16 June, 2010

Flameworthy LinuxTag Notes

As I kind of promised in my previous blog - here some notes from LinuxTag, worked out in an opinion :D. Now this blog is different from my usual ones. While I do write about strategical stuff, I try to stay away from controversial things. Not this time, sorry.

KDE in the early days
At LT I spoke with quite a few interesting people, including Georg Greve (the dot will feature an interview with him soon) and Matthias Ettrich (who started this whole KDE thing). The latter had a fairly interesting opinion about his 'kid'. After we started talking about stuff not for this blog (mostly politics and economics) we came on the topic of why he started the KDE project.

Basically, it was to give the common user access to the freedom and power of a better platform (Unix/linux). When Gnome started he was fine with that as some in the KDE community moved over there and added a whole bunch of features he didn't want in KDE anyway. But at some point, Gnome and KDE started a feature race - which was lost by Gnome, so they re-focussed themselves on user experience with help from Sun. Basically, Gnome 2.0 was what Matthias had envisioned for KDE in terms of user experience. He decided things didn't go his way, and instead of fighting or following the new direction he stepped out and started working on Qt.

KDE now
Since then, a lot has changed. That doesn't include the difference in focus between Gnome and KDE - Matthias complained Gnome builds a great user experience on inferior technology, KDE creates super technology while not doing enough on usability. He's not wrong.

So KDE has created a very open culture which results in innovation, experimentation and new technology. The user experience, while more of a focus than in the KDE 3.x times, imho still ain't what it needs to be, might never be the way we currently work. At least, the finishing touch is boring and hard to do in such an open meritocracy.

How to create usable software
You'd need a strongly design-driven development for a finished, consistent experience, were developers follow a common vision laid out by a few brilliant designers. And follow through on the boring stuff. This simply doesn't fit how we work - developers decide on what happens to their applications and what they spend their free time on. So different applications have different ways of solving certain issues (like with the + hover button on folders). This leads to innovation, and in time to better solutions - but while these are fleshed out (and there is always SOMETHING going on) it makes the whole set of apps less consistent, less stable, less usable.

Another issue is the large influence users have on how we work. Yes, that's right, I'm blaming active users here for unusable software. Many of our vocal users are powerusers and demand features easily accessible which only 1% of the world needs. And we cater to them, which often leads to a more bloathed piece of software. Especially removing functionality often leads to a big flamewar. Gnome simply ignores those who don't agree with the vision they have, and the end result is at least more consistent.

The last mile
Many in our community hoped the distributions or other commercial parties would be able to pick up where we left, and finish that last mile. They didn't - well, they tried, but every distribution which successfully did so either didn't contribute upstream (xandros) or went belly-up, was bought or had to change focus (mandrake/mandriva, suse). Ubuntu does the last mile for Gnome but Kubuntu lacks resources to do it for us.

What do we do?
Now we could start some top-down effort and force these things. Kill innovation, chase away a large proportion of our brilliant developers, having less fun. Please let's not. KDE, as it is, is great. We have a lot of fun, we innovate, and most of our current users love our products. So I am not advocating any change in how we work here. But we need to create a more usable and stable product if we want to grow beyond 1% of the market. So I think change needs to come from the outside. From a new start. How? I do have ideas, but I'll first put on my flamesuit and enjoy the heat...

What do you think?