You can’t have it your way

I have some advice for you, if you’re thinking about spearheading an open source project: Define your goal at the outset, and never ever allow the public to determine which way your project goes.

That way you can avoid the ridiculous double-take that plagued Ubuntu Netbook Remix (or is it Edition?) a little while ago. Quite clearly, if the designing minds behind UNR/E had laid down the law at the outset, they could have sidestepped the embarrassment of making a suggestion and having it thrown back by the mob.

Mob rule is simply unacceptable. What was needed was a voice from on high, saying clearly and distinctly, “There will be no OpenOffice.org by default in our distro. If you disagree, install it. Or find a project that suits you better.” Tell the people what they need to hear: You can’t have it your way. I am in charge. If you don’t like it, fork it. End of story.

It worked for Exherbo. Almost two years ago they suffered any amount of denigration for insinuating that their interest in your contributions to their project was cursory at best. People called them rude, uninviting, snide, communist and even newbie-unfriendly.

But you know what? Last time I checked, they were still in business, and I doubt anyone has ever tried to tell them how to run their show. Have you ever seen a “mockup” of an Exherbo desktop? I didn’t think so. And why is that? Probably because of an authoritarian management style, from the outset. Brilliant.

It might sound self-congratuatory, but my own brief foray into the world of distro management was likewise without public interference. Granted, globbing together an ugly GTK1.2 version of Ubuntu hardly sets me on a shelf with the ranking evil geniuses of all time. But how many suggestions do you think I have received in the two-plus years that creepy little ISO has been floating around the ‘net? None. Not a one.

And why? Because from the start I said, “I did this for me. I didn’t do it for you. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. You can make suggestions if you must, but don’t bother me with complaints about default colors or Firefox. Use it or fork it.” No requests for comment. No brainstorm sites. No voting up or down on user-submitted points of “controversy.”

It worked. No one ever made a “mockup” or complained about the color scheme or insisted that I install OpenOffice.org by default. Of course that ISO ranks in the bottom 0.1 percent of all distros ever released throughout human history, but popularity was never my goal. So I got what I deserved.

Come to think of it, a dictatorial style might have been what saved Xubuntu, all those years ago. If someone had said, in no uncertain terms, that Xubuntu would be styled as an XFCE desktop with only GTK2 applications, it might have gone that direction instead of plumping out into a pretend lightweight distro with Gnome bursting out of every seam.

Who’s to say? There was, a very very long time ago, a manifesto somewhere in the Ubuntu wiki that set out those same terms for Xubuntu. I used to have a link to it, but last time I looked the page was dead. And of course, mob rule crept into that project too, and steered it away from its original plan. :|

Look, I’m all for brotherhood, helping out the new guy, group hugs and the need to sit down with a box of tissues every few years and watch “Titanic.” But starting an open source project is not that time. Allowing the public to steer the project is insane. No good can come of it. Tell the people from the start: This is what we will do. Do it with us, or do it on your own.

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16 Responses to “You can’t have it your way”


  1. 1 JakeT 2010/02/17 at 12:40 PM

    In some ways, I think you’ve got a point–allowing typical mob rule is a recipe for disaster.

    But.

    I’m not convinced that there isn’t another step beyond the open source model we know now, a new way doing development that lowers the barrier to entry in participation even further WITHOUT succumbing to the idiocy of mob rule.

    In the same way that people found the idea of a loose-knit group of thousands of volunteers creating a working operating system to be impossible, I think allowing USERS (as opposed to developers, or to put it another way, users who AREN’T developers) a way to meaningfully contribute to their own operating system, is necessary to carry the FLOSS movement into the next phase of its future.

    Honestly, the “how” of this kind of contribution is baffling to me, mostly because I think you’re exactly right about the affects of mob rule and the sort of chaotic havoc it can wreak. Figuring out how to harness and direct that chaos is exactly the challenge before us.

  2. 2 ajlec2000 2010/02/17 at 11:24 PM

    Ubuntu has become a “mob” darling. Exherbo is definitely for a more rarified audience. Someone who can compile an OS is the kind of person who doesn’t care about color themes and can install what ever software that is appealing.

    Much as I like Ubuntu, emotional investment in a color scheme or search engine seems a bit much.

    Btw, your gtk Ubuntu is inticing. Can I get it in red?

  3. 3 Nugnuts 2010/02/18 at 1:54 AM

    This rant makes little to no sense if the intent of the project is to try to give the people/mob what they want.

  4. 4 Ferrenrock 2010/02/18 at 3:36 AM

    I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here, Kmandla. This version of this particular distro is aimed at netbooks, so user input is crucial–no one’s gonna use something that doesn’t have what they want. It’s not like it’s being used on servers and can’t be toyed around with. For the typical person who is at a university or an office like me, I need a linux application that is compatible with powerpoint, word, and excel, and I need it to work on my portable computer. Sure, I could spend months trying to convince the Establishment to switch, but even if they did the 87% of users that use Windows here would complain, and it would all be reversed. In the end, OpenOffice is still a necessary application for the office linux user, who lives in a Windows world.

    • 5 Ferrenrock 2010/02/18 at 3:41 AM

      Also, as a side note, I think you’re comparing apples to oranges here by bringing up Exherbo. Their distro really isn’t suited for netbooks, and the fact that it isn’t as noob-friendly as ubuntu means they won’t get the same kind of userbase. Find me an extremely popular distro (that isn’t just for experts) which hasn’t fallen into a conflict like this.

    • 6 Bryan 2010/02/18 at 4:09 AM

      First, a netbook oriented distro does not have any more need for user input than a desktop oriented one does (you could feasibly argue that a server oriented distro is devoid of these issues, but I’d argue you there too)

      Secondly, you’ve missed the point of k.mandla’s argument – if I may say so. The argument isn’t saying that OOo SHOULD be removed but rather that the userbase should support the developers in their decisions to remove OOo. This could possibly be achieved by creating repos that contain up to date OOo releases along with a wiki page that shows how to install those or by advocating alternative software, such as abiword or gnumeric, when the inevitable question arises as to where OOo went. By opening these decisions up for review and acceptance from the userbase, the developers now have zero chance of doing what they see as best.

      You can also look at this as a simple question of Cathedral vs Bazaar development models. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. It just so happens that this brings up points on both sides. However, it’s my opinion that unless you can afford pay for the development of a piece of software, that criticism towards those doing the bulk of the development is both simply whiney and falling on deaf ears. They do it the way they want to do it because, in the end, they are doing it for themselves – not for you. (This could also move to a discussion of why the ubuntu team is seeing an uprising here and what the separation between developer and user actually means nowadays.)

      • 7 Nugnuts 2010/02/18 at 6:05 AM

        “the userbase should support the developers in their decisions”

        That sounds backwards.

        “… they [the developers] are doing it for themselves”

        Then that would make them the user base and mean there is no issue, nor need to “open” any decisions up, right?

        • 8 Bryan 2010/02/18 at 1:54 PM

          I can see how my statement may sound backwards, but think about it this way: The developers gain little or nothing if a userbase exists. (No money, no fame, no cookies etc.) They are giving something away that they created and found useful. The users are essentially leeching off of the developers because the userbase cannot (or does not want to) create a program or Linux distribution for themselves, and for the userbase ask the developers to do something a different way is simply presumptuous.

          The second statement you make is true in an ideal world. Open source sprung up from developers making things for other developers. Look at the suckless community, they are essentially developers working on tools that they all use. Of course, not ALL suckless users are also suckless developers. However, they ARE expected to understand the code they’re using and be able to use supporting utilities to make the tools given to them work (for instance, dmenu is rather useless without understanding some shell scripting) In this sense, ALL suckless users are developers.

          I suppose it’s all wrapped up in what your expectations are from the developers (and what the developers expectations are of the userbase). I don’t need my hand held to install OOo, so I don’t really care one way or the other if it ships with UNR (or moblin or… etc.). Ubuntu users, however, might think things through a little differently.

          • 9 Nugnuts 2010/02/18 at 11:30 PM

            “The developers gain little or nothing if a userbase exists.”

            Not that I’m fond of beating dead horses, but my point remains that the entire reason software is written is so that it may be used. The question at hand is for whom is the software being written? If the developers are writing the software for themselves, and then sharing it with others in the event that others may find it useful, then that’s awesome. If the developers are writing software for some external group of users, then that’s also awesome, and it really makes a lot of sense to ask those users what they want and try to provide that.

            “I suppose it’s all wrapped up in what your expectations are from the developers (and what the developers expectations are of the userbase).”

            In this case, the developers specifically sought input from the users/others and decided to listen to that input. How can one begrudge them that?

            I find the suggestion that developers shouldn’t do what other people suggest rather ironic.

            • 10 Bryan 2010/02/19 at 1:01 AM

              I believe that developers should be open to user criticism and suggestions, but in the end – it’s the developers that are doing the work and that means they get to make the decisions. I think that with that in mind, users should “put up or shut up”. If the user doesn’t like something that’s been done, they have EVERY right to change it. The user can install OOo, master an ISO that has OOo on it and distribute that as an alternative to the official, create a repo that has OOo so that it is easily installable, or create a wiki page that tells how to install OOo. Simply put, complaining that something has changed and then doing nothing to make it better (i.e expecting to be spoonfed everything) goes against what I see as the spirit of FOSS

              • 11 Nugnuts 2010/02/19 at 1:53 AM

                I guess that’s why I’m confused why this discussion is even taking place. The ability to fork UNE to make it OOo-less by default exists just as readily as the ability to fork it and make it OOo-full. In this case, the developers chose to solicit and respect feedback. It makes no sense to me to whine about a project taking a particular direction because of people whining about the project. Goose, gander, et al.

                You and I are generally talking past each other, of course, as you are more complaining about whiney users (as inspired by K.Mandla’s post), whereas I’m more refuting the validity of what I take to be K.Mandla’s point here. It’s fine to complain about ingratitude, sloth, etc., but I think it falls apart when those complaints seem to hypocritically turn towards telling anyone how they should or should not run their project.

                “it’s the developers that are doing the work and that means they get to make the decisions” … including when they decide to let “the mob” decide.

  5. 12 FreeBooteR 2010/02/18 at 11:58 AM

    Actually i can have it my way. Install Arch, i get everything i want. Install newbie distro, you get what somebody decides to shove down your throat.

    Ahhh, choice, you gotta lub it.

  6. 13 zenfunk 2010/02/18 at 4:43 PM

    I think FreeBooteR got it right. It all depends on what you want achieve- to me Ubuntu allways was this newbie frendly distro that of course needs to listen to its users (newbies!) to achieve their goals. It is completely different story for projects for advanced users where the developers are also their users.

    Personally, I work on a small Puppy Linux spinoff from time to time. As with Kmandlas GTK 1.2 remix it is mostly my personal plaything, but I allways appreciate feedback and bug reports from users, because there are far too many- impossible for me to track them all.

    It always is a give and take. Listen to your users, give them what they want (just enough to keep them on the leash ;)) and they will help you with making your distro better.

    Cheers,
    Christian

  7. 14 KimTjik 2010/02/18 at 8:48 PM

    @ FreeBooteR

    I’m using Arch myself at home, work and on desktop and servers. What K.Mandla write has affected Arch several times, and its leadership has been tested.

    It’s been quite calm lately but a couple of years ago an influx of new users also meant an influx of opinions about what Arch should become. In response the leadership was clear: Arch is not a democracy. That stand did really upset a few, who for some reason thought, maybe still think, that a majority of “passive” users can dictate what the active developing team should do or not do. I remember a few who continued to make silly exaggerated claims at Distrowatch and other places, accusing the leadership of Arch to be thugs.

    The only thing this turmoil proved was that those who “revolted” would potentially sabotage any community if given the chance. In this sense I agree with K.Mandla. Free software doesn’t equal “no strong leadership”. To succeed in providing a good product a leadership has to have the guts of making unpopular decisions. Mistakes are inevitable, but it’s still better to make a couple of extra mistakes than loosing control and jeopardize the whole project.


  1. 1 Be prepared to do it yourself « Motho ke motho ka botho Trackback on 2010/09/28 at 9:25 AM
  2. 2 Three middleweights « Motho ke motho ka botho Trackback on 2010/12/07 at 11:43 PM

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