I just took a quick peek at the new, so-called user-friendly installer for the next release of Debian. It’s pretty obvious these folks don’t have a clue about talking to real users. I doubt they’ve done any end-user testing. For instance, after I’ve selected “English” as my primary language, maybe it would make sense to move the English keyboard layouts to the top of the list? And do they really expect end users to understand or care about messages like “Loading module ‘plix’ for ‘Intel Corporation 82371AB/EB/MB PIIX4″? I asked for English in the install. Would it be too much to ask that the installer speak it? And I’m sorry, but “SCSI1 (0,0,0) (sda) – 4.3 GB VMware, VMware, Vi” is not a sensible name for a disk. How I am supposed to choose between “Primary” and “logical” partitions? I could continue, but I’ll stop here. Haven’t any of these people ever used a Mac? In many ways, Linux is an extremely modern operating system, which makes it all the more frustrating that its user interface is still stuck in 1982.
One thing Stallman has never really acknowledged (at least that I’ve ever heard) is that the freedom he talks about is only for programmers and people who can afford to pay them. Everyone else is a serf who has to bow at the table of their programmer masters. In some ways it reminds me of ancient Athenian philosophers and Roman republicans philosophizing about freedom and democracy in a society built on the backs of slaves. The simple fact is that until the free software movement starts to take user interface design seriously, a typical end user is vastly more free using a Mac or even Windows than they ever will be using Linux.
The only counter example I can think of is Firefox. Firefox has a genuinely good user interface, with only a few minor glitches; probably less than you’d see in a typical end-user Windows application and only a few more than you’d find in an average Mac app. But that’s it. Mozilla’s a little worse than Firefox when it comes to the user interface. And I can’t think of any other open source, end-user application that even comes close to its non-free counterparts. No, OpenOffice doesn’t qualify. Claims that OpenOffice is as good as Microsoft Office, itself not a sterling example of user interface design, are wishful thinking at best. Maybe 2.0 will be better, but 1.x is at most adequate. I speak as someone who wrote an entire book using OpenOffice, and boy was that a mistake. There are real costs to using software with poor user interface design, and in this case the cost was a book that came out months later than it was supposed to. There are advantages to OpenOffice compared to Microsoft Word. The native XML format is a big one. But as typical for open source, this advantage does not make the slightest bit of difference to a non-programmer end user. Until open source developers start writing software for end users instead of each other, the situation will not improve; and most of the world will remain serfs. The only difference will be whether they bow in the direction of Redmond, Cupertino, or Cambridge.