A FOSS manifesto: We don't need no stinkin' users!

They make it so easy! Just when I think I've run out of story ideas for lampooning the FOSS movement, along comes some idiot with a taste for shoe leather to reenergize my rant engine. This time around it's Jason Harris, a developer in the KDE community. Mr. Harris' beef is with users: He thinks KDE doesn't need any. In fact, if you're not contributing something to KDE -- code, bug reports, man pages -- he could

They make it so easy! Just when I think I've run out of story ideas for lampooning the FOSS movement, along comes some idiot with a taste for shoe leather to reenergize my rant engine.

This time around it's Jason Harris, a developer in the KDE community. Mr. Harris' beef is with users: He thinks KDE doesn't need any. In fact, if you're not contributing something to KDE -- code, bug reports, man pages -- he could care less whether or not you use KDE. And if you complain about KDE -- its bugs, features, or development direction -- you're lumped in with the "poisonous minority" who "gnash their teeth."

To people like Mr. Harris, creating FOSS isn't a means to an end -- it is the end. The cycle of code/debug/test/code-some-more is perpetual. It's why projects like WINE take over a decade to complete. And it's why Linux continues to flop on the desktop.

When developers stop caring about end-users -- or worse still, begin to think of them as an unwelcome annoyance -- a platform is doomed.

Witness the KDE 4 debacle, a classic case of developers losing touch with their user base. What the community wanted was a better KDE 3.5. What they got was a completely new windowing system with all sorts of bizarro abstract UI concepts and lots of missing functionality ("What do you mean I can't resize the windows?").

KDE's faithful argue that there are good reasons for the changes -- that the lazy, freeloading users should just shut up and let the developers work. Never mind that initial KDE 4 builds left even veteran users baffled. The development team knows best. Noncontributors should keep their "poisonous" rants to themselves.

The irony here is that KDE 4 actually incorporates some interesting ideas. The attempt to shift away from the traditional disk/folder/file hierarchy is laudable, and the rich filtering features -- though buggy -- show real potential. Even the new UI's name -- "Plasma" -- is cool (though I'm still not sold on the whole "Plasmoid" nomenclature).

Unfortunately, it looks like KDE 4 is falling victim to the same phenomenon that undermines virtually all FOSS projects: A group of developers loses touch with their users and mistake the journey (writing the code) for the destination (actually releasing something useful).

Say what you will about the evils of commercial software development, but at least we have a tangible goal in mind from day one: Ship something! And, preferably, something users will actually want/buy!

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