I don’t like what people tell me is good for me

— That drink was individually tailored to meet your nutritional requirements and pleasure.
— So I’m a masochist on a diet!

Arthur Dent and the Nutramatic Machine; The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy — Secondary Phase

One of the reasons given for Free Software popularity among geeks and other technical people is that it consists, for many, of a simple way to scratch their own itches; it’s probably the same reason why I keep using Gentoo: it allows me to scratch my own issues pretty easily. Since people scratch their own issues, they do the things the way they best like, and that turns out to be successful because both great minds and lots of geeks think alike.

At the same time, there is a very strong drive to give Free Software to the masses… this drive is ethical for some, commercial for others, but the bottomline can be generally summarised in “Free Software needs to be done the right way”. This includes many aspects of Free Software: from code quality, to maintainability, to usability of the interfaces. And once again, to be able to have results you have to accept that you’re going to have rules, standards and common practises to accept. The problem is: how do you forge them? And how much they should distance the “older” versions?

Now, for once don’t let me get into the technicalities of code practises, QA and so on so forth… I’ll focus on something that I have to admit I have near to no working knowledge of: interface usability. I’m a developer, and as many developers, I suck at designing interfaces that are not programming interfaces: websites, GUIs, CLIs… you name it, I suck at it. Thus why I do find it very helpful that there are usability experts out there that works hard to make software interfaces better to use for the average user and (possibly) for me as well.

— The ventilation system; you had a go at me yesterday.
— Yes, because you keep filling the air with cheap perfume.
— You like scented air, it’s fresh and invigorating.

Arthur Dent and the Heart of Gold ventilation system; The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy — Secondary Phase

Unfortunately, I’m afraid stuff like that soon gets overboard, because people start to take a liking into dictating how other people should use their computer. This is among the other things one of the most common criticism directed toward Apple, as they tend to only allow you certain degree of use of both their hardware and their software; and the obvious challenge is to get their hardware (at least) to do something it wasn’t deigned for (second hard-drive on MacBooks, XBMC on AppleTV, iPhone Jailbreak…).

Now, sometimes the dictats on how to do something turn out for the best, and people are hooked into the new interfaces and paradigms (let’s take as example the original iMac’s lack of a floppy disk drive; I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple were at some point to drop optical drives on all their line of computers and then ship OSX on read-only USB media). This might create a trend that is followed by other developers, or manufacturers, as well. Without entering the merits of the iPhone in the sparks of Android phones, just think of when Apple pushed iTunes with their iPods: the average Windows user used WinAMP before, and iTunes has a completely different interface, on Linux, XMMS first and Audacious after was the norm, both using the same interface as WinAMP. After iTunes, and for Linux especially after Amarok, around version 1.3, we have a number of playlist-centric players instead.

Now, once upon a time, the KDE users and developers laughed at GNOME’s purported usability studies that hid all the settings, and caused Nautilus to become “spatial” (I remember one commenter on the issue, supporting the then-new spatial Nautilus by saying that tabbed browsing wasn’t usable because it would have been the same as glueing together newspapers to read them… now that was a silly thing to say, especially in that context). With time the situation reversed, for a while at least with KDE deciding to “move for usability” and “new concepts” with KDE 4… and breaking the shit out of it all, for many people, me included. I think a very iconic point here would be some of the complains I heard about the latest Amarok development in #gentoo-it, about the application is supposedly “more usable” by changing so many things around that even long-time users can’t feel at home any longer.

While Amarok always had this edgy feeling that it could screw up your mechanics by simply deciding that something is better done in the opposite way that it was before, it worked out because the ideas caught on pretty quickly: people moaned and ranted, but after a month or two, near everybody was enthusiast, and wondered why the other players didn’t do the same. This trend has changed with Amarok 2 it seems, as I heard almost only rants, and very few enthusiasts outside of the core developers. And I’m not speaking about the technical side of things here (like the usage of MySQL Embedded — which in my opinion has been a very bad move… mostly because MySQLe was definitely not ready at the time, as Jorge might tell you).

But my safe haven of GNOME start to feel disturbed; while I’ve read good things about the “Usabiltiy Hackfest” that happened a couple of weeks ago in London, sponsored among others by Canonical if I recall correctly, some of the posts coming from there looked positively worrisome. In particular, Seth Nickell’s posts about “Task Pooper” (maybe I’m biased but projects choosing such names feel like a very bad start to me) reminded me a lot of Seigo’s posts about Plasma, and while I hear most people happy with it as implemented currently, I also remember the huge rants in the first iterations where the whole interaction was designed out of thin air… I’ll quote the Ars Technica article (which title is in my opinion a bit too forceful):

Despite his protest that the new design isn’t “handwavy,” I had a hard time seeing how all the pieces fit together after reading the initial document. [snip]

Actually, I think Nickell’s went to say that his design was not exactly what he made it to be, as it stands now. Going all the way to declare the New Majestic Paradigm Of Desktops is the first bad move if you want something good, I think. Not only it’ll add a lot of expectation to a project that is for now just designed out of thin air, but it also make him sound way too convinced about his stuff. I like it much better when the designers are not convinced about their stuff as that means they’ll think about it a lot more… it’s a challenge of second-guessing oneself and improving step by step. If you think you reached the top already, you’re going to stop thinking about it.

At any rate, the point I wanted to make was simply that people need to complain and need to rant about things, if you want them to be good. So please don’t take my rants always as negative, I do rant, and sometimes I rant a lot but I usually do that because I want to improve the situation.

P.S.: if GNOME 3 turns out to break as many things as KDE 4.0 I might consider to try the latest version of KDE at that time. Unfortunately I have heard too many bad things about KMail and eating email… so I’m still a bit wary. I really like the idea of GNOME developers working on 3.0 already, even though 2.30 is still to be released… branching is good!