I read Gerv’s post from earlier today (“Choice considered harmful”), as well as the predictable replies to it. It’s a rich topic to debate, but one thought that particularly strikes me is that with computers running billions of instruction per seconds (and increasing), software (un?)naturally grows in size and complexity to keep those CPUs warm and toasty… So we, as software engineers, need to continually increase the instructions-per-user-decision ratio, or else things spiral out of control. And just breaking even isn’t good enough if you’re interested in improving usability.
Unfortunately that’s often perceived as “removing features” and “limiting what users can do.” Done improperly, that can be the case. But I think more often it’s… Well, let me avoid that rathole and instead run off on a tangent. :-)
In my last blog post, I had mentioned having problems last year getting Solaris working right in a Parallels VM. Alfred Peng (from Sun) commented that pre-installed VM images are now available from Sun, which would have certainly saved me some time. :-) But that’s a great idea for other reasons — it makes it MUCH easier to try out the software, by avoiding the whole hassle of having to install it. Linux also ran with this idea by making “Live CD” images available, so you could try Linux by booting a CD and not having to commit to installing it over your current system. I think some distros are making VM images available now, and there’s a VMWare appliance available with the Nokia N800 development platform pre-installed, which is an interesting idea in lowering the threshold to starting development.
Now, let’s swerve this post back towards Firefox…
Somewhere, recently, I caught part of a discussion with Mike Beltzner talking about improving the first-run experience with our browser. It’s been a while since I installed Firefox on a fresh new system, but as I remember it you’ve got to run the installer, click through a bunch of installer wizard screens, confirm importing your IE bookmarks, decide if you want to make FF your default browser, wade though security dialogs the first time you enter and leave an SSL site, etc. That’s not a terribly pleasant experience (especially for someone just curious about what this Firefox thing is all about), and doesn’t give a good impression of what using Firefox is really like.
We can fix a lot of the first-run issues with tweaking how things are done. Shipping a VM image with Firefox pre-installed isn’t really needed. :-) But I do wonder if there’s a way to eliminate, or at least minimize, the install process. OS X is nice in that you can just drag Firefox.app to the Desktop and run it, so there’s a minimum of hassle in “installing” an application. I’ve run across people hesitant to try Firefox because they don’t want to install it over IE, not really realizing you can just try it. I wonder how many users bail out of the process before Firefox loads a single web page.