Thursday, April 13, 2006

Technical Writers and FOSS Adoption

Over at NewsForge, Bruce Byfield tells us why Technical Writers Aren't Using FOSS. What he found after some real discussions on a technical writing mailing list, is that most tech writers don't use Free/Open-source software professionally, and that there emerged one underlying attitude:

However, what is more interesting about the comments is the attitudes they reveal. To start with, none show any interest in the philosophies of either free software or open source. Most had no understanding of them. Encouraged to ask questions, those who accepted the invitation asked the most basic of questions, such as what incentive developers would have if they didn't get paid. A few attempted to debunk FOSS based on secondhand knowledge. Even more disavowed any interest in the philosophies, claiming that they were only interested in practical results. Posada spoke for many when he responded to my question about the role of philosophies by saying, "I don't care about philosophy.... I'm more interested in the speed that I can get my documentation written."

I wrote about this attitude before, it is something many geeks have a hard time understanding, even if you tell proprietary software users that FOSS will make their life easier (I was speaking in the context of Windows malware in my previous post, but the principle applies to other benefits of FOSS). It also shows the difficulty of displacing an entrenched standard, even if that standard is genuinely harmful. The initial barrier to adoption (that business and consumer PC's don't typically ship with FOSS), coupled with the initial learning curve (not hard anymore, just different enough to be a annoying), is still way too steep for those with purely practical concerns. They've learned to deal with all the warts their proprietary software has, and don't want a new set to worry about.

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commahater said...

As a technical writer, I think I can add another perspective. Honestly, I'm not so concerned about a philosophy guiding my software choices. The only things that matter are if the tool:

1.Can be forced to adapt to my needs (FOSS accomplishes this well b/c you often have access to the developers and a huge community of users who are eager to help).

2. Is cheap (FOSS wins hands down).

3.Is highly adopted or open ended to give me confidence that support or expandability for the app will continue.

Not that I'm in a position to make software choices, but I would always consider FOSS to be on the same playing field as proprietary software.

There's a problem today with the idea of permanence. 50 years ago, if you learned how to use an adjustable wrench, you could be sure that that tool wouldn't change. Today, if you learn how to use (like I did) Photoshop 3.0, you have to realize that 5 years later, the program might have changed by 50% or more!

As a computer applications user, people need to realize that things change quickly. You should get up to speed on adapting to changing technology. I think it's short sighted when people are reluctant to learn new applications, or think that their processes for getting a task done are set in stone.

Doug said...

Your point about unwillingness (or even fear?) of change is well taken. Despite having made the leap to FOSS, even some FOSS users fall into the same trap. Witness the Gnome vs. KDE flame wars. How many that take one side or another actually *try* to use the other technology in a meaningful way before discounting it out-of-hand?

OTOH, I'm an entrenched Emacs user, but don't have to venture outside of Emacs to experience change in my work habits. There is so much to Emacs itself, that I feel like there is always a way to improve how I work with it, or to learn something new.