Why FOSS is still so unusable

A community insider laments the poor state of FOSS usability while ignoring the real culprit behind all those ugly Linux apps

I love lampooning the FOSS community. These self-righteous cyber-hippies are almost always good for a blog entry or two per month. And because many of them can’t resist airing their own community's dirty laundry, I have no shortage of story ideas to choose from.

This time around, it's Matthew Paul Thomas -- a long-time critic of FOSS user interfaces in general, and Linux in particular - lamenting the lack of usability in FOSS projects. In his blog, Mr. Thomas lays out his 15 reasons why FOSS projects end up looking and working like crap, with poorly designed and/or confusing UIs that too often feel like cheap knock-offs of commercial products.

Some of the issues he cites are social in nature. Many FOSS developers are simply lazy, ignoring feedback and leaving minor glitches uncorrected for years. Others resist change, or worse still, pass the buck by inviting those making the suggestions to "patch it themselves" (the classic FOSS "source code shuffle"). And still others try to appease everyone by rolling in every requested feature or contribution until the project collapses under its own weight.

Other issues are systemic. Popular FOSS projects often breed the kind of "too many cooks in the kitchen" interfaces that baffle seasoned UI designers. Many times, a FOSS developer will dodge the issue of proper UI function by simply dumping parameters into an endless series of configuration dialogs and properties pages, with no thought as to how these options are organized or related to one another. This sort of haphazard UI sprawl is often exacerbated by the FOSS "release early, release often" mantra, with poor design choices early in the development process carried forward because nobody wants to waste time going back to fix the things that work poorly yet aren't technically broken.

Of course, the irony here is that Mr. Thomas' post is actually a follow-up to a similar diatribe he published six years ago. In his current missive he seems concerned by how many of the same issues that plagued the Linux/FOSS environment at the turn of the century still persist in today's more "polished" distributions. And although he makes some insightful suggestions on how the FOSS community can address each of his 15 reasons, he fails to acknowledge the biggest culprit of them all:

Arrogance.

As I noted in an earlier post, many FOSS developers don't try to make their products more usable or accessible because, frankly, they don't care if anyone ever uses them. To them, FOSS is all about the journey –- producing a finished deliverable, or even having a concrete goal for a project, is optional. In fact, if you don't have something to contribute to the project, they'd rather you simply disappeared and left them alone to continue on their endless quest to write even more pointless code.

So in the end, it's not the community as a whole that's the problem. It's the purists, the zealots, the anarchist Stallman-wannabes that sink the FOSS boat. And without some unifying force to rein in the crazies and get the rest of the community on the same page –- UI and otherwise –- it's hard to see how the FOSS movement will ever deliver anything of lasting value to the larger IT community.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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