Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Deep dive

My goal in this study is to do a "deep dive" on the usability of open source software user interfaces, and examine how usability might be applied to open source software programs. But what do I mean by a "deep dive"?

I mean I intend to an in-depth exploration,¹ to review open source usability in extensive detail.²

This is a topic that is very interesting for me. I am actively engaged in free and open source software. I first discovered free software in 1992 while I was an undergrad. Of course, I'd used shareware (programs that you could try for free, but you were expected to pay if you continued to use them) on MS-DOS for years. While a student, I used As-Easy-As (a shareware spreadsheet program) and Galaxy Write (a shareware word processor) for working on papers and analyzing my lab data. Our computer labs used SunOS and VAX, and the administrator provided free software tools such as Emacs (a programmer's editor) and gcc (a free compiler) for us to use. I found these to be the same high quality as the shareware programs I'd used.

In 1993, I heard about a new operating system that could replace MS-DOS on my computer. This new system was called "Linux", and was built from free software (the term open source software hadn't been coined yet). All the tools we used on the SunOS systems were present in Linux, so I gave it a go. Suddenly, I had the same power of a SunOS workstation on my home computer. No more late-night trips to the computer lab!

But it wasn't just about getting a free ride. For me, the real benefit of free software was that you had access to the source code. If you had the interest and the skill, you could modify the programs to do exactly what you wanted. If you found a bug in a program, you could fix it. If you needed a new feature that would improve the program, you could do that yourself. And over time, I did make a few improvements here and there, and shared my changes with the people who maintained those programs. Some of my changes even made it into future versions of the programs.

Such was my interest in this new way of using software that I created my own free operating system. In 1994, Microsoft announced that their next version of Windows would completely replace MS-DOS. I still used MS-DOS to do a few things (I needed As-Easy-As to do my lab analysis, for example) and didn't want to see DOS go away. So I started work to create a free version of DOS, which later became FreeDOS.

I've continued to use free / open source ever since. Much of the time, I prefer to use Linux as my desktop. But even when I'm using Windows or MacOSX, I like to use Chrome and Firefox - both are open source software (Chrome is built on the open source browser, Chromium). I'm not exclusive, however; I'll use tools and programs as they suit my needs.

At the same time, I have long recognized that open source software lacks a certain UI polish. Often, these programs are written by developers for other developers. Or a programmer picks up a problem to "scratch an itch" (from Eric S. Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar) and in doing so, focuses so intently on the functional problem that he/she often forgets about the interface.

So I want to investigate this problem at a deeper level, to apply what I understand about user interfaces and usability, to study the usability of open source software. I think the community or audience that would benefit from a usability study on open source software is the open source community itself.

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