Getting Fedora Out of the If-Then Loop

An increase in the number of people downloading Fedora could also increase the number of new potential contributors.

In another refrain of the debate about whether defining a target audience for the default “Fedora Distribution” is a good idea or not, Mike McGrath made a good point–the Fedora download numbers over the past several releases are flat or declining.

My best understanding of the argument against setting a target audience goes like this, “If we set a target audience for the Fedora distribution, then we will marginalize or exclude the people who aren’t targeted.”

This creates an unnatural division and hamstrings us.  Who would want to be responsible for marginalizing or excluding others?  That certainly goes against my values.

This is an unfortunate way we approach a lot of conversations in Fedora–assuming there are only two ways to see a problem: right and wrong–IF followed by THEN with no exceptions or other possible outcomes.  It is a false dichotomy.  Chris Guillebeau has a great article defining the term this way:

Dichotomy is a five-dollar word that means the division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups. False dichotomies are used to divide people who would not necessarily be divided otherwise.

There are some really thoughtful responses in the comments that echo a lot of my feelings about the limitations of our mailing list discussions and views towards change in Fedora.

Fedora Distribution

How do we know if our distribution is successful? Download numbers seem like a good start to me.  If they are flat or declining should we do something about it?  If yes, what should we do?

Fedora Contributors

How do we measure the success and health of our contributor community?  Do we have indicators that show that it is declining and needs more attention than our distribution?  What evidence do we have supporting this assertion?  If a target audience would harm our contributors, by how much and in what tangible ways?  Do we really have to trade alleged contributor exclusion for a target audience?

Tying it all together

We have download numbers showing that usage of the Fedora Distribution is stagnant.  Some have advocated that the Board’s primary responsibility should be to empower contributors to do whatever they want and that defining a target audience would hinder that.  The underlying assumption I hear is that the Fedora Board is leading the project off track.

I don’t understand this.  Does the Fedora board really have a demonstrated history of making bad decisions and taking Fedora in the wrong direction?  Why so much fear and worry that the board will do this now?  Part of the problem I see is that we are still working through a paradigm change–some driven by board members like me who believe the Fedora Board has a responsibility to “lead into the future” while overseeing the present.

For as long as I can remember, the Fedora Project has been all about “enabling contributors to do whatever they want.”  How has that turned out for us?  Can we objectively say how good or bad the results are compared to what they might have been under a different approach? How do we objectively determine if “enabling contributors to do whatever they want” is a good strategy for long-term success?

There has been some work to measure contributor growth and health in Fedora.  It would interesting to correlate that health and growth with the overall use of the Fedora distribution.  What if we are simply creating a distribution for ourselves?

If defining a target audience for our default distribution and focusing our efforts increases the number of people actively downloading and using the Fedora it could also increase the number of potential new contributors.  That seems like a win-win to me.

12 thoughts on “Getting Fedora Out of the If-Then Loop

  1. Pingback: Getting Outside of the Box « John Poelstra

  2. Actually, I couldn’t care much less about a target audience — I certainly would not stop using Fedora if I happened to be outside that target audience.

    What keeps me using Fedora is something that might be called its “core values”. The principle of beeing close to upstream and relatively fast on updates while still keeping the released software well tested and dependable.

  3. Fedora is my desktop, and has been since RedHat went pay-for. As far as direction is concerned, even our slogan is a bit abstract.

  4. An increased number of users *could* increase the number of contributions, with emphasis on “could”. That depends on*who* those downloaders are, they are mere consumers who just want a less buggy Windows replacement or if they are geeks prone to contributing. Here is the value of defining well the main target.

    About the project being lead on or off track, I can say only that: the default “Fedora Distribution” is becoming less and less representative for *me* as an existing contributor, and from my point of view this *is* off track.

  5. I can speak only for our part of Fedora but it’s really great to see growing community, increasing number of users and even contributors! It’s really amazing. And I’m happy I can work on Fedora (not only KDE) with great people around!

  6. The problem is that you marginalize some group, no matter what.

    Fedora is now a ‘developer’ release, because the developers provide the direction. There are thus areas that are not particularly user friendly, however, those are not high priority because they can be worked around (if you’re a developer or at least a skilled user).

    If you want end-users to find the release an attractive option, then developer’s opinions must be secondary to the user base needs.

    With unlimited resources you can be all things to all people. With limited resources, someone is getting marginalized, or the release is becoming mediocre because it’s unfocused.

    • The thing about “user base needs” are that they are essentially unknown, while, given good developers, “developer’s opinions” are a very good approximation of them.

      Of course, the opinions can be made even sounder with input from usability testing.

      (Said by a developer (though not really a fedora contributor) who happens to care about usability).

  7. Hard to say I guess. I’ve been away from Fedora for a year or two and recently came back and my reasons (“anecdata”) were:
    1. Haskell platform support
    2. Support free software after ipad announcement :P
    3. Want to be on cutting edge to escape janky bits of Linux (xorg.conf files, etc.)

    So I guess that doesn’t help much. I’m already quite fired up about Fedora’s mantra. Maybe if Ubuntu is “desktop” linux then Fedora is workstation linux?

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