Is free software too good?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 15, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I never thought I'd say this, but maybe free software and hardware would be more widely adopted if their standards were lower.

This thought occurred to me as I read Keyboardio's blog. Keyboardio, if you don't already know, is an open hardware company that is building what has to be the ultimate keyboard. It's ergonomic, the mechanical keys and their backlighting are fully programmable, and almost two-thirds of the keys are individually sculpted. The whole is mounted on two slabs of maple, resulting in one of the most beautiful pieces of computer hardware ever. In short, Keyboardio's keyboards are an act of love, created by two perfectionists who are clearly determined to see their vision realized in every detail.

If you hang around free-licensed projects, you may have met similar people many times. So probably, you have no trouble imagining their reaction when they started receiving comments from the marketing departments of manufacturers:

"Wow! Your keyboard is beautiful. The wood is just for the prototype, right? What would you think of switching to a nice white plastic? LEDs on every key? How about just a few LEDs and some light piping? Wait. You want to do custom keycaps? You know that costs money, right? And a programmable microcontroller? Oh, you’ll be providing the firmware for the microcontroller? That’s all right then."

Happily, for those of us who pre-ordered the keyboard, Keyboardio has held its ground. However, the blog started me thinking.

Good Enough
The last decade has been the era of good enough computing. Instead of buying workstations with specs that they would never use, average users have been steered towards phones, netbooks, and tablets. By the standards of workstations and high-end laptops, these devices have low-speed CPUs and limited RAM, to say nothing of screens too small for anything but the lightest of work.

Yet such inadequacies are irrelevant. If your computing consists of texting and dropping by Twitter and Facebook, you are unlikely to even notice the hardware specs on mobile devices. In fact, hardware specs for mobile devices are so irrelevant to most users that, when you shop online, you have to drill own several levels to find them -- and, even then, they are likely to be annoyingly incomplete.

The same good-enough philosophy prevails in software, regardless of the hardware. Eight years ago, I described comparing Google Apps to as being "like clubbing a staked-out bunny — Google Apps is so far behind that the whole exercise seems like an exercise in pointless cruelty."Since then, Google Apps has improved, but the description remains as true -- and, to the average user, as irrelevant -- as ever. The main difference now is that the excuse that online services or mobile apps are new and will improve is no longer credible. So far as I am aware, none of them are much more than an advanced text editor -- nor does anyone care.

Yet the office apps look advanced compared to the vast majority of online apps. The apps in the Google Play store that are not so basic as to be useless are so cluttered with ads that you might think you had somehow blundered on to a Windows laptop with its collection of useless third-party clutterware.

Such good-enough results might be defended as sensible marketing decisions, just as replacing solid maple with plastic or reducing the options might be defended in the case of Keyboardio.  The only trouble is, such an attitude is about as far away from the dominant outlook in free software and hardware as can be imagined. I have frequently seen poorly designed free software -- partly because I often install alpha and beta releases -- but what I have almost never seen is a deliberately poorly designed app. Often the interface has been lacking, but the functionality has always been there, and, in many cases, the interface eventually catches up.

The average free software (free hardware still being too new for trends to be obvious) has always had the same obsessive-compulsive drive to perfection that was so common in the 19th Century. Just as Charles Darwin was obsessed with establishing the case for evolution beyond any doubt, or Richard Francis Burton sought to write the definitive book on swords, so the developers of Krita or the GNOME Shell have always done their best to be be as thorough and complete as they could.

The same perfectionism also explains why so many pieces of free software include plugins or extensions -- needs vary, and change with time, and free software users and developers are unwilling to wait until new features are fully incorporated into the code. Perfectionism, you might say, has made free software what it is, and, personally, it is one of the traits I admire most in its developers as they satisfy their own sense of fitness to make sure that their code is the best it can be. It is free software's freedom of economic constraints such as the cheapness of plastic compared to hard wood, allows developers to concentrate on excellence.

Unfortunately, though, the good-enough philosophy has no place for excellence. When users are conditioned to settle for something that sort of works, you cannot persuade them that excellence is worth having. You would have a better chance of convincing someone who eats at McDonalds five times a week to try fine-dining. Their standards have been so systematically bastardized that they are unable to perceive excellence when it is pointed out to them, much less care about it.

Consequently, free software and hardware cannot compete. Their main attraction is no longer relevant in the marketplace.

A Targeted Appeal
I am not suggesting that the developers of free software and hardware should lower their standards and do sloppy work. I can think of nothing that would be more insulting to the developers I know. Few, if any, would even consider the idea.

However, I am suggesting that, in the present atmosphere, trying to entice the average user is largely a waste of time. In the past, free-licensed hardware has always appealed most to developers and sysadmins -- those who have the knowledge to appreciate its high standards -- and that is exactly the same appeal with which open source should continue to be marketed in the future.

The result will be a continue slow rate of acceptance, and disappointing to those who take the idea of world domination seriously. Still, there are worst things that offering excellence to an audience that can appreciate it -- things like losing your personal integrity by releasing code or computer parts that are less than your best.

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