I'm getting a little worried about the state of open source on the desktop. Modest strides forward have been made in recent times, bringing open source to entirely new audiences. But there might be the faintest whiff of complacency.
The two most successful open source projects on the desktop are Firefox, and Ubuntu. Firefox needs no introduction, becoming the preferred browser of the educated online community. Ubuntu is in the process of transcending the "just another Linux" category and is becoming the de facto OS for those who can't or won't use Windows.
It'd be nice to say that people use to these products solely because they're open source, but that would be delusional. There's certainly respect for open source principles, but people switch to Firefox and Ubuntu for specific and well-identified reasons.
Do you remember why we all switched to Firefox back in 2003? One phrase popped-up constantly: "It's small and light, yet has all the features I need." It was a sport compact in a world of sedate sedans.
But the Firefox people seem to have forgotten this. Nowadays Firefox takes at least five seconds to start on any of my computers. The latest version introduced some clumsy features that just get in the way, such as the "smart location bar". This really is smart, because only artificial intelligence could consistently and incorrectly autocomplete the URL I'm typing. Most people's favorite Firefox features aren't part of Firefox at all, and are provided by plugins (AdBlock, NoScript etc.).
The problem is that the Firefox developers have lots touch with what made Firefox so great. If Microsoft pulled itself together and introduced, say, an ultra-light browser that had a plug-in structure and guaranteed security, then I suspect many Windows users would switch at the drop of a hat (Google Chrome developers: take note). It's only the lack of competition that's keeping Firefox users loyal.
And I think Ubuntu is starting to suffer from the same problem of simply losing touch with core values. An oft-quoted explanation by those taking-up Ubuntu is the appeal of a six month release schedule, and the promise of cutting-edge features. People are attracted to progress, and they like getting the best of what's currently available.
The six-month schedule is still there in the latest releases, but it seems there will be almost no new end-user features in the 9.04 release of Ubuntu, at least according to the 9.04 blueprints and the Jaunty Jackalope alpha releases I've seen so far. The most exciting thing is OpenOffice.org 3.0 and, well, that's not actually very exciting. It's the same with the recently-announced 9.10 release. This will bring a focus on netbooks, we're told, which is very wise (and is something I'll come back to in a future blog post). But it appears that, apart from a snazzy graphical boot, the desktop experience will be left to stagnate once again. As with most Ubuntu releases, there will probably be furious tweaking under the hood, or in the backroom support services, but this means nothing if it isn't visible, and if it doesn't improve the end-user experience. Ubuntu has, above all, always been a 100-percent 'end-user' distro, which arguably makes it unique in the world of Linux.
The danger with all open source projects is that the developers become too dominant, and spend all their effort making the software 'just so'--conforming to an ideological principle only they appreciate, for example. But that doesn't appear to have happened here. Instead, the people behind Ubuntu and Firefox are simply forgetting core values, and perhaps taking their users for granted. This is dangerous. It won't be easy to regain any ground that's lost because even the few inches of territory gained so far has required a Herculean effort.
Keir Thomas is the award-winning author of several books on Ubuntu, including Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference.