Open source needs designers

June 27, 2011 | 20 comments

Design is Not My Job 1It’s been a slow progression. First, I moved from Eclipse, for years my Integrated Development Environment of choice, to NetBeans, which I’ve been using for the last year or so. It’s faster, leaner, and less prone to bringing down my computer for no readily apparent reason. But now, slowly, I’m making my way to Coda. And it’s like a breath of fresh air. It just works.

It surely helps that Coda is a native code web development IDE, while the other two are optimized for (and built on) Java. For large applications, Java is a dog. But there’s something more to it: while NetBeans and Eclipse feel engineered, Coda feels designed. As well as checking that everything works, someone went through the trouble of checking how it feels to use. The emotional experience was an important part of the design.

Beyond programming languages and development methodologies, the most important skill a developer can have is empathy. To be useful, software needs to be built with a deep understanding of my needs as a user, which may be different to another user’s needs. I write both software and short stories, and I use the same approach for both: I’m writing for an audience. Open source often feels like it’s scratching an itch; rather than users, the software is often written for the developer. We know that over 80% of Linux kernel contributions are made by corporations, so it’s reasonable to infer that most open source software is built to feel an internal corporate need.

Consequently, interaction design is underrepresented in open source. Versions 0.1 through 0.9 of Elgg featured interfaces built by Dave Tosh and myself, reacting to reports of what users found difficult or confusing. They were usable, but although I’m proud of them, they were undeniably clunky. From version 1.0, we had Pete Harris on board, an actual UX designer, who made a world of difference to the project. I don’t think Elgg would be as popular as it is without him. (Now that he’s moved on – alongside the rest of the 1.0 core team – I’m interested to see how the interface develops.)

Open source is an important, valid methodology with many applications. I still completely stand behind it, but I’m not willing to use inferior software for ideology’s sake. So how can we improve the design ethic in open source?

Part of the problem is market. To be blunt, commercial software needs to sell, and usable interfaces are an integral part of that; open source projects don’t, and often sell support as a funding strategy. Making the software easier isn’t, therefore, always part of the dynamic. (You’ll notice that the best-designed open source projects - WordPress, StatusNet et al – all have a commercial version.) It’s also not necessarily part of the engineer’s agenda: I’ve too often heard software developers discuss design as a kind of fluffy afterthought that they don’t view as being as important. I try not to hire developers with this mindset; anyone who thinks they’re more important than anyone else in the development process is destructive.

Another problem, though, is designer attitude. Who wants to give away their hard work for free, after all? Designers already complain about their work being undervalued on marketplaces like 99designs. (Oddly, very few developers complain about their profession being undervalued on sites like oDesk, although I think it is.) While developers see having a Github repository as a kind of portfolio, and participation in an open source project as career-building, designers don’t have the same incentives. Although there are individual examples – Chris Messina’s involvement in Firefox undoubtedly boosted his career, for example – a designer’s participation in an open source community is not generally seen as being awesome. Yet.

Open source companies have an incentive here, and a responsibility to the community to promote this ethos. They should understand the importance of hiring designers, and they should give preference to designers who have contributed to open source projects. Most importantly, developers should understand that designers are engineers too: they just work with a different set of tools.

Illustration: Design Is Not My Job 1, by Andy Mangold, released under a Creative Commons license.

Notes from SXSW

March 19, 2011 | Leave a comment

SXSW 2011SXSW 2011 was among the best events I’ve ever attended. It was vital, fun-packed, and hugely educational – I have no doubts about coming back next year.

The Interactive Festival is exactly what I want to see from technology: it was optimistic, sociable, diverse and full of really interesting discussion, which ran the gamut from the highly technical to liberal arts. My two panels were well-received (thanks to Blaine Cook and Jim Moore for inviting me to The How & Why Of Decentralized Web Identity and Wikileaks, the Web & the Long, Strange Journey of Journalism respectively), and the quality of debate from the audience totally blew me away.

What I find really exciting is that technology has definitively grown out of its geeks-in-bedrooms phase (as much as it was ever there). Geek is fully reclaimed as a term of respect: someone who is smart, focused, and changing the world. I was lucky enough to meet a lot of people who are changing the world this week. I feel privileged to have had a modest impact through my work on Elgg; with latakoo, I’m enjoying once again working on a project with a global reach, and the conversations I had at the conference were inspiring.

It was striking to see so many companies move into the real-life space – it seemed like everyone was peddling apps designed for mass-market non-technical users to interact with on the go. People don’t seem to be focusing on early adopters any more, and rightly so. It’s no longer good enough to build something cool, or scratch your own itch. Now, finally, you’ve got to build something that makes peoples’ lives better.

If you can, find your way to Austin next March. For the conversation, the perspective and the sheer fun of it all, it can’t be beat. My one regret: I didn’t take a single photo, or a minute of video. I was simply too engrossed.

Photo: SXSW 2011 by Betsy Weber. Shared under a Creative Commons license.

Making money with open source

January 12, 2011 | 10 comments

If you’re going to do something, do it well

Open source chairI’ve been thinking a lot lately about open source business models. The project I’m most often associated with, Elgg, developed a business some two years after the project itself was founded. Now that I’m considering a new project, I’m exploring what it might mean to create an open source model that has a business model baked in from day one. Not as a loss leader or the engine for a consultancy company, but as the core of a scalable business that turns a profit proportionally to the popularity of its end-user product.

An image problem

Particularly on the web, open source isn’t cool anymore. For a while, in around 2004-2006, the success of projects like WordPress and Firefox meant that new, web-based open source projects were coming out fast and strong. The former arguably gained its market share after Movable Type, previously the market leader in blogging, imposed an ill-conceived commercial license. Five years later, although new projects like StatusNet and Diaspora are getting headlines, and WordPress is going strong as the basis of at least 12% of all websites, most new open source efforts are on behind-the-scenes technical infrastructure like CouchDB and node.js.

Furthermore, open source in general faces a demographic problem. Only 1.5% of open source contributors are women, for example, compared to the already questionable 28% in mainstream software.

Yet off the web, end-user open source projects are growing, often in conjunction with a strong business model: think Ubuntu, Android, Boxee et al. However, on the web, WordPress’s parent company Automattic is the only company I can think of that’s significantly bringing in revenue (estimated to be $30-40 million annually, and breaking even).

I believe in open source, but I also believe that for open source projects to be sustainable, they need to be able to fund their developers and be emotionally rewarding. I think there’s a place for a friendly open source project that’s both accessible to new users, and to the kinds of people who would not ordinarily contribute, while both turning a profit and having a good time.

Routes to success

There are a bunch of different commercial open source models out there. Here are a few, in increasing order of commercial viability:

  1. Donationware. Some projects solicit donations from their users, charity-style. Although this may result in a few hundred dollars here and there, it’s not going to make a significant contribution to payroll; people mostly won’t pay for something unless they absolutely have to. Asking for donations bases your business on goodwill alone.
  2. Advertising. Think Firefox, which makes around a dollar per user per year from its integration with Google search. Products like Vuze also contain advertising. For stand-alone apps, products like OpenCandy can bring in real cash. Open source web apps, however, are very easy to edit and customize. While that’s a strength and a net positive, it means that adverts – perhaps embedded into an admin system, for example – are very easy to remove. Once again, you’re reliant on goodwill, unless the advertising is present on the open source project’s community site. Elgg has a page where users can find third-party hosting, and makes money from affiliate links. Meanwhile, many have forgotten Matt Mullenweg’s foray into search engine spam before WordPress settled on a business model, which speaks more to the difficulty of making money with open source than Matt’s ethics. (Automattic is a great company, and he’s proven himself to be a great guy.)
  3. Consultancy services. Many projects provide tailored customization features to individual customers. This can be profitable, but isn’t particularly scalable: because each customization or advisory report is bespoke, your potential profit is capped by the number of human-hours your team can put in. Effectively, you become a digital agency, with your open source product acting as a way to draw attention to yourself. Think of your software as a fridge. If GE had to design a new fridge for each customer they had, they’d never make any money, and fridges would cost $100,000. Instead, they design a fridge once and sell hundreds of thousands of them for $500. Fridges scale; bespoke consultancy does not.
  4. Freemium hosting. This is the model used by WordPress, StatusNet and others: allow anyone to create a free, hosted account, and charge for professional extras like analytics features and support. Determined, technically savvy users can still download and install the software themselves (this site runs WordPress on my own server), but using the commercial offering is often a simpler, more sustainable way to go. This is a slow burn, but WordPress has shown that if you create a product with enough critically reliant users, it can work.
  5. Physical, commercial products. Boxee sells an actual set-top box in conjunction with D-Link, which is doing well. Android is a red herring here: while it certainly sells phones, with the exception of Google’s Nexus range, where the company presumably takes a cut, the operating system is provided for free to handset manufacturers. The real money comes through search advertising.

What’s the right path?

I’m not sure there is a correct solution for open source web projects – except to avoid #1 and, preferably, #3. Here’s what I’m thinking at the moment:

Open source projects are continually bombarded with feature requests. Fundry, the crowdfunding site for software projects, is very interesting to me as a platform for these, and as a contributory business model for open source development. The site allows users to add new feature requests and back them with money. The development team can then choose which ones to undertake. The core team would probably have to seed the Fundry page with a number of features to begin with, but with a little momentum I think it holds some promise. It’s also a great way for community members to practically contribute without creating code, documents or designs.

However, that alone is unlikely to allow anyone to eat (particularly looking at the current level of funding pledges – at the time of writing, Fundry itself has only managed to raise $128).

Another model might be to outsource the hosted freemium service, in a way that’s tightly integrated with the open source community site. A potential user might visit the project site and see a great big “create your site” button; on clicking that, they are led to a third party (or given a choice between third parties). An affiliate commission would be provided by the chosen service provider.

Commercial support services are a viable option, and can be deeply embedded both into the project site and the software itself (as a clear “get support” button). Commercially hosted value-added services, like Automattic’s Akismet anti-spam service, are another.

Most likely, a commercially successful open source project will use a combination of these. But what do you think? Is there a glaringly obvious open source business model that most projects have missed? And does profitability have a place in the open source movement to begin with? Let me know in the comments.

Reflecting on 2009

December 20, 2009 | 1 comment

The Christmas period is traditionally when I take a step back and consider what I’m going to do over the next year. For me, it’s a time for family, for quiet reflection and for evaluation. What have I done well? What will I do better next year?

During 2009, I left Elgg, the project I’d been developing for five years, and concentrated on real-world contracts and projects. I spoke at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and met some very interesting people who are going to provide a new model for news reporting in America. I’ve been working with them for the rest of the year, and look forward to writing some more about that project soon.

I’ve also been working with a local publisher in Oxford, creating GeoRSS feeds for their content and paving the way for a mashup with the official University of Oxford mobile site. Imagine walking around your hometown, seeing rooms and apartments for rent displayed on an augmented reality browser, superimposed on the streets themselves. It’s just one way that the web is meeting simple, real-world needs with innovative approaches that are quickly beginning to resemble science fiction. Data is being mashed up and made available in increasingly sophisticated ways.

I expect mobile to come into its own in 2010, particularly now that the mobile Internet market is projected to be twice the size of its desktop cousin. Augmented reality and applications like RedLaser are the more obvious manifestations of this, but I expect the nature of web publishing as a whole to subtly morph. Platforms like WordPress are beginning to recognize this in small ways, such as adding native support for the Twitter API, but expectations are being set far higher than this.

Hardware like the iPhone, the assorted Android handsets and smartphones like the Palm Pre are very affordable multimedia all-rounders which have turned ubiquitous connectivity into a mass-market feature. People are going to expect to be able to save any digital content from anywhere, and share it with anyone. In 2010, I intend to help them.

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