Sunday 7 June 2009

some thoughts on open source project deaths

I've been reading Joel on Software for quite a while now (few years back, as much as I can remember) and he had a post in 2000 that seems to be still the most popular read: Things You Should Never Do, Part I.

He was saying:
[Why Netscape died? They committed] the single worst strategic mistake that any software company can make: They decided to rewrite the code from scratch.
The argument goes that by writing from scratch you put yourself at disadvantage at many different levels.
  • Don't have any code to ship while rewriting, that can be a long time (I might add Hofstadter's Law to be considered). You lose customers/users and give an advantage to all your competitors.
  • You are basically choosing a level of technology that you are aiming at, and cannot keep up with the new developments while you are writing.
  • You lose the advantage of previously fixed bugs, thus potentially committing the same mistakes again.
  • You throw out a lot of knowledge as well, good algorithms, solutions, etc....
So, why do I think about this? Recently I had at least two open source projects that I liked but which run into similar silliness...

Exaile was a quite good music player (for my Linux system), had syncing with my iPod, internet radios, album art, music collections, plug-in system... Almost everything I needed was in their version 2.0.... But there were plenty of bugs and there were some issues that seemed to be hard to solve because of the design of the code. I thought there could be a little bug-fixing (yey, Exaile is written in Python) and it could be better and better, while keeping it's light weight. I was so wrong. By the time I started to use the program the developers already moved on and for version 3.0 they wanted to REWRITE the whole thing. Asked them about fixing bugs in 2.0. They said the 2.0 code is all but dead, nobody is working on it, so I should consider instead contributing to 3.0. The problem is that it is not very functional, even after years. There are so many features missing compared to 2.0, that I just gave up on using it (now rocking with RythmBox, but don't like that much)... Maybe I'll go back, but I'm still disappointed.

The other project was Mitter, a desktop Twitter reader-updater. Also written in Python, lightweight, easy to use, quite convenient. I really liked version 0.4.5. Then they decided to rewrite the whole thing once again. That much that at the moment it does not even run. They use version control, different branches for developement, but the top level "release" branch does not run... How useful is that? Since I liked to use it, I did a fork, and started to add a few changes to version 0.4.5 myself, like sending proper "in reply to" information, of spell-checking with gtkspell, and been trying to debug it so it can run on Win32 well too (just have to clear up some threading issues). These are all gradual changes and all what they seem to do can be done gradually too. I'm a bit said that it's like that, the Mitter developers seem to know their trade pretty well, and I'd love to learn much more from them by working together. But I don't want to wait for the whole interface to be fixed just to have "in reply to"....

Am I too impatient? Unfortunately my attitude to programming is as of puzzle solving. There's a problem that needs a solution. When the solution is found it is not very interesting anymore. That makes me a pretty bad maintainer, but and enthusiastic (even if not very good) coder. But seeing these projects commiting the Netscape-error again, and potentially losing users and developers over it - that's not much fun. I have no influence over what they do, and the "advantage" of open source is that, just as I did, one can fork a project and try to do a better job. And in the meantime everyone loses....

The availability of better (more user-friendly) programming tools and languages, tutorials, information and means to collaborate made it easier to make some amazing applications. But it didn't make people to be better programmers, unfortunately... Let's see of these two can achieve their "second-coming".... Hope so because once I felt a lot of affection for them. :)
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