Inanely great

Tue, 25 Oct 2011 10:35:17 +0000

A lot has been written – and I expect a lot more is yet to be written - about the attention to detail and unique grasp of design aesthetic that Steve Jobs exerted on Apple product development. A reasonable observation and not a new one. But the implication that goes with it which I find curious is that those slacker open source/free software people who are threatening to eat his lunch with Android or (perhaps less convincingly) with Ubuntu have no hope of ever replicating this setup because as they’re volunteer-based they have to spend too much time being nice to their contributors.

Ignoring the quibble that Android’s not actually a very good exemplar of open source development style (development directions are quite obviously set by Google, and at the time I write this there have been two major releases since they even pushed any open source stuff out at all) this argument falls down because it’s simply not true. Free software projects can be very good indeed at maintaining exacting standards in areas that they care about, and not apparently caring too much whose toes they tread on in the process – it’s just that the areas they care about are much more related to code quality and maintainability than typography and exact shades of yellow

Taking the Linux kernel for an example, the particular story that prompted this observation was the Broadcom wireless drivers contribution, but I could add to that: Reiserfs, nvidia ethernet, Intel ethernet drivers, Android wake locks, and a zillion other less high-profile cases where badly coded patches have not been accepted, even when the rejection is due to something as trivial as whitespace[*]. (OK, maybe I was wrong to say they don’t care about typography ;-) So, the social/organisational structures exist for an open source project to be quite incredibly demanding of high standards and yet remain successful – the question of why they don’t extend these standards to external factors and “UX” probably has to remain open. And don’t tell me it’s because they don’t appreciate good design when it is on offer, because the number of Macs I see at conferences invalidates that hypothesis straight off.

[*] I am reasonably sure this is not an exaggeration, although I can no longer find the mail from when it happened to me so I may be misremembering.