Some comments I have seen in the Open Source Community recently have set me to thinking about the general reaction to change. The most recent example is the release of Firefox 5.0, but a much larger and longer example has been the development and release of the Ubuntu Unity desktop.
In the few days since it was released, I have seen a surprisingly large number of articles, blog posts and such complaining about the short time between major release numbers 4 and 5. I have seen very little (well, none to be honest) about what the new features are, how they work, how this release compares to 4.0.1 or anything else of substance. Now, to some degree I am also guilty in this regard, because my recent blog post about Firefox 5 was only about the silly marketing hype associated with it. But at least I didn't whinge about the version number - I don't really care whether they call this release 4.0.2, 5.0, 22.214.171.124 or anything else, I just wish they wouldn't call something an "Awesome Bar" - although that probably goes over well with my 9-year old neighbor who seems to think that almost everything is "AWESOME!". Anyway, the point here is that Mozilla/Firefox seemed to be getting ripped by the technical press and a lot of the general public for being "too slow" in making new releases - not because they were actually not making releases, but because they didn't increment their major release numbers often enough. So they revised their release schedule, including incrementing the major number a lot more often (in places/situations where they previously would no doubt have just incremented the minor number), and now what happens? They get a lot of moaning that this release was too fast. Hmmm. Why can't we, who are supposed to be the "more knowledgeable" consumers, not make a better judgement based on the actual content and technical merit of a new release, rather than on something that I consider to be not much more than marketing hype anyway?
Ubuntu and Unity provide an even more stark example. I have said since the very first time that I tried it that I don't like Unity, and I am not at all likely to use it. But I have also said that I am not the target for Unity, and it might well be that Unity will do very well with OEMs and the general public, which probably is the target for it. So why has there been so much written by so many experienced Linux users which boils down to "Unity sucks and I hope that Mark Shuttleworth burns in Hades (or someplace even worse, like Bellevue)"? I don't really want Unity to flop, or even worse for Ubuntu to flop, I want it to succeed, in a big way, so that a lot more people can get the pleasure and benefits of an open operating system that is reliable, stable and works properly. I just don't want anyone to force me to use Unity, but I don't think that I have to worry about that given the amount of choice in Linux distributions.
The latest example of this kind of thinking is the rash of articles and blog posts that I saw this morning about Ubuntu dropping in the Distrowatch statistics - maybe even going below Linux Mint and Fedora, and that is supposed to be an omen that Ubuntu is doomed. But, wait, doesn't it make sense that the people who visit Distrowatch, who are likely to download, install and use an operating system based on what they find there, or for that matter who even know that Distrowatch exists, are not going to be the group that is going to decide the success or failure of Ubuntu and Unity? I mean, Ubuntu has been at the top of the Distrowatch ratings for quite a long time now, and look how far that has gotten them in the general market. I would think that the important statistics for what Canonical is trying to do would be things like how many OEMs are shipping systems preloaded with Ubuntu, and how many different models each of the OEMs are offering. But having the technical community, or the Open Source community, wringing their hands about a perceived drop in popularity is not likely to contribute to their success, is it?
Going a bit further back, even the transition from KDE 3 to KDE 4 produced a lot of these same reactions. Granted, the early releases of KDE 4.0 managed to sort of invert the ratio of number of bugs to number of lines of code, but there was still a lot of shouting in the user community about "what happened to my desktop". Once the bugs were worked out, and a lot of missing/incomplete features were added/finished, KDE 4 turned into a very good and very innovative desktop.
I'm not even sure how to summarize all of this. It's kind of a funny situation, because Firefox isn't my favorite browser, Ubuntu isn't my favorite Linux distribution, and KDE isn't my favorite desktop (although I am a big admirer of the KDE Netbook desktop), but I really don't think it is a good idea to be bashing either of them publicly just because they are doing something different. Give them a chance to succeed, or fail, on their own merits, and the merits of the work they produce. Maybe we could even squeeze out a "well done" to them from time to time, for at least trying hard to respond to what they perceive as the best road for development and the demands of the market? I have said this before - if Unity turns out to be a great success in the general market, and starts to take massive amounts of market share from Windows, I will be very happy. I still won't use it myself, of course, but who cares? Differences, and variety, are one of the Linux's greatest strengths, and of Open Source as a whole for that matter. So don't bash them for changing, and being different, just wish them well, and watch what happens. If they succeed, you win because FOSS software advances in the market. If they lose you can at least gloat and say "I knew it all along". If nothing happens, well, we can at least all go and have a drink together without a lot of hard feelings over things we have said.