It Works... For the Power Users

While Free Software has always focused on freedom, everything regarding software ultimately boils down to the simple question of whether the software works or not. Moreover, the truth of the matter is that, for a software to survive the hostile and rapidly changing world of technology, it needs not only to work, but to work out of the box. Most people are no longer willing to do dirty little hacks to get things done or learn new keyboard bindings, they want software that works transparently without hassles.

And Free Software has thousands of software that work - actually, it's pretty obvious that GNU/Linux as an Operating System can do a whole lot more than any other proprietary operating system in the market - but many of those are designed to work for the power users. Also, there's a lack of powerful out-of-the-box tools that can get simple day to day work done and done fast.

Yet, when it comes to migration support, I typically hear power users suggesting tools that are anything but designed for humans. The worst of it all is  that we suggest these types of software in a way that reflects no need for anything else. For instance, I was recently participating in a meeting where someone asked for free software tools for streaming. We answered IceCast, but that's not even close to simple, and it takes a whole lot of commands to get it working so that's not a solution when compared to Screenr and UStream. Then there's Dreamweaver, and despite the whole lot of cool web development tools there are scattered around the Free Software arena, there's nothing that can compare to Dreamweaver in web publishing, and the worst of it all is that I don't see any major work in that direction. And most recently, Microsoft's acquisition of Skype has drawn a lot of discussion about alternatives, and to some extent there's no Free Software alternative that can put all the features of Skype in a single easy tool.

While we keep shielding behind the fact that we do have software that  works and we keep ignoring the need of dead-simple tools that can just get things done, we will be falling behind in the promotion of Free Software. And I'm not against learning new things (which is a common excuse from power users that say, e.g, "well, she should learn how to do port forwarding if she want's to use the IP phone") nor am I against power users (I am one, and I can usually get things done one way or another using Free Software tools) but we need to keep in mind that there's every kind of user, and we should embrace them all into the community if we are trying to build a movement that can impact the society (not the technology, which is the goal of OpenSource).

On the other hand, I have recently been in the need to configure Broadcom firmware for wireless cards under Fedora and Ubuntu. It probably takes a power user to do that (or maybe someone that is already familiar with the firmware problem of those cards) but in this case, I'd say it's a totally different case: These kinds of hassles are there to remind us how complicated it has become to deal with regular hardware due to absurd and stupid licensing schemes that prevent free distribution of firmware. Same thing applies, to some extent, to media format plugins that are not pre-installed in some GNU/Linux distros: they remind us of the fact that we are no longer free to enjoy our media without having to worry about complicated patents and artificial laws. I can't say I like the way things are right now in terms of simplicity, but that's something that has always been out of our hands as Free Software developers.

One last advice: don't you ever drop to the terminal in front of a new user when doing normal stuff like copying a file to a USB or connecting to a wireless network. Far from looking cool, you will most likely scare the new user as she may think that's the only way to get things done in your operating system (and hopefully, it's not that way).