The first time I saw Linux was in the back of a computer shop while a tech was fixing my computer. An enthusiast had brought his machine in, and was boasting about how much more complete its applications were than anything on Windows.
"Look at this," he said, turning on a screensaver that showed a 3-D maze of pipes. "There's valves on the pipes!"
At the time, I edged away from him, rolling my eyes. But, in retrospect, he had a point. One of the best things about free and open source software (FOSS) is that its developers often do attempt to write software that is the ultimate in its category.
They remind me of the writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century who tried to write the definitive reference work on their subject, whether it was the decline and fall of the Roman empire or how diversity leads to the creation of new species. They've caught the habit of perfection, and I have to admire them.
Their behavior is something that you can't expect to see in proprietary software. When you are worried about getting an app to market, perfection means delay. Instead, proprietary software usually settles for good enough, even when trying to match a rival product's features or to take the lead in the features race.
By contrast, despite the growth of open source in business, FOSS still has room for developers who want to tinker until they get the code right. After all, their name is on the code, and who wants to take credit for a kludge?
At its worst, this struggle for perfection produces meaningless features like valves on a screensaver's pipes. At its best, however, it produces apps that remind you of why you were excited when you sat down in front of your first computer.
In an era where apps on all platforms seem to have a stagnant features list, the developers of perfectionist apps keep coming up with something new, and, frequently develop the interfaces to cope with the resulting complexity.
Not sure what I mean? Then maybe these examples will make the point clearer.
Amarok is the most commonly used music player on KDE. Like KDE itself, Amarok has received some rough press because of its transition to KDE 4.0, and some people are still missing features that were present in earlier versions. Even so, the recently-released 2.2 has an impressive set of features.
Like any music player, Amarok allows you to play tracks by albums or by your own play lists, and to listen to podcasts. But what sets Amarok apart is all its extras: a detailed search and sorting functions, a middle pane that locates relevant lyrics and Wikipedia entries, add-on scripts, automatic location of cover art and more, all in a interface that is customizable and easy enough to start using in seconds.
An especially powerful feature is the ability to create biased random playlists. You can, for example, specify that an otherwise random playlist include 25% of a particular artist or a genre, or 80% songs that are less than three minutes long.
Amarok does so much more than simply organize and play tracks that I can safely say that it includes features that I never would have thought of on my own. But, now that I've seen them, these features seem indispensable. Somehow, no other music player compares.
Where other solitaire collections have a few dozen games, Pysol has nearly 1,050. In many distributions, it also contains several dozen Mahjongg games, although for some reason the Debian package omits them. It also includes several dozen-card sets that range across time, cultures and size to provide something for everyone.
I can't say whether more than 1,050 solitaire games exist in the world, but, if they do, I wouldn't know. I still haven't played all the games Psyol had when I discovered it ten years ago -- and it only included a few hundred then.
K3b was one of the first FOSS CD burners with an easy-to-use interface. For a couple of years, it was the main reason that I kept KDE installed while primarily using GNOME.