Open-Source Software Still Short on Friendliness


Some Developers Refuse to Upgrade OSS Usability

Open-source software still tends to be relatively hostile to most users. OSS is generally top notch in many ways, and I like being able to report bugs and suggest features in places where developers will see what I post. Some of what I’ve posted has been accepted; some not, and sometimes for good reason.

But a problem I keep running into is that some users and managers think the less-skilled among us should just stop using the software, and that we shouldn’t say what’s in need of improving. I don’t want to get rid of any of its efficiencies or power, but friendliness should be added into the software. For example:

— Being able to use the Linux/*BSD operating system root account with a graphical user interface (GUI or gooey) would save many of us a lot of time for system administration. It requires responsibility, but people for one *BSD-based distribution turned off the ability altogether and, until recently, refused to disclose how to turn it back on. Some people prefer the command-line interface (CLI), which is faster if you use it often, but which is slower if you have to learn it each time in order to use it only on rare occasions. I already know how to find programs, menus, commands, and options in the GUI. If I need the CLI, it may be an emergency, and, being usually a single-machine user, I may have lost Internet access, so needing to use the CLI limits my ability to relearn what commands and expected results are available.

— A mail client can be used to archive online emails offline and keep them immune from synchronization and deletion. However, doing so requires some kludgy steps, because they say I should buy someone else’s archiver and this client doesn’t do it. But the client did it for me, for free, when I hacked around without modifying any of the client software. So simply telling people how to archive emails with this client would be a help, but community leaders aren’t willing to.

— A browser that does not have an ad blocker built in (and I did not install an add-on ad blocker) nonetheless blocks some advertisements, and then some websites refuse to expose content because I’m supposedly blocking ads. I had no idea how to fix that. It turns out that the browser has tracking protection and many ads have tracking built in, so the effect is like that of an ad blocker for those ads. I suggested that the browser tell us that tracking protection sometimes doubles as an ad blocker. The browser people’s response was no, there’s no need for the browser’s help system to tell us, and that instead I should tell every website that objects to change their message. I, of course, won’t see most websites that block most visitors using this browser, and having to tell each one is far more time-consuming than fixing the browser’s help.

I’ve been told that only RFC noncompliance will be fixed, which means usability won’t be. I’ve been told that I want other people to teach me everything, and I said, no, I want to apply the knowledge I already have and fix whatever problem is in front of me.

There are more, but you might feel like I do and I don’t want you to pull your hair out.

These programs are still superior to most closed-source programs, such as Microsoft’s operating systems. And the existing capabilities should be kept. Examples:

— Using an operating system through its command-line interface is good for people who benefit from the CLI’s speed.

— The mail client can still do everything it’s meant to do.

— The browser can still have tracking protection.

And, no doubt, there are not enough developers to do everything that are good ideas. Critical changes have to come first, like closing security holes. Priorities have to be set. The process is well-known; it’s triage. But that means merely deprioritizing the noncritical changes, not erasing or preventing their mention or refusing them permanently. And it means encoouraging more developers to offer their skills. That can be helped.

Clearly, most of these programs are being promoted for wider adoption and wider use by wider audiences, even lay users. Their websites are designed as welcoming downloading, use, and other ways of participating. They want more of us. If more of us are users, more of us are likely to help develop improvements.

I understand the ownership glee that comes from being one of the select few who understands something. That has an economic benefit; if it looks too complicated for anyone else, maybe there’ll be more jobs. But I’m in no position to go around hiring people because I want to change a setting in my operating system. And that’s not how the program was designed. None of these come with a password that I have to get someone else to enter. They’re meant for me to use, all by myself.

The communities that support various OSS programs should embrace user-friendliness as a strategy for growing the programs themselves. That’s already the historical trend; early versions of Linux were severely user-hostile, back when an entire Linux distribution fit on a floppy (like Hal91). By increasing adoption and use of OSS programs and hence recruitment of programmers, the growth in the software would be in both popular usefulness and in technical excellence. We need that.