Free Doesn't Mean Free From Criticism - InformationWeek

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9/21/2009
12:17 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Free Doesn't Mean Free From Criticism

Last week I wrote about an open source utility with an interface that I thought needed work; commenters on the article slammed me for being critical. Sorry, I don't think free software and open source has a future in a world where it's somehow immune from criticism because it's free.

Last week I wrote about an open source utility with an interface that I thought needed work; commenters on the article slammed me for being critical. Sorry, I don't think free software and open source has a future in a world where it's somehow immune from criticism because it's free.

There were a couple of sentiments aimed my way that I want to examine. I hear them in a great many other circles, but hearing them again and again does not make them any more true.

The first is something like this: If you don't like the way an open source program works, then learn how to program so you can improve it.

To that, I say this: Yes, all programmers are users. But not every user is a programmer. Nor do they want to be.

Most people use software to use it, to get something from it for the sake of their larger workload, and move on. Very few people have any inclination at all to contribute to a given software project other than to give their piece of mind. That piece of mind could be well-informed, or middling, or ignorant, or what have you. It's entirely the province of the people responsible for the project to take that advice, or ignore it.

And yes, sometimes you will get someone who does in fact sit down and write the very contribution he wants to see in the program. But he's the exception, not the rule. To expect people like him to become the rule, even in the FOSS world, completely ignores why software exists and why it's used. Most of the people who use your program, no matter how it's licensed or created, are going to use it without ever intending to work on it. (And if they are programmers, that doesn't mean they want to become a programmer for your project. Odds are they already have their hands full.)

This goes for software written for a potential audience of twenty, two hundred or two hundred thousand. Sometimes those users will have uncharitable things to say. And sometimes those things will contain some of the best advice you'll get about what to do next.

The other thought-trend I see is even more troubling. It's free software, so quit complaining about it. Free sort of like the free coffee you get at your doctor's office: if it's lousy coffee, it's your tough luck.

This actually seems to be a conflation of two totally separate conceits:

1. It's free, therefore you don't have the right to complain about it.

2. It's free, therefore the creators are not obliged to implement your criticism.

Well, sure. I don't believe for a second that anyone is obliged to use the criticism I'd give about a program. They can take it to heart, ignore it, laugh at it, whatever.

But that's not the same thing as being told I shouldn't say anything at all -- that I have no moral right to complain, that to give constructive criticism about free software is in the same category as pointless grousing about the weather.

Horsefeathers. If free software and open source are on the rise, then we have all the more reason to be critical of the results. That's a big part of how better software is produced, regardless of the development methods. If FOSS is the better way to go, as its supports claim, then they should be able to take criticism, well-intentioned or ill-.

But if these attitudes are the prevalent ones in the FOSS world, then I have no choice but to conclude that FOSS is its own worst enemy. And I'm going to continue to grouse about crummy program UIs until I turn blue in the face.

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