Saturday, September 13, 2008

Open source's usability challenge

The iPhone has been out for a year, and known about in detail for considerably longer. Yet the very latest crop of state-of-the-art Windows Mobile phones, clearly designed as head-on competitors to that phone, miss the mark by miles.

They all have the same feature list — indeed, they capitalise on the many aspects of the iPhone that are well below par — but they all feel cruder and more frustrating to use. You can't just bolt this stuff on.

Usability is extremely important. It's also very hard to do well and requires extreme corporate self-discipline. If you ever find yourself asking which of Apple and Microsoft has the more effective management, compare their products. Unless an engineer knows with total clarity that their part of the project will be thrown back for failing to meet usability standards, then the urge to cut a corner or half-bake a feature can be irresistible. Functionality is easy to specify and test: usability far less so.

That should make usability supremely challenging for open-source projects, especially ones of the scale and complexity of Ubuntu. But then, open source is not known for following corporate theory: witness the fact that the Linux desktop has evolved to the point where it's beyond merely usable but a fully-featured and viable alternative in daily work to paid-for software. That should have been impossible: it turned out to be anything but.

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