FSOSS 07 Report
I attended the FSOSS (Free software & Open source symposium) 2007 held at Seneca college on October 25th and 26th. This symposium is a major gathering of open source developers, educators and users giving talks regarding their current projects/work and how it relates to the open source community. It was held over two days with speakers from all over the globe (mainly North America) and hundreds of people attending. I attended a number of sessions and got the chance to listen to different people with different opinions where I felt their work was very fascinating. It opened doors and gave me a unique perspective towards the open source community.
There were a number of informative sessions that I attended but there was two that I was very interested in. The first, which was the first talk on Thursday by Jay Goldman, president of Radiant Core, Inc. and David Crow from Microsoft Canada. Their talk was called “Usability Anonymous: A 12 step program for better user experiences”. I was excited to hear about this talk because I remember taking a course a couple of semesters back about user interfaces where programmers are taught to program to the end users likings as oppose to being fancy and complicated for appearances. I was hopping this talk would have similar relations and help me further expand my understandings for usability. At the beginning of the talk, it was very lively and I felt the room had a lot of energy. Even though it was 9am in the morning, Jay and Dave really came in and brought the audience to their feet… literally. During the talk, Jay and Dave talked about a lot of things and indeed, they explained what those 12 steps are about. I remember a number of points they made that were very important which can be used in daily life and not just programming. One that I really like was “Bad code but do great designs”. They explained that no matter how bad your code is and how inefficient it can become, if it has a good design to it, people will want to use it and would continue using it. Applications are used by many different people from different countries with different ethnic backgrounds which results in different understandings but with all these variables, it is hard to develop a application that can suit everybody’s needs. That is why applications need to be optimized for different people and in order for that to happen, you need to know your stakeholders. You need to find out who will be using your application and what their characteristics will be like. Jay and Dave quoted a number of recognized people in the industry… A famous one is “Design is how it works” by Steve Jobs. Jay mentioned that many big organizations don’t document user levels and that is why many fail. Organizations need to prioritize what is important to the users and not to themselves. Many ways to solve problems is to admit to yourselves and others around you that you have problems. If you ignore your problems, it is like insanity where you are trying to break free from your challenges. You need to find and talk to the users. You want users to tell you about your software. The more they use and interact with it, the more passionate they become which will result in better feedbacks. Feedbacks are very powerful and Dave has many experiences with that area. He explained how Microsoft Office evolved from what is known to be a simple text editor to what we see today. There are also things that Microsoft has done to make this a bad program but some that made it good. In the Office we know today, there are a huge number of features that are hidden and we never know its there. Even if we know that feature is available, we would have to dig deep to find it. After a number of releases, Microsoft survey about 60,000 users over a four year period to look at each behavior and what was common amongst them. The result is what we see as the Microsoft ribbon which is a.k.a. the menu strips we see at the top. Those functions are most popular used and for every release, it contains a similar ribbon. As a result of user input, it has made this program more users friendly and easier for users. For a user friendly program, user input are valuable information to consider and this leads to the topic of Open source and how it all relates to usability and design. Dave and Jay both talked about how open source and its community is a very unique and efficient way to get user input on different areas. Resources such as posts and blogs are helpful where you can engage them, learn from them, organize help, gather user experiences, and also obtain different iterations. There is one common interaction design that Dave touched on and its “Don’t burn bridges with users.” A bridge is like a connection between the developers and the users. If you hurt the relationship and break it, you will not get useful feedbacks and will render it useless. They will also run away and use other software. Without users, there would be no people, and no things to work on. On a final note, sharing is an excellent practice as others will share back with you.
Another talk I attended is “Shifting the Focus: OpenOffice.org 3.0” by Louis Suarez-Potts, a community manager and chair of the community council for OpenOffice.org. At the beginning of this talk, I can already tell it will be very interesting. His personality and the way he expresses himself is very unique and for the audience like myself, I wanted more after each time he pauses. Louis discussed the open source community and why it’s such an amazing place to work in. He really encouraged people that have not been involved in the community to learn how to communicate, and participate even if your experience is zero. You can contribute at any level to be part of the community and become a member. Even if your contribution is at a small scale, you will still be recognized for what you have done. In the open source community, you work with real people and discuss with them directly regarding projects where you can learn and understand at a faster pace. Louis moves on to talk about how OpenOffice.org 3.0 relates to the community and its significant rise in the open source world. He mentions that Sun Microsystems is a key contributor which supplies 95% of the code where they host a number of other projects existing today. OpenOffice currently has over 140 millions users to date and is continuing to rise today. Having success is one thing but they also encounter obstacles that need to be overcome. An application needs to evolve and OpenOffice.org 3.0 will have that when it releases later next year. Louis talked about how OpenOffice.org 3.0 will benefit from using extensions, similar to how Mozilla Firefox has its add-ons extensions. Currently there are 35-40 extensions available which are all business friendly and by enabling the ability to add extensions, it will make it easier for developers to build and work on it. A couple of key points and goals that Louis mentioned was to have it radically modular and to work on all existing platforms that are available in the market from Windows to Linux to Mac OS. It is important that this application be compatible with every machine as this really explains the meaning of OpenOffice which is open sourced. As OpenOffice.org 3.0 moves towards implementing extensions, Louis recognizes that extensions are meant for the users and they need to exist to be useful. What else is better then people writing extensions themselves and for others that need it as oppose to writing it and it becomes useless. Louis is very keen on recruiting enthusiastic people that have a strong interest in the open source community to participate and contribute even at a small level. He noticed many post secondary institutes such as Seneca College has been involved in open source and every year, more students are interested where the community continues to grow. He also explained how a low level contributor at first will experience a lot of road blocks where people are not willing to help because you are new or they just have absolutely no time when they work on their projects. Louis mentioned a couple of advices that is very important where you need to start small to earn trust. You cannot start from scratch and develop something big because no one will trust your work. You must also find out how trust is earned, the criteria and process that needs to be followed, and keep in mind that you need to be patient. There a many mentors inside the community that help and lead new comers and taking advantage of this would be a good challenge. If you don’t understand something, ask precise questions and you will get precise answers. Aside from Louis encouraging students or any individual to participate with OpenOffice.org 3.0 developments, he touched on the fact that OpenOffice has competition. How does OpenOffice match up with the corporate world with applications such as Microsoft Office? In this world, Microsoft’s dominance is known world wide and OpenOffice is overshadowed. For users to even attempt to consider using OpenOffice, they would need to know if it works with Microsoft Office file types. The answer is yes. Does OpenOffice have support when a problem needs to be fixed? The answer is yes. Does it have liability and who is to blame when something goes wrong? The answer is the community. OpenOffice has evolved and with the 3.0 release, it will come at you stronger and better then ever before.
When I look at both users and analyze their talks, I find that both really rely on the open source community. Jay and Dave from the Usability Anonymous session depended heavily on the community to obtain feedback on designs. The usage of forms, blogs and strong contacts in the community really help them achieve their goals. When I look at Louis’s OpenOffice.org 3.0 session, he really relied on the community where he looks for and recruits users to write extensions. The community also gives OpenOffice.org 3.0 a direction to go lean towards where it will find problems and solve them at the user level. Although each of the sessions has different type of projects, they have different approaches to obtain information from the community; I feel their views on the open source community are very similar. When I listen to their points about the open source community, they are starting to express it can and is a very powerful tool for developers. If you know how to use and obtain the right information, it will make your life easier then ever before. The community is just so big, with members that have unlimited experience, it can really excel yourself and others to develop better skills. At the end of the symposium, I re-think and look back at how I thought of the open source community. At first, I had no clued what it was, where and how to become a member and the type of contributions needed. After this informative and exciting symposium and attending a number of sessions by experience members, I start to feel this is a tool that is extremely powerful in different ways if you know how to use it correctly. If you are willing to learn and contribute, people in the community will take their time to teach you and you will learn a number of useful skills. At the end of the day, my views on open source have changed and my respect for them is growing where my loyalty to big corporations and closed sourced applications has grown smaller.