Choice is Messy (Free Software Likes It That Way)

Once again we hear calls to better organize Linux software, yet once again they fall on deaf ears.
Posted September 15, 2010

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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Does free software offer too many choices?

In the last dozen years, the question has been revived more often than the Daleks on Doctor Who. If the community could only agree to standardize on applications, deadlines, and options, the argument goes, then world domination would be within reach.

The latest version of this argument is Graham Morrison's article, "The trouble with Linux: There's too much choice." Morrison writes that the amount of choice is "often overwhelming, needlessly complicated and an easy excuse for change. Choice goes hand-in-hand with redundancy and duplicated effort."

Morrison goes on to suggest that, on the one hand, if the community doesn't make a decision to standardize, then it will lose the choice because others -- presumably, businesses and distros -- will make the choice for them. On the other hand, by giving up a little unnecessary choice, "we'll have gained a whole lot more choice where it's important: the freedom to run secure, safe and supported software on whatever platform we choose."

Essentially, Morrison says nothing new. Perhaps he does not need to, because, superficially, this argument makes sense. If you are a developer new to free software, you may be unaware of the open standards or the hooks into kernel space that provide an underlying unity.

Similarly, if you are an executive trying to make strategic decisions, you may be overwhelmed by the number of distributions and wonder how you can possibly support them all. In the same way, faced with choices where Windows offer none, a casual user may suffer option anxiety, and become paralyzed by indecision. So why not make everyone more comfortable and simplify everything?

The only trouble is, this criticism fails to take into account the structure of the free software community, to say nothing of the reason for its existence. As sensible as the suggestions may seem, they aren't about to adopted -- not to any degree, and not by the community as a whole.

Choice First

Probably the argument that Morrison revives is echoed at one time or other by every user of free software. When you see yet another plan to develop a music player or desktop, the chances are that you entertain the fleeting thought that the projects are a waste of time. Almost immediately, though, the thought is usually followed by a shrug and an acknowledgement that people are free to do whatever they please.

The fact is, there is not much interest in strategic efficiency in free software (tactical efficiency, in the form of well-written software, is another matter entirely). If there were, then the logic of Morrison's argument would have been followed long ago.

But the interest is so small that, when Ubuntu's Mark Shuttleworth called for the relatively minor goal of standardizing project release dates, the silence was deafening. Debian, Ubuntu's parent distro, made some vague noises about having regular releases, and that was about the strongest response. Nor, in practice, has Debian been able to carry out its intention.

No one rejects standardization absolutely. In the abstract, many might even say it is a good idea. Yet it seems that no one judges it a high enough priority to make any focused effort to achieve it.

For all the attention that free software has paid in recent years to usability, it remains a developer-centered community. And while developers appreciate a usable interface as much as an ordinary office drone does, what most of them want in an interface is the ability to do things their own way. And, unsurprisingly, this preference makes its way into the code they write.

Even among non-coders like me, you aren't going to hear too many complaints about an over abundance of choice. After all, most people who use free software regularly are fleeing a lack of choice in Windows or OS X. The whole reason for free operating systems like Linux is to offer alternatives, which is why calls like Morrison's or Shuttleworth's consistently fall on uncaring ears.

It is not just a case, as Caitlyn Martin points out in her response to Morrison that, except for a momentary initial confusion, no one is intimidated by the number of choices in the breakfast cereal aisle at the supermarket.

The analogy is accurate, so far as it goes, but, in the case of free software enthusiasts, it is probably only part of the reason so few care about standardization. An even greater reason is that, for many members of the community, reducing choices feels vaguely wrong.

Next Page: KDE 4.0 and choice

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Tags: open source, Linux, Linux downloads, open source tools, KDE 4

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