Why Open Source Communities Can Work

Joanmarie Diggs yesterday said something to me that struck a chord. We'd been discussing the "where am I" command in the Orca screen reader, which is currently going through a redesign.

Joanie, who is an access technology instructor at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts (and who has a blog there), is helping to specify what it should be like. She said:

Not sure if we're going to get "everybody" in agreement simply because "everybody" doesn't seem to realize the opportunity they have here. Y'all listen and do what folks ask -- they can help design the very screen reader they use! -- and still most don't ask or state an opinion.

My flippant response was:

Yup. It's a new world. Not everybody is there yet.

Which got me thinking. That's not exactly right. If you had access to USENET and a Unix box twenty years ago, you could have downloaded free software (in 64Kb chunks), put it back together, compiled it and ran new useful programs.

You could have provided feedback to the authors of said software either via the sources discussion news groups or via email. You could have asked for new features or reported bugs or even written those features or fixed those bugs for yourself and then passed the code onto other people who were interested.

It's certainly how it worked on the calculator I've been maintaining for the last 21 years. Plus lots of other projects too.

Then it got a little more formalized. Larger communities such as GNU and Linux and then GNU/Linux. Nowadays there are thousands of such software communities of various sizes. Some of the larger ones I contribute to are GNOME and Firefox/Mozilla and OpenOffice.

Why this is all strange to the blind users who are now trying out Orca is that they are so used to paying a large sum of money to a commercial organization and dealing with the way that support is handled in such a company, that they don't realize that alternatives exist.

The main Orca development team is small. You could count us on the fingers of one hand and still have one left over. But the community is growing. We want to hear what our users have to say. They have an opportunity here to help design the screen reader that they could be using.

As with all design-by-committee approachs, not everything is going to get done. But everything (assuming the users speakup), is going to get heard.

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