine on Arch, with no effort. If you are not able to successfully ship such programs, then I suggest you employ someone who knows how to do it. See, for example Matlab, Skype, World of Goo and so on.

      Package managers are bad

      So, if package managers don't support proprietary code, then what are proprietary thing doing in the repositories of Ubuntu, SuSE, Arch and etc...? The Linux package managers are the best out there. Nothing even comes close in reliability and ease of use.

      As for the arrogance, have you ever paid anyone to maintain packages for you? If not it seems somewhat arrogant to think they should care what you want.

      DLLs
      WTF? That's why DLLs are versioned on unix. If you're overwriting DLLs, then someone has fouled up.

      The self protecting idea is nice, though. You can probably do it with chroot.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Package managers are dreadful.

        They picked one of the most stupid idea to ever come out of Redmond, installers, and made it worse by having different types or versions for each and every distribution *and* completely centralizing the process.

        I feel sorry every time I think about it. The first and last thing the bazaar guys did when it came to installing applications was to design the most cathedral process they could come up with, only recently beaten by Apple with the iPhone app store's vetting process :-((

  • Mac No - iPhone Yes (Score:3, Interesting)

    by calc (1463) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:23AM (#28504553)

    I would never buy a Mac especially not with all the reliability problems they have and mis-features like locking the SATA port to SATA 1 speed, disabling 802.11n on the older ones and requiring people pay to get the feature, etc. On top of that I would never run MacOS X, as I am a Linux developer, so why pay more (the Apple tax) for less hardware. I personally own a ThinkPad X200 which is much better and cheaper than anything I have seen from Apple.

    As far as open phones go, there is really not much choice on that front. There is Openmoko which doesn't even have Edge/3G support or the T-Mobile G1 Android phone. It also looks like openmoko is dying off and they have canceled their phones planned to have Edge/3G support. Android looks promising but the phone still needs a lot more work and/or there needs to be more than one of them available. More Android phones should be available later this summer so perhaps it will gain more marketshare. So I am not surprised at all that currently people at open-source conferences are using iPhones. I recently bought one for myself after sitting on the fence about whether to continue to wait until a nicer Android phone became available. Hopefully in 2 years once my at&t contract finally runs out there will be much better Android phones available. With respect to at&t they are planning on releasing an Android phone as well but with crippled resolution only 320x240.

  • by gtall (79522) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:25AM (#28504573)

    One axis I've not seen discussed is that most developers are using textual languages. Most mathematics is essentially text based, not diagram based. One uses diagrams for intuition, but when the formal derivation or program must be done, it is done in text.

    The problem then becomes that the concepts expressed in the software are most easily explained in terms of text, not diagrams. Guis are diagrams. Consider, just for a mental exercise, any of the unix shells and their languages. Most developers have no problems. Most users would rather gnaw off their right arm than go through learning a shell language and then relearn in it 6 months when they must use it again.

    So, let's see what it takes to produce a gui for it. Apple used to have a system called MPW. You could hilite a command and call up its Commando interface. The commands themselves were rather textual and unixy, but the interface allowed you to click radio buttons, use pulldown menus, etc. to construct a command. The command constructed as text and shown in an editable window at the bottom of the dialog box for the Commando interface of the command. You could run the command right there or copy the text and run it in another window. That sounds about the right level.

    Now we must think about piping. There was a language called Prograph, but now called Marten. It is an object orientied data flow language. It is a diagrammatic language and one draws lines to 'pipe' objects from one command to another, with some special lines for control ordering. There are mechanisms for recursion and the usual range of program construction artifacts.

    One could combine the two, Marten and Command and successfully guitate unix shell languages (I'm sure there are other concepts that would need to gui equivalents for those languages). Now think about the amount of work necessary to do this. The point is that guis take an extraordinary amount of time and effort, and most of the skills are not the headless (non-gui) development most developers are familiar with and it is a paradigm directly at odds with their programming languages.

    I see no entity within the FOSS community that could do such kinds of design and get it stick so that it becomes the faces of the OS or the applications for casual users who might wear an occasional python boot (think Frank Zappa). OpenOffice isn't an example, it is the usual retarded word processor editor that Microsoft pushes with the usual result that people would rather use Office since OpenOffice isn't buying them anything in which they are interested.

  • ... making open source software work on closed hardware from non-cooperating manufacturers. If the manufacturers would open their hardware interface documentation, and avoid making all those little changes every month just for the sake of change, and deliver a stable platform (new major versions every couple years, with all documentation ahead of time) ... then all software can focus more on usability instead of battling with the hardware. And this includes YOU ... Broadcom.

    • by cdrguru (88047)

      The basic problem with hardware documentation comes from the hardware manufacturer's need to get paid. If everyone would just work for free, this problem would evaporate. Unfortunately, what happens is the hardware itself is pretty much a commodity - chips are chips. Lots of application notes from the chip manufacturers that say how to build a device that does X. The problem is, you need a driver and firmware to make X really do its job.

      So anybody in China can produce the hardware for a tenth of the pri

  • by speedtux (1307149) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:42AM (#28504759)

    Walk the halls of any open-source conference and you'll see a large percentage of attendees with ironically non-open-source Apple laptops and iPhones

    There are many "open source" developers. It wouldn't surprise me if Java or PHP developers use a lot of Macs. But what does that actually show? Just because people use or develop open source in one niche doesn't mean that they need to use open source for everything. And their reasons are probably the usual ones: Microsoft compatibility, appeal of Mac hardware, what they are used to, ... It does not show that Macs are easier to use than modern Linux desktops.

    Open-source projects have tended to be great commoditizers, but not necessarily the best innovators

    Really? Many innovations have first become available in open source form before companies like Microsoft and Apple finally managed to ship them as part of their commercial software. And what actual innovations have Microsoft or Apple actually created? I mean, much of Apple's platform is based on open source software.

    I think the real reason it seems like Apple and Microsoft innovate so much is... because they spend billions of dollars to create that illusion.

  • Free software usability doesn't tend to suck. Software usability in general tends to suck - but free software doesn't suck any worse than any other sort.

  • The whole premise that better usability will come out of getting usability designers involved in the free software development process is fundamentally misguided. It's really easy to get such feedback for most open source software. Just look at the forums and mailing list of people using the software, and it's trivial to find out exactly what are the confusing parts and what really needs to be improved. As for motivating improvements, most developers working on open-source software want their software to

  • Without an IBM, Red Hat, or Mozilla bringing cash and discipline to an open-source project, including paying people to do the 'dirt work' that no one would otherwise do, can open source hope to thrive?"

    Maybe not to the degree it has... Linux has certainly greatly benefited from the commercial distros and supporters (e.g. IBM) that have committed cash to adding polish and filling gaps. Unfortunately of course there's only so much they can do - they can commit manpower and technology to individual projects of

  • Many many many years ago I installed Mandrake on a desktop PC with two CD drives (one was a reader and one was a reader/writer). I was installing it from the reader because it was a lot faster.

    During the install process, it asked for the second CD. Helpfully it also ejected the CD drive, except that it ejected the reader/writer - the one I wasn't using. So I put CD 2 in there, closed it and it reported that there was a problem with my CD and it couldn't install the operating system and applications.

    So I go

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