diary at Telent Netowrks

Make your end-users into peers#

Mon, 25 Aug 2003 19:43:26 +0000

Make your end-users into peers

I hope Miles won't mind me excerpting from his private email in this public place, but I spent long enough editing this reply that I fel I should get full value by exposing the rest of you foolish readers to it as well. He wrote

> Just read your latest journal entry regarding Tom Lord's post about the
> direction of free software.  It's an interesting idea.  Have you had any
> thoughts about what this might look like specifically?  

To which I have to admit: no, not really. I think he's identified the problem; I don't know the solution, but I don't think it's any of the attempts we've seen so far.

I've read a little by and about Christopher Alexander and the patterns movement, and what he said about habitability and piecemeal growth struck a chord with me. The users/inhabitants of a system aren't expected to be able (or willing) to rebuild it completely, but do want to customise it appropriately to their needs. And I don't think that's what we've got in the applications world; we've got customisation knobs for everything the app designer thought it would be nice to adjust, and for everything the users have previously asked to change, but if anyone thinks of something new that they'd like changed, we're back where we started.

The Unix shell has aspects of the right thing. Your environmental customisation (~/scripts/frob.sh) is using the exact same tools as the OS itself (/etc/init.d/frob). It falls down in the large: either the quoting rules come in and bite you, or the lack of support for any kind of object that's not a stream of bytes trips you on the way out and dribbles caustic saliva from its toothless mouth until you dissolve into a small puddle.

Emacs has aspects of the right thing; most of it's written in Lisp, and so there's an ecology of stuff built up around it. That's good. X support (not per se, but the way it's been exposed to Lisp code) has tended to take it in the wrong direction, and what little I've seen of the xemacs team suggests that they're wholly misguided. (Disclaimer: I barely follow xemacs development; I just have the impression of lots of C programmers and not a lot of consideration for the high-level picture). Emacs may once have been intended as the basis for a user interface to the GNU system, but if this was a primary goal I think rms has largely failed to promote it. And yes, it would help to have threading, an option for lexical scope, objects, and UI support good for more than just putting words on the screen.

What's the message that's coming through here? I'm trying to say that I want the high level design for free systems to start looking less like application design and more like language design. In my ideal world you get twenty five points for writing a library, five for a framework, and only three for an application.

Some of the apps people say (or used to say) "we're not designing for people like us any more, this is for the end user", but that implies a power imbalance which I really don't want to be part of. I want a system that the end-user can participate in, not just one that they can take or leave. A free software community that's actually a community, if you like

So I think for the moment the summary is "habitable software", or "make your users into your peers". It's a hard sell, though: customisable software in the eyes of business doesn't mean letting the accountant edit her own startup file, it means getting a bunch of expensive consultants in to misunderstand the business and give you a new system that you still don't understand anyway; not automatically a Good Thing. Ideas welcome