Daily question: Contributors vs. Users

From KDE Developer’s Journals:

KDE, like many other open-source projects, doesn’t really need users at all, whether they are poisonous or not. What we need are contributors: that’s the life-blood of our community, what keeps KDE growing and evolving. To the extent that users can and do become contributors, I will grant that we need a userbase as a pool of potential future contributors. But I am simply baffled by any argument that we “need” to have a large number of people that never do more than use KDE. Why do we need them?

What is a platform without users?

10 thoughts on “Daily question: Contributors vs. Users

  1. Ziad: “…they simply use our software”

    Open source has no consistent and reliable way of measuring user satisfaction, which, in a commercial market, is gauged by sales. So the results are disconnected from quality and performance, and this has a distorting effect on open source developers.

  2. Given the definition that seems to have come from the linked article, and the links its author had posted…

    “When I say we don’t need users, I am talking by definition about people who do not contribute to KDE: they do not report bugs, they do not write documentation, they do not translate, they do not promote…they simply use our software.”

    …I would say a platform without users is almost indistinguishable from a platform with users. This is because “users” do nothing for the platform, no feedback, no $, no word-of-mouth, no mention on web forums, nothing. All the developers would have is page-views and downloads.

    Think of your blog without comments, email feedback, or track-backs. All you would have is your web stats. Which are a pretty crude way of determining the value of your articles, where you could do better, and other points of view.

  3. Kontra: “Apple is regarded as the most innovative company around but doesn’t really actively solicit its users into its innovation process.”

    Yes, Apple is an exception.

    Steve Jobs is a visionair. Visionairs don’t thrive in corporate culture. It was actually the Homebrew Computer Club that enabled Jobs’s and Woz’s meteoric rise. Woz offered the Apple I design to his employer, HP, but HP wasn’t interested and all agree it wouldn’t have worked.

    Being a visionair is not a 9 to 5 job, it requires a lot of passion, love and – above all – working time. Jobs himself admits it is hard working. A normal thing to do, when you have the intelligence, is to be an idealistic, passionate visionair when you are a teenager and use this gift somehow to create a living. Then, growing older, spend your energy on establishing your business and raising a family. Stick with the existing business model, let others do the work, don’t waste energy on more innovations, it isn’t worthwhile.
    Jobs’s business however grew faster than anyone could immagine and before he could consolidate his position he was thrown out of the company. He spent his middle ages at spinning for revenge and rethinking computer business over and over again. Then he took the chance to really make his comeback.

    So for some strange coincidence, at 53 years of age, Jobs is still behaving as the teenager he was at Homebrew Computer Club, only now with the full power and backup of a large company. Which makes an absolutely extraordinary story.
    But it doesn’t keep me from the observation it was at Homebrew Computer Club that the seed of innovation could thrive at the first place, even when 99,99% of seeds found in all those homebrew hobbyclubs are dull and uninteresting.

  4. Berend: “Innovation thrives in a social environment where community members inspire each other and like to improve their products for the sheer pleasure of doing so.”

    There are counter-arguments to that. On the one end, Apple is regarded as the most innovative company around but doesn’t really actively solicit its users into its innovation process. On the other, where participation does occur such as in the open source community, the output is quite derivative of the dominant platform, Windows.

  5. @Kontra: I think what Shuttleworth is doing is absolutely brilliant and exactly what the Linux ecosystem needs at this point. I think he understands what this KDE guy does not, that software is there to solve a problem, not as a justification to its own existence.

    The line between a user and a contributor is quite fuzzy and the KDE guy did not define it. If by “contributor” he only talks about source code contributions, I disagree with him. I think this “we only need contributors” mentality is very elitist and only harms the image of the ecosystem.

  6. That is really an interesting question.

    A platform without non-contributing users is a hobby club. Nothing wrong with that, the world is full of hobby clubs making things that are also available as industrial products. People planting their own vegetables (tastes much better!), making their own beer, maintaining their own steam railway, and so on. So there really lies no harm in defining Linux as a hobby-club for people making their own software and having lots of fun in doing so. And occasionally there is a Homebrew Computer Club conceiving a product that really makes it into the real world.

    From the other side: a platform with non-contributing users will need some effort in explaining the users how to use the platform. It will need an effort to explain potential users they should use the platform in the first place, which might imply a marketing budget. In order to finance a marketing budget you need a revenue model, a revenue model will require (some) market protection and there you go…

    It seems to be part of a paradox between innovation and day-to-day use. Innovation thrives in a social environment where community members inspire each other and like to improve their products for the sheer pleasure of doing so. Try to steer innovation with a hierarchical organisation model and add some market protection measures upon that, and not for long innovation is dead. It isn’t a coincident that many development departments of big companies are money consuming monsters with no output.

    In a development cyclus you can often distinguish different phases. The first phase is experimenting and struggling about getting a standard, in computer business this happened in the 1970′s and 80′s. The second phase is getting a de-facto standard that is often proprietary (MS-DOS; Windows). The third phase is making it a real standard (like ISO or IEEE).
    Microsoft has been sitting on its monopoly and caused a lot of irritation in doing so. For me that is a reason to be sympathetic against Linux. But I have to agree it is not very likely that Linux will become a 1-in-1 replacement for Windows as a standardised platform. The basic standardisation platform of today is the internet with http, html, xml and – coming up – AJAX and JavaScript.
    A more likely scenario might be hardware manufacturers will return to making each their own operation system (which will be more often than not some flavour of open source Unix, with additional open source Webkit, open source V8 etc.), allowing basic tasks using webapps and adding proprietary bells and whistles to access cool new hardware features.

  7. Stan Lee of Marvel Comics told the following story. Marvel Comics always outsold DC Comics, and the business people at DC Comics couldn’t understand why. They both told stories about super heroes, so they asked Stan Lee about his secret sauce. “It’s because our covers have more red and blue”, he said jokingly, but the business people took it literally. What they didn’t understand was that the Spider Man stories had humour, irony and stories about human frailty. Readers could relate to the Spider Man stories more easily. What does this learn us? It’s all about values. If the values of the users can be found in the products, they can relate to them.

  8. Antonis, so you don’t think hiring a few “designer types” by Mark Shuttleworth for the next version of Ubuntu won’t solve this perennial problem?

  9. I guess these are the same people that believe that Linux is somehow inherently destined to become mainstream and when the reasons for why this hasn’t happened yet are discussed get all defensive and religious about it.

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