The Reviewers' Perspective

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 30, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

This may be one of my blinding flashes of the obvious, but it occurs to me that I look at new applications from two perspectives. The first is that of any other user, looking for whether I might want to use the application. But the second is that of a potential reviewer -- that is, from the viewpoint of looking for a possible topic for an article that will intrigue me as I write. It suddenly occurs to me that these two perspectives are incompatible, and that the second one may influence my reviews too strongly.

This is a disturbing possibility, because I have always seen myself as holding reasonably balanced views. I am neither a technophile nor a technophobe, embracing or avoiding new technologies simply because they are new. Instead, I see myself as balanced somewhere between these two extremes, neither automatically assuming that something new is part of a Satanic Conspiracy, or that every innovation holds the key to technical paradise. In my self-regarding eye, I am someone willing to be persuaded to use something new, if only an argument based on technical merit and software freedom can be assembled to support it.

(This, I suspect, may be part of my wish to be neither one of those middle-aged people who desperately try to look, act, and sound young, much to the embarrassment of their genuinely young relatives, nor the kind who condemn everything that didn't exist when they came of age. But that is another topic).

Nor, with this attitude, do I have strong loyalty to particular applications, which probably makes me a troublemaker to marketers. For instance, having used a dozen word processors, both proprietary and free, I now have no loyalty to any particular one, so long as it has a free license. I know enough to be reasonably confident that certain basic features will be available in any word processor that has reached its first general release, even though I may have to search for some of them.

If I use and write about, it is not because I am blindly loyal to it, but because it has the largest feature list. Were another office suite to emerge with an equally long feature list but less bloat, I would happily use transfer to it without a backward glance, even though writing about has been important to me in my writing career.

(Another digression: This attitude is why I am bemused by some users' preference for KDE 3 over KDE 4. They may be right that the KDE 3 series has some advantages -- although possibly fewer than they claim -- and, at any rate, I appreciate having another choice around. But I can't imagine having such loyalty to any particular software version, no matter what its excellences. The software just isn't as important to me as the tools to get done what I regularly need to do.).

The Reviewer's perspective

Yet, despite such attitudes, I seem to have slipped into partiality because I am a reviewer. Since I don't consider myself a hack (I may call myself that, but you had better be a very good friend indeed if you use that word about me), I don't just write for the money. I write about topics that interest me.

Moreover, I am not content simply to list features until I reach the necessary number of words. If time and content allow, I want to find what screenwriter William Goldman calls the spine of the story -- the unifying theme that gives structure and meaning to the article. Unless the writer discovers this spin, a review will always seem directionless and dull.

The search for the spine helps explains why I have found recent releases of GNOME almost impossible to cover, and sometimes skipped them altogether -- despite my best efforts, the releases often seemed a random set of improvements that did not add up to anything larger than themselves.

Conversely, the strong, obvious spine of the early KDE 4 releases -- change -- made them a delight to write about. Stories about them may not have written themselves, but they did structure themselves, which is ninety percent of a writer's struggle to produce copy. Now, as the pace of development seems to be slowing, KDE releases seem harder to write about.

But, while the pace was rapid, KDE 4 offered all sorts of unique items that made me happy to write about it. Easily swapped collections of icons? Hot spots on the edges of desktops? Running multiple applications in the same window? These and others were all strong, unique items that were easy to be enthusiastic about, because they made my life as a reviewer easy.

Yet, when I compare what I enthused over as a reviewer to what I actually used in my everyday work, the disconnect was obvious. While I liked the idea of exchangeable icon sets, I rarely used the ones I had, having long ago figured out a general set that worked reasonably well for me in all circumstances. I set hot spots, but I kept rediscovering them by surprise when I moved a window too close to the edge, having quickly forgot that I set them. And while moving all relevant programs to the same tab seems a great idea in theory, in practice I have only done so to experiment, not for my convenience while working.

The same thing happens when I explore different desktops. From a reviewer's perspective, they may be a delight -- so much so that, at times, I have announced that I would switch to them immediately. But when I actually tried to switch, not so much.

Apparently, despite my self-perception, I have become a kind of technophile after all. The only difference is, I am not drawn to new technology in the abstract, but to the new details of technology that can help to unify a review.

That does not mean that my articles based on a reviewers' perspective are completely invalid. KDE 4 remains a series of daring experiments, even if I have yet to incorporate many of them into my regular work flow. But it does mean that I will be watching for the reviewer perspective more carefully as I write, to ensure that I am not drawing conclusions from too narrow or specialized a perspective.


  • Translation

    Hello. I would like to translate the text "You Say Linux, I Say GNU/Linux" in french. What is the license? Or can you give me the authorization for this translation? I want to publish it on my blog (, no commercial use.
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