jueves, 10 de marzo de 2011

Names, responses, and FLOSS

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
(T.S. Eliot, "The Naming of Cats")

Funny as it may, this very same dilemma of naming is attached to the computer world. It generates multiple reactions, which range from amusement to irate responses sprinkled with prejudice, especially when addressing the interaction with FLOSS communities.

Let me exemplify. In numerous occasions, I have read the argument that one hindrance to the advance of Open Source is the name given to applications. The reasoning is that "geeky Open Source developers" give their applications "geeky names" that make it harder for the end user to be able to work with them, something that is said NEVER HAPPENS under the Windows environment. That names are always clear in Windows is slanted information: "Excel" and "PowerPoint" give very precise clues of what the user can do with them, don't they? Writer and Calc are more accurate than Word and Excel in that sense. But let us overlook that stone and approach the idea playfully. Once I read: "If I read 'Photoshop', I know it has to do with pictures. But what is GIMP for?" I laugh at this pedestrian position that rests upon laziness and ignorance. After all, the name "Photoshop" can be just as misleading if you have never seen the application (Photoshop is an application to buy pictures online, Photo-shop, right?). On the other hand, if the user looks up the meaning of the GIMP acronym, "GNU Image Manipulation Program" seems more accurate than Photoshop is to describe what the application does. Now, that aside, the argument is flawed in itself because it overlooks human linguistic capacities. You use a mop to mop, a brush to brush, but a broom to sweep and no one complains! What's in the word "mop" that tells you what it is for, other than a symbolic association cemented in our brains by constant reinforcement? Do I need to know what GIMP means to be able to operate it? What do we do when the technologies are not given a name at all? Remember TWAIN (Technology without an interesting name)?

Now, if developers have the right to call their application anything they like because, in the end, the user will learn by exposure and association, what's the big deal if developers name applications using references to literature (Scrooge) or culture (Banshee)? Or if they use words foreign for an English speaker(LibreOffice)? English speakers should remember that, thanks to the Norman Conquest, English adopted lots of French words, so let us be more realistic. A name does not make a technology better or worse, just as a name does not reflect on the nature of the person bearing it.

One interesting feature about names is that they do speak of hegemonic power struggles. In a sense, names manifest dominance, division, and impositions. Have you heard of the tug o' war name between Canonical and Gnome? The former was calling something "appindicator", whereas the latter went for "state message". It's not that they didn't agree on what to call it. Actually, the problem was that the two parties pushed for their own name of choice and that's different. If I call the bird "hawk" and you call it "falcon", there's not any problem provided that the convention has it that the animal can be referred to by the two tags. Yet, if I want you to call something the way I do, then we have a problem. Certainly, it is more one of power than it is of naming.

One great source of fun developers have in the Linux world is the assignment of names to versions. So, Mandriva 2010 became "Adelie" and 2010.1 went by the name of "Farman". Other distributions resort to a set of conventions that makes it interesting for developers to find a name. Linux Mint has, for example, a rule of giving the version the name of a woman using a sequential letter of the alphabet, but the name has to end with an "a". Since I remember, that gave us Felicia, Gloria, Helena, Isadora, and the now popularly acclaimed Julia. Ubuntu has a different formula for their code names: "letter X adjective + letter X animal". Consequently, from the moment I joined the Linux world, I have seen Karmic Koala, Lucid Lynx, Maverick Meerkat, Natty Narwhal and they just announced the successor, Oneiric Ocelot.

Of course, those codes give room for people to start playing with the patterns. Thus, they come up with very creative names of their own to bash the distro, as in this (troll?) comment posted in www.tuxmachines.org.

Naming is always a difficult enterprise and there will always be complaints. Eliot's cats, however, do not have such problem: They have a secret name of their own. Maybe applications are the same and they crash, under-perform or fail to launch because they are also lost in the contemplation of their "ineffable, effable, effanineffable/
Deep and inscrutable singular name".

2 comentarios:

  1. Very interesting post. Maybe you can address the following cases next time:

    1- Distros that change their names (Mandriva, BRlix, Jollycloud)
    2- Distros whose names users often get wrong (Mepis, Ubuntu)
    3- Names of software components most people use but are almost totally ignored (Luna, Aero)