// Internet Duct Tape

Why Open Source Software Sucks – Software Simplicity Isn’t Simple

Posted in Programming and Software Development, Technology by engtech on December 06, 2007

Programming Tips

Aside: Hosted software would be something like Gmail, while installable software would be something like Outlook. WordPress.com is hosted software by Automattic, but it is also available at WordPress.org where you can download it and install it yourself where ever you want.

There are a few “internet rockstars” in programming circles, and most programmers who read blogs will have heard of Joel Spolsky (one of the few people who writes entertaining tech books) and 37signals (the guys who made Ruby on Rails and Basecamp). The guys at 37signals recently wrote a post about how they prefer creating web-based software that they host vs software that a user would have to download and install themselves because it is so much easier for the software developer. When you don’t have to release your software into the wild you have so many less things to worry about: different operating systems, memory performance, installation dependencies, hardware dependencies.

“You have to deal with endless operating environment variations that are out of your control. When something goes wrong it’s a lot harder to figure out why if you aren’t in control of the OS or the third party software or hardware that may be interfering with the install, upgrade, or general performance of your product. This is even more complicated with remote server installs when there may be different versions of Ruby, Rails, MYSQL, etc. at play.”

Joel looks at his stats and points out that if he didn’t provide installable software then he’d be out of business, because it accounts for 80% of his revenue compared to hosted software.  He also makes a great point that software that people are willing to buy is software that solves a gnarly problem, IE: it deals with complicated stuff. Any other kind of problem can be solved by free software because its uncomplicated enough that one guy in his mom’s basement can churn it out over a weekend.

“The one thing that so many of today’s cute startups have in common is that all they have is a simple little Ruby-on-Rails Ajax site that has no barriers to entry and doesn’t solve any gnarly problems. So many of these companies feel insubstantial and fluffy, because, out of necessity (the whole company is three kids and an iguana), they haven’t solved anything difficult yet. Until they do, they won’t be solving problems for people. People pay for solutions to their problems.”

But he then follows through with a great point that the gnarly problem that 37signals’ applications solve is the problem of design. 37signals might be building fluffy Ruby-on-Rails Ajax sites, but that’s beside the point of the problem they’re really solving: how to design a great looking user experience that makes people happy.

I think this draws a great parallel to what’s wrong with free software: it’s created to scratch a certain itch, and that’s usually all it does. Compelling user interface? Joy to use? Nope, it solves the original programmer’s problem and that’s about it. And before you get all uppity that I’m attacking open source software, let me clarify that I’m talking about the open source software I create.

The problem is two-fold: I have a natural tendency to over-complicate things and I have trouble sharing the customer’s pain (stepping away from the code, and seeing how a stranger would view the end result). Jeff “Metal” Atwood asks “When was the last time you even met a customer, much less tried to talk to them about a problem they’re having with your website or software?”

This hit me last week when I sat down with another engineer to show him an internal tool I was building for him. He started poking a usage case that confused him. It wasn’t in the spec, and it didn’t follow the way he thought of the flow. It was an artifact of the internal data structures I was using that I was exposing to the user. This happens too often. It’s the opposite of opinionated software [1]: pushing the decision making on to the user. [2]

Of course, writing open source software has its benefits because quite often there’s no barrier between you and the people who are using your software other than computer screens. You are your own quality assurance, and you are your own customer service. You have to explain to the users why they should install your software, you have to deal with the installation headaches your platform choice created, you have to explain any complexities with how to use it, and you have to help them when problems occur.

My open source software might suck, but its helping me explore the solution to a gnarly problem: how to solve problems in a way that is easy for other people to use.

Related Posts

Footnotes

1 – There’s an interested essay to be written comparing opinionated software to considerate software.

2 – This programming talk might bore you, but the problem of simplicity in design is cross-discipline and applies to any blogger.

Magazine Review: October 2007 Issue of Inc. Magazine

Posted in Book Reviews, Startups and Business, Technology by engtech on October 05, 2007

I came to a rather startling discovery in the past month: magazines are just blogs with the added luxury of being able to read them while on the toilet or in the bathtub (but hopefully not both).

I picked up the October issue of Inc. magazine because Joel Spolsky of Joel On Software has joined the magazine. I’m a Joel fan-boy. Internet Duct Tape was inspired by Joel on Software. Here are some random thoughts from spending a rainy Saturday flipping through the pages. Can this possibly be entertaining or of value to my readers? I have no idea.

I’m going to give each article a +1 or a -1 based on whether or not I found it interesting and discuss it with a short blurb. You can read along with me on the online copy. Follow the bouncing ball.

-1 Editor’s Letter, Contibutors, and Reader Mail: I can’t help but think this stuff should be at the end of a magazine instead of at the front. Below the fold, if you will. Give the reader the most useful tidbits first instead of burying it in the middle.

-1 People Who Were Inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: It didn’t sell me that the only entrepreneur’s name I recognized was the one from Doubleclick. Instead of a biographical tidbit about Ayn Rand, tell me what the book was about! How did they miss that there is a 2008 movie with Angelina Jolie in the works? Is Wikipedia the new Coles Notes? Where was the tie-in that Atlas Shrugged inspired the current hit Xbox 360 game Bioshock?

I’m getting the feeling that I’m not the core audience for this magazine.

+1 Netflix vs Blockbuster: Blockbuster proves the adage that startups are R&D for bigger companies by one upping Netflix’s business model. Bad advice from other entrepreneurs follows.

  • “Netflix should court CDs” – iTunes and digital downloads are already trailblazing the future of this industry, going up against iTunes on their existing strengths isn’t going to help Netflix. Isn’t CD by mail subscription also going up against Columbia House?
  • “Focus on being #1 service without lowering price” – Good, if obvious, advice.
  • “Focus on obscure films” – Every company needs to have a passionate minority at their core if they hope to have any success. This would have been good advice if Netflix was starting at a grassroots level, but they already have that core smaller audience from years ago.
  • “Hookup with a cable company” – I completely agree that they need to move to digital downloads. Always build the product that will kill your current product. But getting in bed with CableCos is courting the devil.

+1 Investor’s Guide to Inc 500: Bug VCs with the previous issue’s top 500 startups list. Bonus points for mentioning Massage Envy masseuse franchises that are a lawsuit waiting to happen. Bill Me Later is my pick from the list. They act as a proxy between your credit card info and other companies for people who are afraid of buying on the Internet. I also like Vocera who do star trek style voice communicators for hospitals.

+1 Even CEOs Have to Apologize for Screwing Over Workers: I appreciate the message, but felt there was a bit too much emphasis on assigning blame for why the bad decisions happened. Kudos for stepping up to the plate, admitting mistakes, and keeping the team in the loop.

+1 Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Companies: Someone’s written a book about the idea that companies need to fulfill more of an employee’s needs than just the paycheck. Interesting: customers are promiscuous meaning that even if they’re perfectly satisfied with service they might still switch to a competitor they’re also perfectly satisfied with. Article is fluffy, wonder if the book goes any deeper? No mention of creating fulfilling work, just increasing employees self-worth and attitudes towards themselves.

Is this like that bogus psychology from the 80s that encouraged self-confidence without merit and created a generation of self-entitled people who don’t understand why life isn’t handing them the success they deserve?

-1 Estate Planning: I pay someone to pay attention to this stuff for me. That might be stupid on my part.

+1 Is My Social Network Startup Worth Investing In? 55 Alive: Investors get to rip into a young startup. Startup wants $250k but most investors are advicing between $1 to $20 million. I love the VC who points out that common interest ties people together, not demographics like age group. We had a conversation about this last night at a dinner party discussing the people you knew in elementary school and high school that you reconnect with but it goes no where — because where you went to school is no indication of common interests. Same guy tells them to generate their own ad revenue without investors.

More good advice that they need to focus on building up local features. So true, what makes social networking sites work is if they become a communication tool for an existing friends group.

+1 Internet Video Beyond YouTube: Some good discussion on interactive webcasts, livecasting, and promotional videos. HelloWorld is officially my favorite company name ever. I’m so surprised there was no mention of Will It Blend or CommonCraft.

+1 Web Polls: Not enough information on the individual web polling companies, but the use cases of how businesses are incorporating them are phenomenal. Conclusion: don’t manage statistics gathering by hand, but be careful who you go with because it can go from $1,000 to $10,000s of dollars.

+1 Using Marketing to Improve Old Business: One man’s guerilla campaign to revitalize the NY Metropolitan Opera. My favorite example of traditional businesses embracing new media is the Brooklyn Museum’s Flickr page. I liked the idea of giving free tickets to the last dress rehearsal to create buzz and simulcasting the operas onto outside monitors.

+1 Update: An older story of a company in trouble and the advice the Inc. experts gave is updated with the results. Great proof that the magazine advice works.

+1 Questions and Answers: Inc. recommended a survey business support myspace, but ignore Second Life. Unfortunately, no mention of SL’s flying penii. They also give the sage advice that the average person sees 3,000 ads a day so advertisers have to work that much harder to be in the 1% of ads that people notice. Good advice with “do you even know who your audience is?” Huge bonus points for mentioning Made to Stick, one of the best books I’ve ever read.

How to maintain corporate culture: build stories around your brand, have bigger goals than “making money” and fire people who don’t fit with the culture you want to have.

+1 Money Management for Entrepreneurs: Good tip that you should have two financial advisors, one primary and one secondary so that if one doesn’t work out then you can transfer to the other while you look for a replacement.

0 Joel Builds a Shipping System: Reprint from Joel on Software.

-1 Entrepreneurship is Passion: all fluff, no content.

-1 Inc. Gear: hard to believe that this isn’t product placement.

+1 Pandora Story: Cover story about the Pandora music recommendation service. Turning your customers into fans will help you overcome all kinds of roadblocks. But what about your international customers?

+1 The Way I Work: The best interview question is to find out how someone copes with stress. Article focuses on stress management and using external creativity to unwind — maintaining relationships with your support network is more important than the job.

-1 Corporate Retreat: The usual on breaking down people to build a team.

+1 How I Did It: Success story in billboard advertising. Become an expert and buy advertising space that people aren’t using.

-1 Inc. Classifieds: Spam spam spam. Penis enlargement, asian brides, and buy my e-book. It’s like they have blog comments printed right in the magazine.

Overall Score: +7

After an underwhelming start I found some good content in the middle of Inc. Magazine and I’d read it again. Every blog is a self-run small business and every blogger is an entrepreneur, so it isn’t that surprising that I liked the magazine.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 286 other followers