Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

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Notions of Progress on the Free Software Desktop

Once again, discussion about Free Software communities is somewhat derailed by reflections on the state of the Free Software desktop. To be fair to participants in the discussion, the original observations about communities were so unspecific that people would naturally wonder which communities were being referenced.

Usability and Accessibility

As always, frustrating elements of recent Free Software desktop environments were brought up for criticism and evaluation. One of them concerned the “plasmoid” enhancements of KDE 4 (or KDE Plasma Desktop as it is known according to the rebranding of KDE assets) which are often regarded as superfluous distractions from the work of perfecting the classic desktop environment. Amidst all this, the “folder view” plasmoid (or desktop widget) in particular came under scrutiny. As I understand it, the “folder view” is just a panel or window that groups icons in a region on the desktop background, and I acknowledged that it certainly represents an improvement over managing icons on a normal desktop, but that it can also confuse people when they accidentally close the folder view – easy to do with a stray mouse click – leaving them to wonder where their icons went.

Such matters of usability make me wonder how well tested some of the concepts employed in these environments really are, despite insistences that usability experts have been involved and that non-experts in the field of usability are unable to see the forest for the trees. From my own experiences, I feel that the developers would really benefit from doing phone support for their wares, especially with users who haven’t learned all the fancy terminology and so must describe what they see from first principles and be told what to do at a similar level. Even better: such support should be undertaken from memory and not sitting in front of a similarly configured computer.

Although it is a somewhat separate discipline with different constraints, I also suspect that such “over the phone” exercises might help accessibility as well. An inexperienced user may provide different information to that provided by something like a screen reader, where the former may struggle to articulate concepts and the latter may merely describe the environment according to prescribed terms, and where the former may be able to use more flexible powers of description whereas the latter can only rely on the cooperation of other programs to populate a simplistic description of the state of the environment, but the exercise of being a person cut off from the rich graphical scenery and their familiar interaction mechanisms might put the usability and accessibility of the software into perspective for the developers.

The Measure of Progress

But back to the Free Software desktop in general, if only to contemplate notions of progress and to consider whether lessons really have been learned, or whether people would rather not think about the things which went wrong, labelling them as “finished business” or “water under the bridge” and urging people not to bring such matters up again. One participant remarked about how it took six years from 2005 to 2011 for KDE 4 to become as usable as its predecessor. A response to this indicated that this was actually “fantastic” progress given that Google used as much time to make Android “decent”.

Fantastic it may be, but we should not consider the endeavour as a software development project in isolation, with the measure of success being that something was created from nothing in six short years. Indeed, we must consider what was already there – absolutely not nothing – and how the result of the development measures up against that earlier system. As far as getting Free Software in front of people and building on earlier achievements are concerned, those six years can almost be considered six lost years. Nobody should be patting themself on the back upon hearing that someone in 2013 can move from KDE 3 to KDE 4 and feel that at least they didn’t lose much functionality.

The Role of Applications

It was also noted that KDE development now focuses more on application development than on the environment itself. One must therefore ask where we are with regard to parity with the suite of applications running under KDE 3. Here, I can only describe my own experiences, but this should be flattering to any constrained selection of updated applications because of my own rather conservative application choices.

Kontact is usable because I imagine various companies needed it to be usable to stay in business (and even then I don’t know the story of the diversions via Nepomuk and other PIM initiatives that could have endangered that application’s viability); Digikam is usable because the developers remained interested in improving the software and even maintained the KDE 3 version for a while; Okular has picked up where KPDF left off; K3B still works much the same as before. There are presumably regressions and improvements in all these: Kontact, for instance, is much slower in certain areas such as message sorting, but it probably has more robust and coherent PGP and S/MIME support than its predecessor (which may have been suffering from lack of maintenance at both the project and distribution level).

Meanwhile, Amarok has become a disaster with an incoherent interface involving lots of “in the know” controls, and after it stopped playback mid-track for the nth time and needed a complete restart to get sound back, I switched to Minirok out of desperation. Other applications took a permanent holiday, such as Kopete which I don’t miss because my IRC needs are covered by Konversation.

Stuff like Konqueror is still around, despite being under threat of complete replacement by Dolphin, although it has picked up the little “+” and “-” controls that pervade KDE now. Such controls confuse various classes of user through poor visual contrast (a tiny symbol in red or green superimposed on a multicolour icon!) while demanding from such users better than average motor skills (“to open the document aim at the tiny area but not the tiny area within the tiny area”).

Change You Can Believe In?

You wouldn’t think that I appreciate the work done on the Free Software desktop, but I do. What frustrates me and a lot of other people, however, is the way that things that should have been “behind the scenes” infrastructure improvements (Qt 3 being superseded by Qt 4, for instance) that could have been undertaken whilst preserving continuity for users have instead been thrust at those users in the form of unnecessary decisions about which functionality they can afford to lose in order to have a supported and secure system that will not gradually fall apart over time. (Not that KDE is unique in this respect, consider the Python 2 to Python 3 transition and the disruption even such a leisurely transition can cause.)

Exposing change to a group of people creates costs for those people, and when those people have other things than computing as the principal focus in their lives, such change can have damaging effects on their continued use of the software and on the quality of their lives. Following the latest trends, discovering the newest software, or just discovering how their existing software functions since the last vendor-initiated update are all distractions for people who just want to sit down, do some things on the computer, and then go back to their lives. In today’s gadget-pushing society, the productivity benefits of personal computing are being eroded by a fanaticism for showing off new and different things mostly for the sake of them being, well, new and different. Bored children may enjoy the fire-hose of new “apps”, tricks and gadgets, but that shouldn’t mean that everybody else has to be made to enjoy it as well or be considered backward “technophobes” who “don’t understand” or “won’t embrace” new technology.

One can argue that by failing to shield users from the cost of change, especially when the level of functionality remains largely similar, Free Software desktop developers have imperilled their own mission with the result that they now have to make up lost ground in the struggle to get people to use their software. But even to those developers who don’t care about such things, the other criticism that could be levelled against them might be a more delicate matter and more difficult to reconcile with their technical reputation: churning up change and making others deal with it can arguably be regarded as bad software project management and, indeed, bad project management in general.

Maybe such considerations also have something to say about the direction any given community might choose to follow, and whether bold new ideas should be embraced without a thorough consideration of the consequences.

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