7 Truths that Open Source Struggles With

Tuesday Jan 19th 2016 by Bruce Byfield
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Open source has performed miracles, but it still needs to face up to a few ongoing struggles.

Open source development has consistently proved many ideas that were once considered impossible. For instance, thanks to open source, we now know that people can be motivated by more than money, and that co-operation can be more effective in some aspects of development than competition.

Personally, I get a lot of self-satisfied glee each time that open source undermines yet another “fact” that everyone knows.

However, just because open source has consistently confounded common expectations does not mean that it is always right. There are at least seven assumptions that many in open source continue to believe, often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary:

7.Usability is a Matter of Base Assumptions

When you start to study usability, the tone of academic studies can deceive you into thinking that interface design is a matter of objective principals. Apply the principals, the belief goes, and any interface you design will be effective.

However, design is not so simple. For one thing, usability experiments generally involve far too few people to be representative of anything. Even more important, the success of a design is only as good as the assumptions that you start with.

For example, if you start with the assumption that most users only have one window open at a time, your interface is likely to be awkward for those who regularly open multiple windows. Yet, unless you realize that GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) is as true for design as programming, you can easily assume that the single-window design must be best, because it is based on established principles.

6. Simplicity Isn't Always Efficiency

When GNOME 3.0 was released, promotional material emphasized its lack of clutter. The lack of clutter was supposed to allow users to focus, creating "the best possible computing experience."

Unfortunately, the lack of clutter translated as no applets on the panel, and no icons on the desktop. The protest was massive, and over the next few releases, GNOME gradually relaxed its basic design principles to permit a bit of clutter.

By contrast, the painter application Krita clutters its editing window with as many features as possible so that they are always available. The result can feel like you have been seated in the cockpit of a jet, yet once users learn the features, many prefer Krita to GIMP, which by comparison hides many of its features.

5. Users' First Priority Is Customization

The users of other operating systems may have other priorities. However, the recent history of the Linux desktop suggests that its users value the ability to do things their way more than anything else.

During 2008-2012, GNOME, Ubuntu, and Unity all introduced desktop environments that offered limited customization. The results? GNOME received massive complaints and lost users, and Unity took several years to even start to become available as an option in non-Ubuntu distributions. As for KDE, it only survived by restoring the accustomed customization over several releases.

Meanwhile, Linux Mint introduced two new desktops: MATE, a fork of the highly customizable GNOME 2, and Cinnamon, an entirely new desktop that uses GNOME technology. The odds of two new desktops becoming popular ten years after GNOME, KDE, and Xfce first appeared seemed unlikely, yet Linux Mint thrived --largely because it consults users and most of the new features in each release give users additional choices.

4. Documentation Is Part of the Development Process

Like programmers in general, open source developers generally ignore documentation. Although the importance of documentation is often stressed in recent years, few projects make technical writers part of the development team, or take the time to ensure that documentation is complete before a release. Even in projects that pay attention to documentation, such as LibreOffice, technical writers often work in a sub-project that has limited interaction with developers and is frequently a release or two behind the software.

3. Security Depends on Settings, Not Just the Operating System

Users like to boast that Linux is more secure than Windows. And it is true that, like most UNIX-like systems, Linux is built for security, mainly because it was designed as a multi-user system.

However, whether recent versions of Windows are as insecure as earlier ones is uncertain -- although, from long habit, Windows users do tend to have unsecure habits, such as running administrator accounts all the time.

But, more to the point, distributions can relax security. Today's average distribution is almost certainly more relaxed than those of 1999, which often did not even allow regular accounts to auto mount external devices.

Moreover, if you want to see just how wide open a Unix-like system can be, take a look at the average Android phone or tablet's default settings. You can secure them, but the process takes hours, and requires that they be rooted if you want to do a thorough job. Yet many Linux users continue to call such self-evident facts FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, or misinformation).

2. Open Source Meritocracy is Broken

Open Source prides itself on being a meritocracy that judges people entirely on what they do. That is a fine aspiration, and once or twice I have even seen it apparently being realized.

However, like any ideal, the concept of meritocracy can be used to conceal the exact same behaviors it is supposed to prevent, such as favoritism, bias, or centralization of power. After all, if a person is supposed to owe their influence solely to their accomplishments and contributions, they can easily claim to be unaffected by other motivations.

1. Diversity Is Inevitable.

Ever since LinuxChix was founded in 1999, open source has been known to be infected by systematic sexism, with a low rate of participation by women. In 2006, the FLOSSpols surveys suggested that open source consisted of less than 2% women, far less than in proprietary developments. More recently, the number of women involved in open source appears to be slowly increasing, with dozens of groups such as Outreachy working to improve their number.

This obvious fact has been explained away as a matter of choice, or of women's alleged lack of interest in computing science. Eric S. Raymond has blamed expressions of concern as an effort by so-called Social Justice Warriors or SJWs to undermine the perfect meritocracy of open source, but this explanation only provides evidence that the bias is institutional, rather than personal.

The fact is, the composition of open source projects is changing. They are no longer the preserve of white men, and this trend is only likely to continue.

Up the Nile to Sudan

Some of these assertions are likely to produce heated denials. However, all of them should be self-evident to anyone who takes the trouble to look around and observe what is happening. You may or may not approve of all of them, but they are real regardless.

The only real question is: When is open source going to accept them?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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