I believe that Fedora and Linux in general need to reach and inspire a wider set of users. Free software affords us so many benefits we should strive to share, but there’s still a formidable bar in technical skill required to realize those benefits.
What can we do to help expand the reach of free software? One way is to teach! I’ve taught free software to kids and it was an amazing experience (and I have another Red Hat-sponsored project involving teaching kids how to use free software in the works that I’m excited to talk about in detail soon!) Although interacting with a group of kids or adults in person and teaching them about what free software can do is vitally important, I am afraid it’s not entirely scalable. It’s also entirely bending the user to the software itself, without at all bending the software towards the user. “Yeah, it works a little weird there, here’s a clunky workflow for getting around that” is the sort of phrase I end up using a lot of times while teaching others how to use free software.
I am concerned that bending users to the software, and not bending the software to the users at all really limits the immense impact free software and our community can have on the world. I fear that teaching and evangelizing is not enough to expand the availability of software freedom to folks who need it; we need to improve our offerings to require a bit less of a technical wall to jump in order to enjoy them.
This proposition understandably has made some folks – experienced users who are technically-savvy and long-time free software users – nervous. Free software is a great thing. Is working towards making it more mainstream going to ruin it, just like that awesome indie band you used to love that made it big and now totally sucks? I share the same fear, and yes that’s happened to music artists I loved too…. but I think for us there is little risk, and the rewards – sharing the gifts of software freedom with more people – are totally worth it.
Here’s why I think the proposition to focus more on new Linux users is not that risky for current users:
- If the default setup of a given Linux OS changes, it won’t necessarily prevent you from doing what you need or want to do. If we focus the default experience to cater towards new & casual users, it really should not make a huge difference to power users – it should not exclude them – I think at worst it will necessitate some work-arounds and initial customizations for the power users (but I think many of you are already doing these things today.)
- Making improvements to benefit less-familiar users can benefit everyone, and at worse simply not effect experienced users either way. The way I like to think about this – for me, tidying up the mess in the living room is not really fun and it’s liveable as-is, so there’s little motivation to do it all that often. When we tidy things up for guests coming over, though, we benefit from the organized living room just as much as our guests do! The improvements should help everyone, and not exclude anybody.
Let me provide you with a bit more thinking on each of these points:
1: Changed defaults won’t exclude power users
So here is a little case study, using desktop configuration as an example since the desktop tends to be a visually-rich experience that can be offered up for comparisons relatively easily: I asked around for Fedora users’ screenshots in IRC this past week – actual, working screenshots, not artificially-polished & cleansed screenshots. This is how a slice of Fedora users actually use Fedora, folks. We’ve got GNOME Shell, we’ve got heavily-customized KDE, we’ve got XFCE, even icewm. Panels are moved around, different icon themes and widget themes are installed, folks are using multiple different mail and chat clients in these screenshots:
View a slideshow of all these screenshots
Looking at these, can you understand why someone would argue as vehemently against a new-user friendly change in say the desktop default settings? Do you think a change of the defaults is really going to affect any of these users at all? None of these folks mentioned or seemed to feel excluded by the current desktop defaults, and many readily admitted they love to tweak and customize. It seems many current Fedora power users are quite capable and even happy to customize and change how they use Fedora well beyond the default setup.
2: Why helping new users won’t hurt you, and why ignoring them hurts us
A big part of the reason a lot of us are here in the Linux community is to improve & spread software freedom and free culture. Fedora’s mission in particular is, “to lead the advancement of free and open source software and content as a collaborative community.”
There’s a couple of things you need to realize that goal:
- You need contributors. You need contributors to create and help improve free software, to create and license compelling content under free licenses, to help make your project run.
- You need users. Sure, it’s fun to have the secret navel-gazing treehouse where we proselytize to the already-converted, but that’s not really effective if you want to actually spread your message outside of your circle.
How do you get contributors? You recruit from your pool of users! How do you get users, to widen your potential contributor pool and to spread your free software / free culture message? You reach out to them, providing them a compelling reason to care. Okay, great, that’s easy right? We just get out there and send our message out – it’s a great cause – folks will want to help, right?
Well, no. I believe that trying to convince new folks to get involved based solely on free software / free culture dogma is not going to work. Even if you get them convinced to try to help, you’re going to put them into this dilemma:
Not cool. It’s like you’re getting kids under the drinking age all fired up about a new club, and when they actually show up, they are bounced at the door. How rude! If you’re going to recruit folks like this to help Linux out, Linux needs to be something they can be inspired by – something they can actually use. Otherwise, why will they care? And for the few who either are inspired already and see the potential, or who find out about free software & culture on their own and have some interest in it, it’s not just that they have to gear up just to be able to join your project – there’s alternatives calling out to them that are more welcoming and far easier to get started with:
How often have you seen this problem in your project? Isn’t this something that could be solved and benefit everyone if we could only attract more contributors?
Lowering the bar to enter ‘the ride’ that is Linux is going to mean that more people can use and contribute to it. Lowering the bar won’t exclude folks who are already ‘tall enough’ to get into ‘the ride’ today.