Armed with a text editor

mu's views on program and recipe! design

Free Software's underbelly Posted 2006.01.28 16:00 PST (#)

Free software has a major weakness. It's not one that other people can worsen or exploit, other than by working harder themselves. So this weakness doesn't spell the end of Free software. But it consistently acts as a limiting factor in the greatness of Free software. To be fair plenty of commercial software suffers from the same problem, if for different reasons, so it's not even a weakness specific to Free software. But it's a weakness I want to see addressed and mitigated.

The weakness I refer to is in small but important features: they constantly slip through the cracks. What makes it infuriating is the number of wonderful, obviously-difficult, and often polished features that are written in the same timespan. Sure it's not a straight tradeoff, so lamenting if we had time for this, certainly we had time for that doesn't help—different contributors are interested in writing different things. Official maintainers are interested in accepting different things. But the result is the same: something simple remains hard or impossible for years, and things you could do in the previous version cannot always be done in the next version.


It's not hard to find examples. I don't pick any given example to make fun of the project which lacks the feature; I do it to highlight a change which I would love to see make my life that much better. That said the more I use something, the more gaps I'm likely to notice—in that sense perhaps it's a compliment if I list a lot of gaps! Regardless it's probably best to treat this as my personal rant list. More examples coming later.

Mozilla Firefox

What makes the first two Mozilla gaps so annoying is that they've both been present in previous versions of the product. Now that's progress!

View as text

Back in the bowels of time the first well-known web browser could view just about anything as if it were served with content-type text/plain. This was a great thing, although its importance didn't crop up until much much later. Recently web servers have started sending source code under other content types like text/x-csrc or text/x-py. Since it became reborn as Mozilla, rather than always supporting an in-browser fallback, unknown content types are only supported by external applications. This means when I go to view plain ascii text files on certain web servers I have to load up a text editor. Insanity!

And I'm far from the only one to think so. This was reported on bugzilla five years ago.

Manage folder

Firefox before version 1.5 offered a "Manage folder" option in the right click menu of each bookmark toolbar folder. In 1.5 they removed this, apparently because some people thought others might find the expand option confusing, and because some functionality didn't work right in the subfolder-only view. The result? I and others can no longer easily access and edit bookmarks in a single folder. I have way too many bookmarks to view the whole set; managing a single folder was very important to me.

Live bookmarks

When a site offers an RSS feed, you get a nice icon letting you know this. Click on the icon to subscribe (create a live bookmark). However neither in this dialog nor on a right click can you find out what the URL is for that live feed. The only way to do that is to view the original source, or to create the bookmark and view its properties. This makes it much harder to verify that you're setting up your RSS rel links correctly on a page, or to directly visit the feed in your browser. I couldn't find a bug in buzilla about this limitation.

Categories: freesoftware mozilla


Peter Johnson @ 2006.01.30 21:14:

Looking at the Firefox bugzilla report and your description of the Manage folder discussion issues really reminds me of the (in)famous bikeshed color issue as highlighted by phk@freebsd. The answer is seemingly so simple, but everyone has a just slightly different approach (wanting to put their own stamp on it). Read the link, it's quite insightful!