Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Curiosity, or How We Go Down the Rabbit Hole

Congratulations to the scientists at the Hadron Collider, who have made this gigantic machine act as a time machine. In an interview (which I can't find on NPR or on the BBC!), one of the scientists defended the large multi-national investment in the collider, and in basic science in general, mentioning that most science is done to satisfy curiosity, without thought to where the findings will lead, or their practical applications. And yet, modern technology is built on the foundation of work wrought by those curious people who followed their interests where they led, even down rabbit holes, across oceans or under them, or out into space.

In Free and Open Source Software, we do the same thing. Of course sometimes both scientific research and programming are done to scratch an itch, or solve a discrete problem. But large projects are done by people with a vision of what they want to create, and the enthusiasm to draw others to help in the programming, documentation, dissemination, and advertising. I've recently gotten involved with Amarok, writing the Handbook and the Insider newsletter. It's been great getting to know the team in IRC, on the mail lists and on the Forum. It was very exciting to participate in the release of 2.3, after seeing all the work that had gone into it.

And yet we continue to hear complaints about the 2.x series not being the "perfect" 1.4! Sometimes in shockingly emotional language. The other day I read the comments on a Reddit.com forum post hating on 2.3 for lack of comment support, and have been digesting them ever since. Post is at http://www.reddit.com/r/linux/comments/bjae6/amarok_2_is_still_after_years_of_waiting_for/, and comments are supported in 2.3, but are not searchable. Some of the verbiage is appalling: "I hate Amarok with almost every fiber of my being," "Amarok 2 is the reason I lost faith in the open source doctrine," and the summation of almost all the criticism, "They screwed up big time when going to 2.x, the forums had all kinds of constructive feedback but they couldn't hear anything and refused to listen with their head up their ass. My faith is lost in them." Hear we hear the longing for Eden, a mythical past when that perfect software created the ultimate music experience. I believe this is why the emotion can run so high.

While I agree that 1.4 was wonderful, it is in the past. It's done, and Eden is myth. If the developers didn't have a vision of an even better music experience, they probably would have moved on to a different project by now, and done bug-fixes only, if that. When you look at popular free projects, that's how it goes! Progress or slow death. This happens with companies, too. Some entrepreneur gets an idea, builds a company around that idea -- and then either becomes Manager in Chief, and stops innovating, or recruits a manager, and moves on to the Next Big Idea. Mark Shuttleworth has recently done that in Canonical, where he handed over the managerial duties to Jane Silber, so he can focus on the parts of the project that he still finds engaging. The Amarok developers have moved on, and I'm grateful they are still interested in creating a perfect music experience.

Those folks who believe Amarok 1.4 *is now* the perfect music experience, have the right to support and extend that. That is what free and open software is all about. I might think they are jumping down a rabbit hole, but what's wrong with that? People are still reading and enjoying Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. Not everyone is a programmer; I am not, and not interested in learning. I do enjoy technical writing, and helping people solve their problems, and I've made myself a job on the Amarok team. Rather than looking back to a mythical, perfect past, why not find a way to contribute NOW, and create progress and change?

=====
Also posted as a reply to the Reddit.com forum post. -v