Weaponizing the Average User Myth

Dom Corriveau

Dom Corriveau

With the release of Ubuntu 19.10, with other freedom-hating operating systems getting updates like MacOS Catalina and Android 10, open versus closed-source has been top of mind. Increasingly, the attack on user choice has come under attack. However I don’t think its as nefarious as it sounds. I truly think these are a by-product of the chase for the elusive “average user” and in their pandering they’re eliminating choice, freedom and the overall ownership of technology just to reduce the amount of tech support calls.

This has been going on for a long time and has even infected many Linux distributions, which the primary persona is at least an owner of a USB stick and has the capability of researching problems and writing a distro to the USB stick in an effort to fix their challenge. In general, these people aren’t afraid of computers.

In particular, MacOS has been attacking their users for the last few releases. The hostility in Catalina and the smugness out of Cupertino hasn’t signaled “it just works”for a long time. Instead the feeling has been “do it the way I say is best”, which flies in the face of what has been historically the primary Mac user. However I recognize the power Apple has over the industry and seeing more and more distros, apps and services kowtow to the lowest common denominator.

The average user myth

Frankly I’m tired of hearing about this user. Depending on what day, which direction the wind is blowing and whether or not a developer has had their coffee yet, the average user can be anywhere from gaming and photo editing to unable to understand the difference between a computer and a toaster.

Most of the time I think an average user is the dumbest user the developer has encountered, which is one of the two loudest user types. The other is, of course, the heavy technical user who likes to complain about everything.

In reality there aren’t any average users. Instead there’s user-types to target with some user-type groups being larger than another. If your distro is targeting users who almost exclusively use the browser, then you eliminate the work in other applications and just make the browser experience the best. There is no way anything can be all things to all people. Computing continues to become more focused, intentional and specialized that instead of creating a one size fits all, we should be gearing the hardware and software to particular usecases that is focused on doing that task really, really well.

Giving the user these options, whether open or closed source, will benefit them more than the mushy middle most experiences sit. This is why gaming consoles exist. Hyper-targeted hardware and software specifically for gamers. Can it be better? Absolutely. But to me the answer isn’t making a great gaming PC that can also be good at editing videos, livestreaming or mining cryptocurrency. Yet the mushy middle is exactly where Apple, Microsoft and Google live.

The average user excuse is the same as the “new user” myth that Linux distros have been touting for more than a decade. Removing features or options to improve “new to Linux” is just a dream that one day the right distro will finally bring on the year of the Linux desktop.

But back to MacOS…

With Catalina Apple is requiring all Mac apps to verified with both a key signing and submitted after the developer signs in with their Apple account. This is in the name of security, however two OSS apps, Libreoffice and GIMP, still give the warning that the app is not trustworthy and therefore will not run. Is this Apple attempting to force all apps through their app store? Maybe. But it could also be to eliminate negative experiences with MacOS and apps that are either broken or risky because their users are not to be trusted (apparently).

This really makes MacOS users look like they’re too dumb to find, install and run apps from the open web. Therefore, Apple has to step in and fix it for them. Which is par for the course, even all the way back to the original iPhone that needed skeuomorphism because apparently users would be too dumb to understand which is the notes app unless it actually looks like a notepad. Of course there are users that are easily confused and are the lowest common denominator, a group that will never fully understand the device they’re using.

There’s a difference between good UI/UX and constantly “Fisher Price-ing” your software. Often, reducing confusion in your app or OS could simply come down to not redesigning the interface with every release, which is a huge complaint for me having to relearn my favorite apps every few months because their new designer went to a conference. Which is hilarious since the design is never any better nor addresses real design issues such as accessibility.

Benefits of Open

Coming back to why Catalina, Windows 10, iOS, Android and the tech season has me thinking about open versus closed source, it comes down to why I chose Linux and why I stay. It really is freedom and the feeling of ownership.

First is with UI/UX changes. When Windows 10 came along it was very clear your computer is not yours, but instead something you’re allowed to borrow from Microsoft. The drastic change in the desktop along with essentially no way to go back really attacked the majority of their userbase. Being a Unity fan (yes, I’ll admit it, I like Unity) I knew I would never have to undergo a similar forced transition. When Ubuntu announced they were deprecating Unity and switching to Gnome I still had a choice to keep my desktop. I could continue to run 14.04 until it reached EOL and can even pay for extended support. Then, with Unity being OSS, another group took up the DE. Of course, I could always maintain my own version if I was willing to put in the time and effort. This is not true of Windows 7 which will be officially dead in January of 2020.

This can also be felt in mobile OS decisions. iPad owners are left with little choice - either accept iPadOS or continue without updates. You are at the mercy of Apple, with their decisions being the rule of the land. Want to keep running 32-bit applications? Better not update to Catalina, which is now 64-bit only. I understand that Apple is also the maintainer of the operating systems and if they’re pivoting, it doesn’t make sense to continue to maintain old versions just because people don’t like change.

The difference is that they’re removing the ownership of the device from the user. You are at their whims, no matter what with almost zero recourse. For me, sticking with OSS and Free Software means I can use my device how I want, with the applications I want, and whatever amount of flexibility I want. Removing options from users on the other proprietary OS’s is setting a poor precedent for the entire industry, one that will be incredibly difficult to walk back. The goal is to increase technical capabilities in people, not reduce it on the device until its so dumb no one can make anything truly great.

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