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Simple is Sexy when it Comes to Open-Source

Simple is Sexy when it Comes to Open-Source

Published By: ComputerWorld
Viewed: 10348

February 27, 2004 (Computerworld) -- These days, open-source software is the metrosexual in the IT industry. It's cool and sexy to be open-source. Those of us who've been around open-source for a long time always thought that, but now mainstream businesses and the mainstream press are picking up on that cool factor as well.

It's getting so much press that IBM even paid $2.3 million to run a Linux ad during this year's Super Bowl to make people think that IBM equals Linux.

Although the publicity is all well and good, the reality is that we as a community need to not only provide technically superior software, but also superior usability. In my opinion, that's our biggest weakness in trying to attract the entire mainstream audience. If we want everyone to use and endorse open-source software, then we need to make it accessible to everyone. There are a few areas of concern to work on.

Give 'em a GUI
In order to lure a mainstream audience, we need to provide users with a graphical user interface (GUI) that lets them drag and drop and click-click-click their way to success. Geeks are natural tinkerers. We want to know how everything works, and we don't care if it takes us a while to learn it. Business users are an entirely different breed. To them, it's not about how cool this thing is on the inside, but rather how much easier their lives and jobs become by using it.

We need GUIs for everything. Whether they are Web-based GUIs or more traditional windowing environments, a user needs to be able to use his mouse. And most importantly, the GUI has to start with the installer, and never end. Give them their tabs, scroll bars, wizards and widgets. Just don't ask them to open a command shell.

Include everything at install time
Far too many open-source programs require the user to download and install a pile of prerequisites before installing the application that they really want to use. While this is sometimes unavoidable due to licensing restrictions or other extenuating circumstances, in most cases it can be overcome by simply including all of the prerequisites in the installer. Geeks will complain that including all of the libraries means that they will have duplicates on their system, and downloads will be much bigger. But the end user doesn't care; they just want it to be easy. It's far easier to wait 10 minutes for a larger download than it is to install 10 prerequisites. And for the geeks, provide a distribution that contains only the application itself.

Combine tools
We geeks are tool makers. We build small maintainable utilities rather than huge suites. It's easier to code, easier to maintain, less bloated and is generally a good design practice. However, our competition builds suites. They give the user every feature they could possibly want and then some -- and they do it using an integrated approach that makes all of the utilities work well together. I think we need to start doing the same.

There are a lot of XML parsers, utilities, services and data repositories out there. There are also a lot of great integrated development environments. But I have not yet seen a good XML IDE from the open-source community, even though XML is in use all over the place in the open-source community.

Also, Apache, ProFTPD, Samba, CUPS, Open LDAP and others are all great systems on their own, but I've yet to see a really good and easy-to-use integrated file-and-print server from the open-source community. The amazing thing about this is that all small, medium, large and even mega-companies, plus schools and universities, governments and even some home networks use file-and-print services. Wouldn't it be cool to get a single CD install with everything integrated and a nice Web-based interface to manage it?

Keep it simple
Remember that in the dating game you always want what you can't have. We've already got the geeks, because we are the geeks. Now we should be courting the rest of the world. In order to attract them, we've got to use different tactics. Simple is sexy.