LinuxUser Column 13

Consistently making great products in incredibly difficult. The last forty years of our wonderful technology industry is absolutely littered with the carcasses from thousands upon thousands crappy applications and terrible hardware. A smaller group of hard working firms have made one fantastic product or product line in their history. It is an extremely tiny, elite group indeed who can keep creating admirable new hardware or software that consistently blows the market away.

Of course everyone stumbles and I can think of terrible products from great companies such as Nokia, Apple or Canon. But the bulk of their output is incredible.

Despite knowing how hard it is to make wonderful things, I can’t fail to be surprised when I come across something which could have been so much better. How hard would it be for Motorola to sort their terrible user interfaces out? Why can’t a hotel run breakfast at sensible times? Is it really that hard to make my ADSL router’s configuration usable? Who thought a programming book published with tiny print was a smart idea?

I think in most cases dumb outcomes don’t flow from stupid people. The problem is being focussed on the wrong thing, not realising what’s important to the customer. Sometimes it’s not even understanding who the customer truly is.

So that programming book probably has tiny print because they had been told to save paper. And my ADSL router is hard to use because they were worried about including as many features as possible for those magazine reviews. Hotels have breakfast organised around their more profitable lunch service, not around their guests’ needs. I can’t think of any reason to justify Motorola’s abysmal software though.

Knowing who your customer is can be difficult, but staying focussed on their needs is even harder. Many don’t ever really know their customers’ needs (though they may think they do), and when those needs shift even fewer keep pace with those changes.

I think many of the more successful FLOSS applications have done well because their leaders have been the epitome of their target users. Scratching their own itches means they are deeply in touch with their customer needs. GNOME and KDE both emerged out of their developers’ desire to have better graphical environments for their day-to-day work on Linux. We’ve all benefited hugely from their work and scratching of their personal itches.

But Linux is a funny one… Who are its customers? Whose needs is it trying to address? An operating system is such a flexible generalised tool (or toolset even) that it’s hard to know which direction Linux is pointing in sometimes. We have Linux for phones, TV set-top boxes and so on. We even now have PalmSource’s ACCESS Linux Platform for mobile devices. There’s no doubt that parts of Linux are outstanding, but for who and when?

In previous columns I’ve argued that the huge number of Linux distributions is holding back it’s more widespread adoption. I think many of these distributions are attempts to create a very specific customer focus for their flavour. So PalmSource is trying to only service smartphone manufacturers. In contrast Ubuntu’s Linux distribution is hugely focussed on consumers wanting to run Linux on their desktop PCs.

It’s sad when a company that used to be great at making products seems to lose it. But often they may be victims of pressures we as their customers can’t even imagine. I’ve been reading Andrea Butter and David Pogue’s excellent history of Palm and Handspring, “Piloting Palm”. It’s an excellent book which I can highly recommend. The book details how the Palm team were pulled in every direction by partner firms, venture capitalists and then corporate parents USRobotics followed by 3Com. Each time the differing visions, goals and cultures pulled the team this way and that – it’s a miracle anything got out the door let alone became the success it did. There’s no doubt that the core Palm team were single-minded to the point of obsessiveness in protecting their product’s goals and it’s simplicity for the user. It paid off.

Until 3Com took control the original Palm team also fiercely resisted generally licensing their operating system apart from for very specific niche uses such as to a specialist ruggedised barcode scanner manufacturer. They understood that only by controlling both the hardware and software could they maintain their relentless focus on a simple, easy product for their customers. I think for these same reasons Apple will never license their operating system to others – controlling the complete experience is too important.

Which is why, as much as they can, the Linux distributions have been customising as much as they can from installers to desktops and window managers. But who’s going to step up with enough cash and faith in their ideas to put together their own hardware and Linux distro in one optimal package? The Sharp Zaurus was a small-scale version attempt at this and flopped horribly everywhere outside of Japan where it still survives, barely.

It’s time for someone with deep pockets to make the leap and show us how great Linux living can be. It’s the only way we’re going to see any long term progress against Windows or MacOS.

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit