News that the New Zealand Automobile Association is to throw out Open Office in favour of Microsoft’s software is a blow to open-source ambitions. But it shouldn’t surprise. The AA cites interoperability as the major issue here and says, whether we like it or not, Microsoft Office, and its document formats, are a de facto industry standard.
I’ve been immersing myself in open-source software of late, mainly as a home user, although I’ve been using some business applications, too. And, I’ve been alternately astounded by the quality of the software and dismayed at the frustration faced in using it.
Let me explain. A few weeks ago, Computerworld decided to started podcasting. I decided, rather than to wait for approval, to out together the necessary gear myself. I’d bash ahead and see what I could do with what I had could find. So, I found some microphones kicking around the office. Then I downloaded the open source Audacity program, to both record and edit our podcast, and signed-up with Odeo — to help deliver it and to generate RSS feeds.
Open-source plus Web 2.0 — I was feeling pretty damn fly for an old white guy.
Anyway, my Audacity experience has been brilliant — powerful, free software that is both intuitive and a joy to use for someone who never edited audio in his life. You can hear the results by searching for “podcast” on computerworld.co.nz. If there were any troubles, they were all down to user rather than software error — so far, so good.
A few weeks later, I needed some photo-editing software. Enter “The Gimp”. The Gimp is an open source photo-editing application. I downloaded it and, on first impression, was somewhat lost. It was unfamiliar. After an hour or three of research I managed to get what I needed done, but felt the documentation wasn’t quite there. That said I’m going back to The Gimp because I sense it is powerful and robust.
Finally, just on spec, I wondered whether there was an open-source desktop publishing system. I searched and found Scribus. My download frenzy continued.
The first thing that pops up at the end of the Scribus installation process is a Read Me file, telling users they need to install another program, Ghostscript, to use the software. You can download and install Ghostscript after installing Scribus, but it won’t automatically find it unless it’s installed first. So, rather than get in a mess, I uninstalled Scribus, downloaded Ghostscript and then reinstalled Scribus. It worked fine and I was pointed to a tutorial to learn how to use the new software. Unfortunately, this was out of date. The screenshots didn’t match the current version and some of the menu commands were non-existent. Again, despite these setbacks, I soldiered on and became a fan.
Open source development works, but there is a gap — perhaps a fatal gap — between making the software easily usable and easily learnable.
There are a lot of enthusiastic developers involved in these projects and they volunteer huge amounts of time — and you can see the quality difference this makes. But, it’s hard to imagine a professional technical or manual writer getting a similar kick out of writing user manuals to support their work. The result is shoddy documentation and too much assumed open-source knowledge.
For home users this kind of thing is frustrating, but for businesses it can be fatal. It’s a first impression issue — if you don’t make a good first impression, you will lose a lot of users.