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From My Sent Folder: On Mozilla and IRC

A lesson free- and open-source software advocates still need to learn.

April 30, 2019Filed under tech#free software#from my sent folder#open-source software#uiMarkdown source

Assumed Audience: anyone who cares about the success of free and open-source software.

A New Rustacean listener sent me a note lamenting the way Mozilla’s transition from IRC to Discord—i.e., from an open protocol to a proprietary service. For many advocates of free software, this is a deeply unsettling move. The kind listener who sent me an email pointed to Matrix, an open-protocol service, and noted: “perhaps the default web interface is slightly less slick, but there’s not much in it, and it’s open source.” I sympathize with them, but also had a few other thoughts. My reply is reproduced below.

Yeah, it’s complicated for sure. The last time I looked, Matrix’s mobile clients were so bad as to be effectively unusable; I know that was one of the considerations for the Rust move to Discord.

It seems to me that a lot of folks committed to free and open-source have ended up wanting free-as-in-beer as well as free-as-in-speech, and the combo of that with the existing market dynamics means that good is rarely open/free-as-in-speech, and vice versa. It’s a Gordian knot I don’t see an easy way through.

The specific dynamic you highlight with docs is a prime example of the other cultural challenges I see, too: devs don’t like writing docs, they like writing code… but it turns out that docs and other “soft” things—including, yes, UI polish!—are actually as or more important for adoption as things like protocols.

We’ll see this same cycle repeat until free and open source software advocates learn to prioritize the things users actually value as well as the things they (we!) believe they should value.