Let's face it, last
week I was being a bit of a smart aleck.
When I wrote a passioned statement about how having a choice of
distros was a good thing, I decided to list 359 other things that
it was good to have choices for. I thought it was a good effort,
and still do. But in the course of a week I have also come to
realize that other points of view may have some validity, too.
On Monday, I tagged along for dinner with a group of people from
Canonical and Sun Microsystems. It was one of those impromptu
things where I went up to Stephen Walli at a bar and said, "Food.
Now." Then he mentioned it some people, and so on, until suddenly
there are over 20 people descending upon a seafood restaurant in
downtown Portland. Whatever, I was hungry.
When the dust settled, I was pleased to find myself sitting
across from Jeff Waugh, of GNOME and Canonical. Fan-boy that I was,
I managed to strike up a conversation with him about things in the
open source world. Along the way, we started talking about the
notion of choice in the community. I mentioned the crux of last
week's column, thinking myself quite the clever person. Waugh, not
so impressed, as indicated by the frown that crossed his face.
To him, the notion of choice is something that is rather
overdone in the open source community. In fact, he thinks that
those who argue that the best thing about open source is the
availability of choice are completely wrong.
He is not denying that choice is an inevitable outcome of open
source development, but he is concerned that too many developers
are pursuing new projects for the sake of choice itself.
I wanted to understand where he was coming from, so I said that
while I would easily agree that too much choice was unwieldy,
having different options was still preferable to just one. In the
case of 359 Linux distributions, I said that yes, that was a lot,
but very few people actually slogged through every single choice...
typically, it comes down to deciding between a few distros that
realistically fit a need.
At this point, Waugh shook his head. Even a few choices was not
necessary, because ultimately it comes down to what's the best
value for the customer. The customer chooses based on the best
value, and having too many choices leads to a situation where none
of the choices are capable of providing that value.
I leaned forward a little, prompting the other diners around me
to chide me for wanting to get into an argument. I relaxed, because
intellectually I knew that listening is always a better way to
learn. But it wasn't easy to see my stance get deftly, but
politely, whacked upside the head.
When you buy a car, I responded, you're going to want to have
some choices, because it's a major purchase. Yes, Waugh responded,
but when it comes down to it, you're still only going to choose the
car that fits your best value model.
Essentially, Waugh was asserting that developers in the open
source community should spend less time focusing on the value of
choice and more on building what's the best value for all end
By the end of the dinner, it was clear to me that he has a good
point about choice for choice's sake. If a developer is going to
break off a project and build something to scratch an itch, why
can't that itch be scratched in the original project to begin with?
Of course, the GPL and many other open source licenses allow that
new feature to get ported to the first project, but will the actual
work get done?
There, I agree with Waugh. But I must also honestly state that I
think on some level, choice is still good, because there are
fundamental differences in application coding that don't seem to
fit everyone's value system. The GNOME vs. KDE debate, for
instance: GNOME is designed for and by users who don't want the
ability to configure every little thing. KDE is built for those who
want lots of choices on many elements of the environment. It seems
that at this level, fundamental values that aren't compatible are
I am still mulling this one over. I sense that we are both right
on this, but I am struggling to codify how choice should work in
the open source community. Help, as always, appreciated.
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