Linux.Conf.Au Day 2 - Mad Dog's Keynote

Jim O'Halloran • January 15, 2004

linux-and-open-source linuxconfau-2004

The day started out with a keynote from John "Maddog" Hall, "Programers are from Mars, Users/Managers/Companies are from Uranus". This was a brilliantly executed talk which carried a useful message, but at the same time was quite light and humorous. Very well done.

Managers and corporate types like to see road maps describing where products are going in the future. The very well organised open source projects have these, but road maps are typically a product of companies who do all of their design and planning behind closed doors, where all they can share with the customer is the road map. By its very nature, anyone can see the process behind open source, and after tracking a project for a short time will get a very good feel for where the project is going. Managers like a controlled approach. Managers like plans.

A closed source company tends to get away with higher margins on services, etc because they have a virtual monopoly on the expertise wrapped up in the product. In open source anyone can pick apart the product and see how it works and acquire the expertise necessary to work with it in some way (e.g. to support it, extend it or whatever). If one open source company is charging too much, another can spring up and charge less. In this way open source can put a downward pressure on prices for support and services.

Halls Law: "It is easier to take an engineer and teach them business than it is to take a businessperson and teach them engineering."

Managers are trying to protect their products and markets, which leads to "good ideas" like " customer lock in", "patents". It also leads to great ideas like keeping their engineers fully utilised, with minimal training, leave, etc.

Programmers on the other hand are too intelligent. We like to think that we're just a little more intelligent than everyone else. We want to be recognised, and we want to do things "the right way", as "elegantly" as possible. In this way open source can be good for the ego.

We write our software for our perceived user. Our ideal user was born in 1984, and taught himself BASIC at age 6. He started on Linux at 12, and had released his own Linux distribution by 14. Believe it or not this guy actually exists, but he's certainly not the typical user. Taken directly from Maddog's slides:

"The real end user is: Not intelligent Does not read manuals Does not want to read manuals Just want to do their work Has arthritis Speaks only one language and its not yours. May be completely illiterate but is not necessarily dumb May be dumb Barely understands how a light bulb works "I was wondering why it was beeping at me for two days" Has trouble separating the operating system from anything else. Speaks in terms of the real world "knobs and widgets"."

Maddog characterises end users as one of two types. Either corporate, where the PC's are installed and supported by professional IT staff (either internal staff (large), visiting consultants (smaller), or a local computer shop (very small). Linux it probably ready for all except the last group of these. The other group are the home users who get their support from their church group, their community, or in absolute emergencies their children. It could take a long time for Linux to be ready for these people.

There are a few characteristics that define a successful product. They must use real world knobs, things the user can relate to directly. Supercalc, and Palm Pilots are a couple of good examples here. They must be simple to start off with and progressive disclose their features as the user becomes more experienced, with the hard parts automated wherever possible. Tivo is a classic example of this.

The name of the product doesn't mean a lot, but it has to be the right name, e.g. Google vs Altavista.

All in all, it really was a great keynote.