Beating proprietary-ware and shabby,
customer-hostile business practices should be easy.
This has been an interesting week, all full of drama and fun. I
came back from vacation last week to a dead well pump. There was
enough water in the pressure tank to keep us going for a couple of
days. Out here in the tail end of nowhere well contractors are not
plentiful. In fact there are two. I called the one that I already
have a business relationship with, as I have bought crushed rock
and topsoil from him several times.
Big mistake. He didn't return phone calls. When I finally
tracked him down he was rude and argumentative, and was not
bothered by the idea of us being out of water, and allowed as to
how he might exert himself to give a bid. I wasted three days
trying to corral this clown before I wised up and remembered that I
always dealt with one of his employees for the rock and topsoil,
not the boss man. So I tracked down the other local well
contractor, and what a different experience. He whisked right over
to install a loaner pump, gave me a reasonable bid, and didn't act
like I'm some kind of sucker who doesn't know how to
Customer Service is Everything
It's a good lesson for anyone who has customers. The first step is
figuring out who are your customers? When you're Microsoft it's not
end-users, but everyone upstream: corporate buyers, resellers, and
OEM shops. Actual users are little more than unavoidable nuisances.
Microsoft salespeople and marketers cater strictly to the folks who
sign the big checks. Their retail marketing is so awful it can't
possibly be effective, but even if it is the folks who sign the
checks to Microsoft are not individual retail customers, but the
stores they buy from. In any business with this disconnect between
purchaser and user, the user goes to the end of the customer
When you're a FOSS developer your customers are other developers
who want to use or contribute to your code, and end users. It can
get even more complicated as artists, documentation writers,
distributors, bug finders, testers, and corporate contributors all
want to get involved with your project. It can be overwhelming, but
at least everyone has a direct stake in the health and success of
Making Good Software
One good thing about helping new Linux users is it brings home just
how inefficient and weird many FOSS applications are. It's not an
exclusive problem with FOSS, because we see dumb interfaces all day
every day. Like the grocery store credit/debit card scanners that
ask multiple times for the same information, and you have to click
the Cancel button when you''re not using your credit card with a
PIN. Hey, how intuitive! Everywhere else in computer-land Cancel
means "Forget it, go away, I don't want to do this at all." I hate
those things, as they are mass-marketed monuments to terrible
design, and yet they are purchased by the millions.
Or bank ATM machines where the buttons don't line up with your
options so you're not sure which button to push, screens you can't
read in daylight, and no coherency in whether you press a physical
button, or push a touchscreen button.
My other favorite horrid example is my Dish TV menu. I bought my
system four years ago, and in that time it has not received a
single interface upgrade. And yet it is a great example of how to
not to do interface design, with no way to streamline frequent
tasks, terrible flow, and no consistency. Sometimes a button-click
on the remote activates your chosen operation, sometimes you have
to click an on onscreen button, sometimes you have to tediously
jump through several other options first. It's horrible, it's lame,
and it persists.
The barrier to being better than proprietary-ware is pretty low.
A teeny-tiny miniscule percentage of vendors in any field are truly
"innovative"; who continue to improve and upgrade their product
lines, and who always look for better ways to do things. The rest
settle in nice comfortable ruts as quickly as possible and never
ever want to progress. While many FOSS projects are superior, there
is plenty of room for improvement. My pet wonderment: why does it
take multiple clicks to shut the computer off?
But pet wonderments aside, great software plus great service is
an unbeatable combination as projects like Ubuntu, Dreamwidth,
Digikam, and Fedora have proven. Google is making a big splash with
Android, and the whole mobile/embedded market is red-hot. I think
the real Linux boom is just beginning.