Free software and open source users/developers are a sort of evangelical bunch. I think a lot of this is because hackers what other people to use the software that they spend their time working on, and of course some of this is because of the ethical systems that pervade the free software movement. And of course we want to both expand the user base of certain pieces of software within the open source world (eg. getting vim users to use emacs) as well as getting people using proprietary systems (like Windows/OS X/Microsoft Office) to use free/open systems (like Linux/BSD/emacs).

The biggest challenge in the second project is usability, and I think both prospective users and developers (and people like me) often wonder "Is open source usable for non-technical users?" This is a question that I don't have an answer for. On the one hand, yes, GNOME--for instance--is really usable. I don't think it's particularly innovative software, nor is it clever in the way that OS X sometimes is, but it is on the whole very functional.

Very often open source, in its entirety, is judged on the basis of its usability, which strikes me as pretty ironic, as I'd wager most open source projects--and without a doubt the most influential ones--are not "user applications." In terms of importance, the kernels, the programing languages, the libraries, the servers, and the frameworks are way more successful, powerful, and robust than programs like "Open Office," or "GNOME," or even--frankly--"Firefox."

I suspect this is the case because lower level stuff is either to get right, and because hackers end up working with computers on a very low level, so it makes sense that the itches they're scratching with open source would work on a lower level. And the "cause of free software," is more directly served by these lower level projects: open source depends on users recognizing the value of hacking on code, which is more likely to be realized in low level projects.

Which makes the project of evangelizing non-technical users more difficult, because the argument isn't exactly "switch programs to (potentially) better ones," but rather "become more involved the technology you use," which is a much different argument. And I think the "usability" question often serves as point of mystification in this much different argument.

My original intent with this post to explore how some of the biggest open source user-applications were in fact sponsored by really big companies (in whole or in part). Novell puts some considerable resources into GNOME and KDE; Sun obviously backs Open Office; Firefox and Mozilla grew out of Netscape/AOL and get a lot of money from Google.

More than anything, I wonder what to make of this. Certainly there is also backing for lower level projects: Sun and Java/mySQL; countless companies and kernel development; 37 Signals and Ruby-on-Rails; and so forth, but it feels more substantial for user applications, somehow.

I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that corporations are attempting to re-mystify technology in open source. I think it's much more likely that business know that having viable desktop environments will be advantageous to them in the long run, and that since hackers are less likely (on the whole) to work in the user-application space key contributions of corporate-backed developers are more noticeable.

But maybe there's something else there too. I'm not sure, isn't the world grand?

Onward and Upward!