In the open source channel, many developers could stand to focus a bit less on technology itself, and a bit more on making products look and feel smart, intuitive and elegant--especially when it comes to communicating with end users. Most Linux distributions don't get this right, but Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Linux, shines as an outlier. Here's how.
I started thinking about this issue as I read a recent post by New York Times blogger Nick Bilton about the crucial importance of elegant and intuitive design--rather than impressive technology--in the IT world today. As Bilton wrote, the IT industry has matured to the point where most consumers care little about technical specifications. Instead, they want products that, in Apple's famous formulation, "just work"--regardless of what happens to be under the hood.
When it comes to pitching open source platforms, Canonical appears to grasp this crucial reality of the modern IT landscape. Consider, for instance, its feature overview of Ubuntu Linux, which focuses on what normal end users can do with Ubuntu: connect to social networks, plug in a variety of peripheral devices and access a range of applications. The live online tour of Ubuntu communicates a similar message, showing what actually using Ubuntu is like.
The takeaway message of material like this is that Ubuntu just works. Explaining exactly how it works--how many megabytes of memory it consumes, the amount of disk space it requires, the various upstream software it integrates--is not part of the picture. And it shouldn't be.
In contrast, the overview of Fedora Linux focuses on things that ordinary end users are unlikely to understand or care much about. It informs readers, for instance, that Fedora is "Linux-based and secure," then links to a lengthy wiki page detailing the technical specifics of Fedora security policies. Similarly, the page describes Fedora as "an amazingly powerful OS" because it is "the foundation for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, a powerful enterprise OS." I don't know many grandmothers who would understand what most of those terms mean, let alone find the claim convincing on its own. Amidst all this geeky boasting, there's little effort to show how Fedora actually works, or what one can do with it.
Other Linux distributions do similarly poor jobs communicating with end users. A list of the highlights of the current openSUSE release, for instance, is filled with technical terms that normal people won't understand. Even the "About" page for Linux Mint, which leads the open source pack in some respects when it comes to usability, expects users to know what terms like "packages," "Ubuntu" and "Debian" mean.
It's hard to blame open source developers too much for these communication faults. After all, most of the people who devote their time and intellect to developing these distributions are programmers, not PR professionals. Still, what the open source world sorely needs--especially as it eyes expansion into next-generation devices such as tablets and smartphones--is a little more empathy with the issues that end users, not code-crunchers, care about most.