Saturday, December 18, 2010

User Familiarity != Software Superiority

Most anyone that has really used Linux, on the desktop, in the last few years knows that it is ready for the average user. The same is true for a number of other open source projects. Many FOSS projects are on-par with (or better than) their closed source counter parts when it comes to the number of features and functionality. Why is it then that FOS softwares are (typically) less commonly used by the general public? Simple:

User Familiarity

It is the sad fact that in our current society (mostly) only closed source softwares are used (and taught) in schools - at least in the US. This fact, combined with the resistance to change that is inherit to most people, means people are more inclined to click on that big blue E when going to surf the Internet as opposed to my favorite fox. Many users simply use the software that comes pre-installed on their computer or what is recommended by the sale's person. For example Microsoft Office.

In many FOSS vs Closed Source project comparisons I have seen to date this "user familiarity" is often referenced as a point of "software superiority". Not only is this a flawed form of logic, but it is really borderline FUD. The familiarity the users have with a given piece software is not something that they where born with (or was even developed over night). It is something they learned over an (often extended) period of time.

Do you think a time will ever come when users will realize that just because you know how to use a piece of software doesn't automatically make it the best software for completing the task at hand?

~Jeff Hoogland


  1. Most people who don't know about computers AND don't care to learn will use windows because that came with their PCs and whatever software is available for that platform is what they'll use. Today PCs are coming with Windows 7 which unlike XP will work well enough that people will have little reason to try anything else.

  2. Sorry to say, but I dual-boot Seven with Bodhi and I agree. Bodhi`s faster and looks better, but all my games and my webcam works on Seven without hassle. Of course, I use Chromium knowing what I know now, but when I first started IE was all I knew about so I used it. Linux, (and FOSS), could really use a PR dept.

  3. Users are idiots.

    Just ram Google Chrome Frame down their throats when you detect an IE user string. Problem solved.

  4. Well Canonical is about as close as Linux gets for PR right now. Humble Indie Bundle just hit 1 million bucks in sales in just 7 days, Seems Linux gaming marketshare isn't so 'insignificant' after all. I hope Valve gets wind of this and decides to go ahead with Steam on Linux.

  5. >>>>Users are idiots.

    That is formulating it the wrong way.
    50% of users are idiots
    30% are effing lazy
    The remaining 20% has actually a good reason for what they are doing or not doing

  6. and this is why Microsoft kept XP on life support for netbook use, to make sure none developed any kind of familiarity with linux (no matter how messed up and obsolete the netbook distros where).

  7. Yeah, I've no doubt Win 7 works fine right up until it gets a virus or gets pwned in some other unique Windows way... Alternatively, it's filesystem might just get horribly fragmented. I'll pass thanks.

  8. Some people just has the mentality "more expensive = better quality". Even within the Windows world, I have hard time to convince some of my colleagues to use Open Source software, even when I demonstrate that it is better then the commercial equivalent ... Worse yet, we are IT people, not the average user.

  9. I can second what Innocent Bystander said. I once managed to strike up a conversation with people in an Apple store just about to make a purchase. I introduced them to as an alternative to the $200 Microsoft Office they were going to buy. Showed them the website and demoed the suite right there for them. They were planning on buying another copy of Microsoft Office later, so I suggested they buy the first copy, then try before buying the second copy and decide if the second copy was necessary.

    Their response? They looked at me like I was some kind of shady dealer selling counterfeit goods out of an overcoat and said "No thanks. We prefer to *pay* for our software".

  10. I think your logic is flawed. The best piece of software to complete a task *is* the one you know. (We're talking category equivalent here, word processor for word processor, spreadsheet for spreadsheet etc.)

    You say yourself ... "The familiarity the users have with a given piece software is not something that they where born with (or was even developed over night). It is something they learned over an (often extended) period of time."

    ... and it is this that represents the value of software - what you can do with it, how quickly and with how little fuss. It also highlights the investment people make in the software, which may far exceed the pure dollar cost of the initial purchase.

    The trigger for change will always be when the cost of sticking with whatever exceeds the cost of changing to something new. Those "costs" will be made of of a multitude of factors, not all strictly objective :-
    - investment in learning
    - perceived value
    - brand familiarity
    - functionality
    - purchase price
    - philosphy
    ... and so on.

    Even if we're talking bug-ridden c**p here a user may well feel more comfortable with sticking with it, if they have come to terms with it ("better the devil you know"). This would however increase the relative cost of sticking with that bug-ridden c**p.

    When Microsoft introduced the ribbon interface in Office 2007 they increased the cost of staying with Office. Some responded by accepting the cost, some responded by declining bear the cost and not upgrade. Converting to OOo was/is a legitimate choice but it carries its own costs (training, familiarity, document verisimilitude).

    Much as we like to denigrate them, users are not idiots - they just have different priorities.

  11. This article's main point is true. However, this mindset is often used as an excuse not to improve software. For example, there are familiarity issues, but GIMP still can't hold a candle to Photoshop. Likewise, OpenOffice (or LibreOffice now, depending whose side you're on) is great, but is still lacking in many ways that MS Office isn't.

    The article is certainly true, but I stand by what I've always said: people should stop talking about how Linux isn't as bad as people think, and just start making it better. If it's already better than MS, great, then it becomes much better. But if everyone knows how to use MS Office, then compatability is part of software superiority. If Photoshop is the industry standard, then matching its feature set is part of software superiority.

    The best way to combat FUD is with clearly superior software.

  12. "The best way to combat FUD is with clearly superior software."

    I second that statement. Make a great program, people will love it and recommend it to friends, and from there it goes viral.

    Firefox is a success story in this regard. It was so clearly better than Internet Explorer that it ate up considerable market share in a only a few years.

    I'm not sure about Blender's market share, but it seems to have won over a lot of visual effects artists.

    Contrast those with the much-maligned Gimp. Similar to what J said, saying something is open source isn't good enough. The program has to be immediately and obviously better than its commercial equivalent.

    Here's hoping that someone will come up with killer open-source competitors to Photoshop and Final Cut Pro.

    Keep up the writing, Jeff! Thanks for getting these discussions going.

  13. I`m the last person to defend Windows, but XP is an excellent OS, that`s why it`s still used. I`ve also never gotten a virus on Seven, or Vista before that. Enough FUD, people, leave that to Microsoft. Concentrate on pulling Linux out of the `90`s and into the real user`s world-picture, i.e.,"free" software that`s shitty is still shitty software.

  14. I'm forced by the companies I work for to use Windows
    on my lap top as their internet training and some other programs will only work with Explorer. While I've found work-a-rounds for some of my companies misgivings, for others I have not.

    I use Linux exclusively on the desktop.

  15. It's User Familiarity and it's also the nearly fraud that every computer comes preloaded with the well known micro software company's O/S. If it was mandatory (and it should be) that for every computer bought anywhere in the world, the consumer had to buy the O/S at the price it's quoted at the shop's shelves, I'm sure that conscious consumers would definitely start looking for valid alternatives.

  16. Haven't tried sharing a printer with CUPS lately, have you? ESR's Aunt Tilly would still be left in the dark, but if she were using Windows 7 all she'd have to do is insert the driver disk for her wireless printer on all the PC's on her network and fill out the forms properly, something that would no doubt be explained to her with decent documentation.

    However, as this is an obvious attempt to rationalize your choice of tools, feel free to ignore the fact that FOSS is not user friendly and often times the documentation is lacking because it would interfere with the support contracts that are the business model.

  17. @Anonymous You obviously have never purchased a printer that produces drivers for Linux (HPs are typically good). Because if you had... Well then you would know with Gnome system config you don't even need a "driver disc" to set the thing up.

    In the end - don't blame FOS operating systems for a lack of hardware manufacturer support. Research before you buy and you will be A-OK.

  18. Simple. Better does not necessarily mean popular. For the familiar is usually popular irrespective of the fact that it trips you up ever so often. And at the most inopportune of times.

  19. If software is cross platform- it's allready better in an important way. Saying Photoshop is better and then tricking/forcing people into using Windows is seriously deranged.
    Like alot of OS software Gimp- does enough for most people.

  20. A simple analogy of M.S verses F.O.S. could be, would you buy a car that can only run on the manufactures petrol? or would you buy a car than will run on any flavour of petrol including M.S.s?. to me there is no contest.

  21. Uh, I would rather have a car built by trained, paid professionals as opposed to a bunch of unpaid volunteers, thanks.

  22. Of course I wrote the above from Ultimate Gamer`s Edition, (Ubuntu), which does most of what I need, but not all.

  23. Good article. I agree with the Author.

    Many of the comments that follow the article are a bit silly and my cooler head tells me to let them be, but I'll jump in anyway.

    1) You can't compare software to automobiles. You COULD compare computer hardware to automobiles, but not software. A more accurate comparison would be literature authors. Does the writer that make 6-figures produce better quality work than the man who writes on the weekends because it's his passion? Maybe, maybe not.

    2) I'm a full time computer tech and the VAST majority of my customers use Windows. When it comes to their technological ability they're all over the map, but none of them are stupid. Yet Windows continues to break on them, get corrupt on them, and bog down on them.

    I'm _not_ saying Linux, or any FOSS for that matter, is foolproof or is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What I _am_ saying is that Windows is far from superior.

    3) Now that Windows 7 is out I have many customers finding themselves having to purchase a new printer because the company (usually HP) doesn't have any Win7 drivers for that particular model. Yet these printers still work fine with Linux (I've checked). So the "ease of use" with Windows is a sword that cuts both ways.

  24. Thanks for your comment Ben. It is sparks of lights like these that remind me there are smart people still left that surf the internet :)

  25. Uh, excuse me? I`m going to assume you didn`t just call the rest of us that posted here cretins by your reply to Ben.

  26. Not ALL the rest of you Randy ;)