Growing pains – for the community

You know, when Mitchell Baker posted her newest missive, talking about Thunderbird making its own nest in the future, I reacted much the way I expected (and now see) others would react: with disappointment. Although this time, I decided I’d wait a little before commenting. The last time I spoke my mind, I regretted it because I’d misunderstood what Mitchell was actually saying.

I think that’s happening again. Rather than bash Mitchell again, I’m coming to her defense this time – because I think people are bashing her too hard.

It’s difficult for me to articulate my feelings on this. On the one hand, what Mitchell and Brendan are doing make sense. The browser is the priority because that’s what people demand the most of. On the other hand, we want mail/news, we want authoring, we want music, we want debugging, we want all kinds of things.

You may notice something about the links I posted above: with the (current) exception of Mozilla Thunderbird, the products under development or currently available to meet these needs don’t come from the Mozilla Foundation. I mean, think about it: just how much do you expect Mozilla to do? Would you really want one organization to do everything, or one organization to have you do everything their way? We have enough companies with aspirations to exactly that right now – Microsoft, Google, and Oracle come to mind. (So does FSF.) Maybe this move is actually a good thing.

The simple fact is, software development is a hard task. It takes years to learn how to do it right – and even then, colossal blunders can be made. The active contributors to a project even of Mozilla’s size is always changing, but it’s never enough. Some people leave, others come aboard, but we’re chronically swamped. Plus, in my case and that of many other developers, we go after the bugs that interest us or annoy us the most. In other words, to get me to fix the bugs you care about, often you have to convince me why your bug is more important and more immediate than mine. Which, I have to admit, is pretty hard to do, since I have a lot of things I want to work on. (The exception to this is keeping a roof over my head, which is a separate discussion.)

The best solution might be to guide people towards getting their hands dirty

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. As I said, we’re chronically swamped as developers. We could certainly use a little help – not in telling us what’s important (since we hear that all the time), but in actually fixing the important bugs. Perhaps we should promote a new philosophy towards bugs: “How can we help you to fix this?” In other words, empower the community a little more by directly involving them in the process of bug fixing.

The nature of open source says any one person – or organization – can work on anything they choose. By implication, that which no one chooses to work on will not change. The Mozilla Foundation has made its choices, and if you think about the implications of Microsoft-style “we can do everything, better” attitudes, it might be the right decision. Our complaining about it, though, does little to help the situation. The right solution is to work on the problems that confront you, whether technical or not. There’s no reason to make this a popular battle and become a lobbyist, begging for others to change their minds.

For the last few days at work, I’ve been ruefully thinking that I was spoiled by learning how to write C++ code for Mozilla, instead of generic C++ code. Maybe the same is happening here: we’ve been spoiled by the ideals of what Mozilla (the name) stands for, and relying on that a little too much. The original Mozilla attitude was not standing up to anyone or against anyone, but standing up for yourself and getting things done. We who use these products on a daily basis need to recapture that attitude.

My favorite t-shirt says it best:

this technology could fall into the right hands