I came across this rant about feature requests in Gnome. I have to confess a sense of siding with the OSS developers on this one.

The author of the editorial doesn't get into full swing until she quotes the following statement from the Gnome web site:

A feature will be implemented if and only if there is a developer who wants to implement it.

She then extrapolates this to imply that no OSS developer is going to implement a feature request unless she has a personal use for that feature. This reasoning is both myopic and parochial.

The truth is, when you're working on a product that's intended for a wide variety of users, individual feature requests tend to be of limited value. That doesn't mean I'm not interested in hearing your particular feature requests, because that's not the point. Within the dross of anecdotal feature requests, there's still the chance that one of them will turn out to be a gem. The truth is, however, that the vast majority of individual feature requests turn out to be bad ideas.

Perhaps an example will clarify the point. A long time ago, a user suggested that we bring back the "Style Area" feature. The feature was, and currently is, a preference in the "View" panel (you set the "width" of the style are). When that width is greater than 0, then Word displays the style of a paragraph to the left of the paragraph. This only works in "Normal" view.

That was the feature request, but it told me nothing about his problem that he was trying to solve. Well, it turns out that he had to review documents to see if they adhered to corporate style guidelines. In order to do this, he needed to be able to see both the style that's applied to a paragraph and any direct formatting that's been applied in addition to the style.

Well, in Word 2004, we shipped a feature that solves his high-level problem far more elegantly than the old style area solved it. This is in the "Style" area of the formatting palette. Word lists all the styles, and instances of styles plus various forms of direct formatting, that exist in your document. Each item in the list box is also a drop-down menu that provides the ability to select all instances of that list item's combination of underlying style plus direct formatting.

With this feature, our user can now solve his particular problem by simply choosing "Select All" in the drop-down menu for combinations that don't match his company's style guidelines. He can then correct them all at once. If we'd just given him is direct feature request instead of trying to understand his real problem, he'd still be searching through these documents one paragraph at a time; a task that would have taken him hours to perform on a single document can now be completed in just a few minutes.

So, I think the OSNews editorial is misplaced. The difference between OSS and what we do isn't in the extent to which we listen to what customers have to say. Rather, the really significant difference is the effort we put into understanding users' high-level problems. That's a very costly, and time-consuming effort. It's not a job that hobbyist programmers, no matter how dedicated, can reasonably hope to accomplish.


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