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Editor's Note: It's All in the Execution

Jun 26, 2010, 00:07 (8 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)


Desktop-as-a-Service Designed for Any Cloud ? Nutanix Frame

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

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 comparison-shop.

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 service line.

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 your project.

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.