Making free software culture feel right

Why it should be a lot more about feeling, rather than knowing, that free software and free culture is right.

Over the last ten years or so, free software has grown from being just a geek-phenomena. GNU/Linux has become a serious force in the business and server market with major companies now throwing their weight behind it. But on the consumer side of the market, things look still quite a bit different. Although GNU/Linux adoption has made some progress on the desktop too, it's still largely absent, Windows comes pre-installed on almost all new machines sold and you see even die-hard free software advocates using Mac OS X on their personal machine. Why is that?

Why can't free software GUIs be empowering instead of limiting?

It's one of the more popular culture wars in the free software community: GUI versus CLI (graphics versus the command-line). Programmers, by selection, inclination, and long experience, understandably are attracted to textual interactions with the computer, but the text interface was imposed originally by technological limitations. The GUI was introduced as a reply to those problems, but has undergone very little evolution from 1973 (when it was invented at Xerox PARC) to today. So why can't we do better than either of these tired old systems?

Has the free desktop revolution arrived?

An oft-trumpeted home triumph in technology discussion sites isthe conversion of friends or loved ones to a GNU/Linux desktop. “Iwas tired of fixing Windows on my kid's/grandmother's/in-law'scomputer, so I set up a Linux desktop. They love it! It's so easyto use, and I don't have to do anything to maintain it! No ad-wareor viruses, and best of all, it's free!” It sounds almost too goodto be true.... has the free desktop revolution arrived? I recentlyfound myself in a position to find out first hand.

How usability inhibits good software

Have you ever founda new piece of software that sounds like it's the perfect match foryour needs, only to get bogged down by bad documentation or ahorrendous interface? Many people will quickly discardprograms out of frustration caused by avoidable usabilityissues. How can software developers avoid disenfranchisingpotential users?

Usability refers to how easy it isto use a product in order to achieve a goal. Measured inefficiency and elegance, software usability is affected by a number offactors; two of the biggest hurdles are the interface and documentation.


User interfaces should teach, not hide

Today, I finally decided that my gVim editor needed a smaller font, and the process of getting it to work right has made me notice a fundamental flaw in the way we think about user interfaces. It’s not an innovation that you’ll get on the proprietary side of the line, because it’s an innovation required for the digital middle class of ‘user-developers’ that I mentioned last week.

Essentially it’s just this: GUIs should teach, not obfuscate or hide the underlying mechanism.

What is the next (r)evolution?

I’m not sure if it’s correct to talk about the internet as a revolution. The internet is in fact the result of a slow, hard earned evolution which has lasted about 30 years (!). Slowly, during these years, the costs of laying cables has dropped, the CPU was... well, invented (in 1974, the Intel 4004), processing power and memory have increased exponentially and the basic protocols were created (in 1972, the telnet protocol).

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