April 13, 2006

Why technical writers aren't using FOSS

Author: Bruce Byfield

I once thought that technical writers would be one of the next groups to adopt free and open source software (FOSS). I reasoned that they were advanced computer users, and might absorb an interest through their daily interactions with developers. However, after discussing FOSS on the Techwr-l mailing list a few months ago, I realized I was wrong. A handful are using FOSS professionally, and a few were inspired by the discussion to try it. Yet most showed only mild interest. Some echoed myths that everyone in the FOSS community has heard before about lack of support or quality. The majority, though, showed a mixture of pragmatism, a clinging to the familiar, and a double-standard that, taken together shows just how large a gap still separates the FOSS community from many of those it might immediately benefit.

These reactions are all evident in three comments by long-time members of the mailing list. The first comes from Gene Kim-Eng, a technical writer of many years' standing. Kim-Eng attributed his disinclination to use FOSS to his perception that FOSS tended to add features according to programmers' interests, rather than end-users' needs, and to try to do too many things. He thought proprietary software had the same tendency, and needed "someone with a clear vision to tell them what to do." Rather than FOSS or proprietary software, he prefers shareware, "where often an entire program is the result of one person's desire and determination to create something that will do one thing well."

The second comment comes from John Posada, a senior technical writer from New York. Posada's complaint is that installing FOSS was too complex when he had a simple, practical goal in mind. He used the example of the GIMP for Windows. Posada observes that, in order to install, he had to move from the main GIMP site to another one, read a FAQ, and download and install both the GIMP for Windows and GTK+2. By the time he had done all these things, he facetiously says, he had almost "forgotten" his main goal. "Open source is for developers," he concluded from this example. "I, for one, only want to resize an image and change it from TIF to PNG."

The third comment was made by Bonnie Granat, an experienced editor in New England. Asked by a client to use OpenOffice.org (OOo), Granat was enthusiastic at first. However, by the time I was asking questions, she had decided that OOo Writer was inferior to Microsoft Word in functionality, and that "the little differences are tiresome." Much the same sentiments were voiced by Sue Gallagher, who has given seminars about object-oriented programming to other writers. "Some of the functionality I rely on in Word just isn't there," Gallagher said. Similarly, Posada vaguely remembers trying OpenOffice.org. "[It] didn't do much for me," he says. "And I think it caused something else on my machine to become unstable ... I don't remember what it was."

All these comments are easy to debunk. Many are based on misunderstandings, a lack of context, and less than complete knowledge.

However, what is more interesting about the comments is the attitudes they reveal. To start with, none show any interest in the philosophies of either free software or open source. Most had no understanding of them. Encouraged to ask questions, those who accepted the invitation asked the most basic of questions, such as what incentive developers would have if they didn't get paid. A few attempted to debunk FOSS based on secondhand knowledge. Even more disavowed any interest in the philosophies, claiming that they were only interested in practical results. Posada spoke for many when he responded to my question about the role of philosophies by saying, "I don't care about philosophy.... I'm more interested in the speed that I can get my documentation written."

Another point that may be difficult for members of the FOSS communities to understand is that, although tech writers often keep typically long corporate hours and may work alongside FOSS programmers, few express any inclination to learn more about computing or to gain more control over how they spend most of their days. In retrospect, that is perhaps unsurprising, since, despite the hyphen in their job description, two-thirds of tech writers see themselves as offering skill in putting words together rather than expert knowledge. But, at any rate, many assume that, if they were to explore FOSS, they would have to do so on their own time. A typical response came from Wanda Phillips, who, although feeling vaguely that she should learn more about FOSS, said, "Since I don't really have room to experiment, or even really practice my craft, at work, any experimentation would be done at home, in my unpaid hours. Frankly, these days, given a choice between experimenting with a new tech tool or process and, let's say, walking my dog.... oh, yeah, walking the dog wins!" Even though they regularly curse the long-outstanding bugs in proprietary software such as Word, they would rather keep using it because they are familiar with it than learn something new, no matter how powerful it might be.

Most important of all, many tech writers are more tolerant of the shortcomings of proprietary software than of FOSS. Kim-Eng sees a similar trend in both FOSS and proprietary software, yet while it keeps him from using FOSS, it does not discourage him from using proprietary software. In the same way, few experienced technical writers would expect to learn FrameMaker overnight, but, when they have trouble finding a feature in OpenOffice.org Writer, they jump to the conclusion that it isn't there -- although it almost always is, unless it's online collaboration tools. Moreover, a few perceived flaws in Writer or perhaps a beta release can cause them to reject it, although they will go to great lengths to find workarounds for problems in Word. For many tech writers, the unspoken assumption is still that FOSS is inferior to proprietary software. As a result, they do not approach it with anything like the same willingness to learn.

Some of the responses to my questions raised legitimate concerns. A few pointed out missing gaps in functionality, such as the lack of graphical WinHelp editors. Others, referring to the relatively low status of tech writers in their companies, suggested that advocating FOSS would be too risky. A few with some knowledge of FOSS pointed out that the back end software at their company was already built from FOSS, and one who had reason to know suggested that the cliquishness of many projects made becoming involved in FOSS uninviting. Yet such informed comments were the exception, not the rule. What I chiefly noticed was how little knowledge about FOSS had reached the average tech writer. And if such relatively expert computer users knew so little, what chance can there be of FOSS ideals motivating the everyday user? If the responses I received were typical, the day that a FOSS desktop is on every computer may be farther away than we think.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal. He has worked as a tech writer, but hopes never to do so again.


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