Dirk Hohndel has been a member of our community since the earliest days.
In recent years, he has helped direct Intel's (very friendly) strategy
toward Linux - a job which has required, one assumes, a great deal of
educational work inside the company. Dirk also spends a fair amount of
time outside of Intel, advising the community on how it can work better
with vendors, with
customers, and with itself. His thoughtful talks on the topic are usually
well worth hearing. In two separate talks on the first day of the
first LinuxCon, Dirk had some fairly general thoughts on how the next steps
toward world domination can be taken.
When ASUS created the netbook market, its disruptive new machines all ran
Linux. The development community welcomed this news, which seemed like a
validation of much of what we've been doing all these years. But it did
not take very long before Microsoft was announcing that the vast majority
of netbook systems were now shipping with Windows instead. How is it, Dirk
asks, that Windows is able to displace Linux on systems like netbooks?
Part of the problem, certainly, was the second-rate distribution which was
shipped with the early netbooks. It suffered from what Dirk calls the
"three click problem." When the system is first turned on, everything
looks great. But, by the time the user gets three clicks into the system,
it's clear that it is an unfinished product. Obvious problems -
configuration dialog boxes for applications which do not fit on the small
screen, for example - are everywhere. So it does not take long for users
to feel that they have not gotten what they really wanted.
But the bigger problem, says Dirk, is that the systems installed on these
devices are trying to be Windows. They are trying to beat Microsoft at its
own game, and that is a difficult strategy at best. If the ultimate goal
of a development project is to copy somebody else, it is inevitable that
the project will always be behind its target. It will never be a perfect
copy, and users will know. The user's experience will always be less than
it could be with the original.
An example is OpenOffice.org's attempt
to copy the "ribbon" interface found in Office 2007. It's already two
years later, it is not that great an interface in the first place, and
OpenOffice.org will not do it as well as Microsoft did. Suffice to say
that Dirk does not appear to be much impressed by this particular
Similarly, attempts to copy the iPhone in mobile devices are doomed to an
always-inferior existence. There has to be a better way.
That better way, says Dirk, is to move past the desktop metaphor which
was never all that great an idea in the first place. People who are
buying computers now are not interested in desktops, and they do not really
care about the operating system they are running. What they want is to
join communities. So the most important thing we should be doing, in the
design of our applications and interfaces, is to better connect users with
the communities they are interested in.
Indeed, the processes in many communities seem to have
the explicit goal of encouraging people interested in design to go
On the issue of design, Dirk made the claim that we have few real designers
in our communities. Indeed, the processes in many communities seem to have
the explicit goal of encouraging people interested in design to go
elsewhere. One partial exception might be KDE; Dirk claims that KDE
applications tend to be nicer because Nokia (and Trolltech before it) have
put true design resources into the Qt toolkit. In general, though, we are
not doing a good job of reaching out to designers, but we need those
designers if we are going to create great systems.
The closing note of this talk was simple: listen to the users. And, by
"users," he did not mean the people in the room, but the much wider user
community that we need to reach.
Dirk's second talk filled a brief keynote slot; it was called "how to shine
in a crowded field." The specific crowded field he was talking about was
consumer electronics, which is packed with devices in search of customers.
In this market, success is not something that just happens. There are,
says Dirk, four things which are required.
The first of those is vision. There are, he says, plenty of visionaries
out there, even if many of them do not see as far as they might think. We
need those visionaries - just following others is, as was described above,
not the way to be successful. Our community needs people who are not stuck
doing things the way they have always been done.
The second requirement is competence - the ability to actually implement
the visions. One of the nice things about the open source world is that
competence is very much on display. We can (relatively) easily measure the
competence of others, and our own competence as well. We are very free to
learn from each other and quickly improve our competence.
Then there's commitment. Without commitment, developers will not see the
task through to the end. And, just as importantly, users need to see that
commitment. They need to know that the developers will be around, that
they are serious, that they will respond to bugs, and that they will
continue to carry the code forward. That said, open source makes users
less dependent on the commitment of others. When a proprietary software
vendor abandons a body of code, there is nothing the users can do about
it. Open source software can be picked up and carried forward by others.
Finally, there is the matter of focus. Without focus, we will lose; there
are simply too many distractions which can get in the way.
So how does the community do in these areas? We have visionaries, though
Dirk would like to see more of them who are willing to go further off the
beaten path. For competence, Dirk suggests downloading a random SourceForge
project and looking at the code. That, he says, will make one question
whether the open source
community possesses any competence at all. Commitment, too, is on display
at SourceForge - most projects there are inactive and going nowhere.
focus, he says, is really hard.
As a result, open source projects are highly susceptible to the 80/20
problem. The first 80% of the work is fun. But the task of actually
finishing the job is less so, so it often doesn't happen. So we have a
surfeit of 80%-done programs which have since been abandoned. We have, he
says, 55 bad spreadsheets out there when we could have three really good
ones. If we could stick to the projects we have, rather than yielding to
the temptation to start some new, shiny project, we would be in much better
Another example is the nearly 300 active distribution projects out there;
it would be better to have fewer choices which were more complete. Given
that, one might ask why Dirk's group went off and created Moblin - yet
another new distribution. His answer (to his own question) was that they
studied the available distributions and couldn't find one which they
thought they could carry forward to a full implementation of the vision
they had for Moblin. They needed to start anew, he said, to be able to
commit to reaching the end.
In conclusion, Dirk says, the recipe for standing out is relatively
straightforward: listen to the users, implement the whole vision, and go
someplace where others have not been.
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