The keynote speaker on the second day of linux.conf.au 2007 was Christopher
Blizzard, currently with Red Hat. His topic was "relevance," and, in
particular, the relevance of the free software movement to the rest of the
One way to be relevant is to create top-quality products. There was an
emphasis on the word "product," rather than "project"; Chris was talking
about making things for people. The best products, he says, are those
which genuinely change the way we live. The example he used was cellular
telephones, which have truly changed the ways in which people communicate.
Your editor, often reduced to communicating with his children via text
message, is not convinced that all these changes are for the better, but
the talk did not address this side of things.
The next slide was a marketing shot of the iPhone. Is this a product which
will change how people live? Nobody in the audience was willing to argue
that it was.
Then came Firefox - a project which Chris worked on for some years.
Firefox "makes the web less annoying," and makes a point of respecting its
users, which is important. It's still not clear that Firefox has changed
the way people live, however. Even so, Firefox had some lessons to offer:
- You can't change the web from the back end. No matter how much
good and innovative work is being done on the server side, the
software which controls the user experience will shape the web.
Firefox has been successful because it is "driving from the front,"
and influencing how the users see and work with the net.
- Going direct to users is important; you can't count on others to
distribute your software for you.
- Stick to your core values. The Mozilla project gets significant
amounts of money from its sponsors, but it is unwilling to consider
sponsorships which would require user-hostile changes.
- Have a mission. A project will only produce a great project if it has
a strong idea of what it is trying to accomplish.
How many years, asked Chris, has it been the year of the Linux desktop? Is
Linux relevant for desktop users. In general, his answer was "no." Linux
is showing up in interesting places, however: the Nokia N800, telephones,
and the One Laptop Per Child project.
OLPC, says Chris, truly is a relevant project which will be changing
lives. It has a well-defined mission - providing computing technology in a
way which furthers the education of children in the developing world - and
it is creating a product which furthers that mission. To that end, a
number of interesting innovations have been made; these include the OLPC
display (which, among other things, is readable in full sunlight), the mesh
networking feature, and the ability to power it with a hand-operated
generator. The sugar user interface also rates high on the list; it has
tossed out much of the standard desktop metaphor in favor of a new design
aimed at the OLPC's target user base.
So, based on this, how should a project make itself relevant? Chris
- Find an important set of clients, and work toward their needs. In the
OLPC example, the clients are developing-world children (or, perhaps,
the governments which represent them).
- Find good designers and trust them. Free software developers are
often dismissive of the need for good design, but you cannot create a
great product without it. Once you have found people who can do this
design, you must trust them, even if their work takes you in
directions which are surprising and unfamiliar.
- Make your product for other people. Doing so requires developing a
certain amount of empathy for the intended clients and getting past
the "itch scratching" mode of development.
A project which follows these guidelines, says Chris, has a good chance of
being relevant well into the future.
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