Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ubuntu has not solved the agency problem in community software development for the Linux desktop

Four and a half years ago, I wrote:

In an open source project with a dictatorial or committee-led governance structure, somebody would long ago have cracked some heads and gotten this feature implemented. In a commercial software project, open source or non-, some engineer would be assigned ownership of this feature; and goddammit, if that feature didn't get implemented and maintained, that engineer would be fired and the feature would be assigned to someone else. But KDE's headless. It's less like a mammal with a central nervous system than an enormous amoeba whose various pseudopodia ooze tropically in the direction of "developer itches" and "coolest implementation hacks" (hence the recent proliferation of "hugely ambitious infrastructure refactoring" subprojects like Plasma or Solid) rather than unsexy, annoying-to-implement features that merely provide value to end users.

I genuinely thought Ubuntu had a fighting chance of resolving this agency problem. Surely with a dictator taking responsibility for the entire desktop stack, there would be progress. When there's a bad corner of usability for a common user task, somebody will crack some heads and get it fixed.

Today, I tried to share a file over my local network between my Ubuntu desktop and my Ubuntu laptop. And I ran into this defect which has been open for a year. In the year 2011, the easiest way to copy a file from one Linux computer on your local network to another Linux computer on your local network is still either (a) copy it onto a USB stick or (b) upload it to the Internet (e.g. by attaching it to a draft Gmail message).

Meanwhile, Ubuntu's burning huge numbers of developer and UI designer cycles on stuff like Unity ("We're too impatient to fix the rough edges in our existing desktop which has a decade of developer investment behind it; therefore we will design a brand new desktop, because there definitely won't be any rough edges in that.").

It turns out that, in fact, Ubuntu has not solved the agency problem in Linux desktop software development. Sigh.

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