In Favor of Simple Software

I've spent a little bit of time addressing some organizational and workflow angst in the past few weeks, and one thing I'd been focusing on had been to update and fine tune my emacs (text editor) and irssi (irc/chat) configuration. Part of my goal had been to use irssi-xmpp to move all of my chat/synchronous communication into one program; unfortunately I've not been able to get irssi-xmpp to build and function in a fully stable way. This is probably because I'm hard on software and not because of anything specific to the software itself.

In any case, this lead me to come to the following conclusion about these programs, as they are probably the two most central and most heavily used applications in my arsenal, and without a doubt are the applications that I enjoy using the most. I scribbled the following note a few days ago in preparation for this entry:

In many ways the greatest advance or feature that these programs provide isn't some killer feature, it's a simple but more powerful abstraction that allows users to interact with their problem domain. Emacs is basically a text-editing application framework, and provides users with some basic fundamentals for interacting with textual information, and a design that allows users to create text editing modalities or paradigms which bridge the divide between full blown applications and custom configurations. By the same token, Irssi is really a rather simple program that's easy to script, and contains a number of metaphors that are useful for synchronous communication (chat.)

And we might be able to expand this even further: these are two applications that are not only supremely functional, but are so usable because they are software projects that really only make sense in context of free software.

I want to be very careful here: I don't want to make the argument that free software isn't or can't be commercial, because that's obviously not the case. At the same time, free software, like these applications needn't justify itself in terms of "commercial features," or a particular target market in order to remain viable. It's not that these programs don't have features, it is that they have every feature, or the potential for every feature, and are thus hard to comprehend and hard to sell. Even if it only takes a use over a short period of time for users to find them incredibly compelling.

The underlying core extensibility that both of these "programs" have is probably also something that is only likely to happen in the context of open source or free software. This isn't to suggest that proprietary software doesn't recognize the power or utility of extensible software, but I don't think giving users so much control over a given application makes sense from a quality control perspective. Giving users the power to modify their experience of software in an open ended fashion, also gives them the power to break things horribly, and that just doesn't make sense from a commercial perspective.

There's probably also some hubris at play: free software applications, primarily these two, are written by hackers, with a target audience of other hackers. Who needs a flexible text editing application framework (e.g. emacs), but other programmers. And the primary users of IRC for the past 8-10 years have largely been hackers and developers and other "geek" types. irssi is very much written for these kinds of users. To a great extent, I think it's safe to suggest that when hackers write software for themselves, this is what it looks like.

The questions that must linger is: why isn't other software like this? (Or is it, and I'm missing it in my snobbishness,) and where is the happy medium between writing software for non-hackers and using great software (like these) to "make more hackers."

Onward and Upward!

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