Some lessons from an open source project that never gained critical mass

I recently announced that I was halting development on QuickUI, and thought it would be a good idea to do a little post-mortem before moving on.

The good side: As a framework for web application UI development, QuickUI measured up to its design goals. It was useful for creating complex application UIs with a good separation of concerns between UI components. The core framework was highly reliable with a fairly tight abstraction and acceptable performance. QuickUI was used in some companies for real production apps with real users. The very small number of developers who actually used the framework said they liked it and were impressed by what it could do.

The bad side: As an open source project, QuickUI never achieved critical mass. QuickUI was my first attempt at kickstarting an open source project to help establish an ecosystem for component-based web user interfaces. I’d initially held the naive view that simply publishing something as open source (which I did in late 2009, two years into QuickUI’s development) would, on its own, generate community interest and participation. But the universe of open source development projects is vast, and simply making something free doesn’t make it popular. Free products still need to appeal to their audience and gain adoption through a good feature set, great distribution, and substantial luck.

Eventually, QuickUI was overtaken by open web component standards (which is a good thing), and it no longer made sense to continue investment in QuickUI. Before moving on, I wanted to write down some of the lessons the QuickUI project held for me.

  1. People care about the stack of technologies beneath your project. I used to think that all that mattered is whether a tool worked and was easy to use, but most developers make demands the construction of the tool itself: programming language, runtime platform, dependent libraries, etc. The most common reason someone will offer for this is that they may need to diagnose a bug in the code and fix it. That may also be true, but I think most people have less glorified reasons for considering the technology behind a tool.

    First, simply understanding the vocabulary associated with a given stack requires investment. Occasionally you come across a tool on GitHub whose Readme says the tool can be configured via a .foo file, where the location and syntax of a .foo file is completely obvious to current users of that tool’s stack. If you don’t already know what a .foo file is, you’re less likely to adopt that tool.

    Second, a developer toolchain is a creaky, cantankerous beast, and incorporating multiple stacks of tech is a pain. This is less about debugging than what Bruce Sterling refers to as the wrangling required to get things to work together.

    Third, you trust tools on stacks that have worked for you in the past, and are skeptical that tools on unfamiliar stacks will actually work as advertised. For example, I’ve hardly ever used Ruby, and rarely use Ruby gems. When I see a tool published via npm, I feel comfortable installing and using it, even if I never look at its source, because I’ve used many tools that way. If I see a tool that does the exact same thing published as a Ruby gem, I view its efficacy as black magic.

    Last, people implicitly trust other people who have selected the same technology stack. “If someone has made the same technology choices I have, they must be as enlightened as I am!” Conversely, people look askance at those who make different choices. A die-hard plain JavaScript coder may view the Clojure community are pot-smoking hippies, while the Clojure developer may view the original party as a latter-day COBOL dork lacking sufficient brainpower and awareness.

    In the case of QuickUI, when I started on it in late 2007 or so, I was most comfortable writing in C#, so when I needed to write a build-time compiler for UI markup, I wrote it in C#. Bad idea. Despite the fact that there was no run-time need for .NET, and that the compiler ran perfectly well on a Mac (under Mono), no one would take it seriously with the taint of .NET on it. I was eventually able drop the compiler altogether, and rely on a stack of tools which jQuery developers were already familiar, but that cost the project time and effort.

  2. Using anything other than native web technologies — plain HTML, plain JavaScript, and plain CSS — significantly constrains your audience. This is similar to the above point, but pertains to your project’s source code rather than the stack of technologies supporting that source. Again, part of the argument here is that they might theoretically need to dive into the runtime source to diagnose a problem, but I think the reaction is usually more instinctive than that.

    At one point in the development of QuickUI I discovered that working in CoffeeScript was much more productive for me than in plain JavaScript. In short order, I ported the QuickUI runtime to CoffeeScript. Switching to CoffeeScript was a huge productivity boost for me — but represented a huge reduction on the potential audience for QuickUI.

    For one thing, it seemed nearly impossible for me to get potential developers to ignore the presence of CoffeeScript. CoffeeScript compiles to plain JavaScript, but anyone who looked at the QuickUI source repo saw “CoffeeScript” listed as the primary language… and walked away. They might say, “Your project looks interesting, but I don’t know CoffeeScript.” I’d tell them they didn’t need to know CoffeeScript — that was an implementation detail — but they’d already decided they were uninterested.

    Over and over, the general feeling was, “I just don’t want to use something that uses something I don’t already know.” And then, of course, for most people who really did want to be able to grok the source, CoffeeScript was a non-starter.

    To build a community around a project, you probably want as many people as possible to be able to participate. Even if you hate JavaScript, it’s the web’s lingua franca. Using any other language for an open web project may not be an insurmountable obstacle, but at the very least it’s a significant handicap. As much as it pained me, when I started up the subsequent Quetzal web components experiments, I did so in plain JavaScript.

  3. Everyone will insist there is one thing you must do that will make your library more acceptable — and all those things are different, and all those things together are probably still insufficient. Over the course of the past few years, I have given many, many QuickUI demos, and received feedback on all aspects of the tool, the accompanying site at quickui.org, the learning process, etc. Very little of this feedback was consistent; everyone fixated on something different. I thought, if I just respond to all the feedback, surely at some point the barrier to adoption will be low enough that people will start adopting the tool.

    On the basis of such feedback, I spent a huge amount of time improving things. Early on, someone said I should move the source to GitHub, so I did. Someone said it needed better documentation, so I wrote a lot of documentation. As discussed above, numerous people suggested moving away from .NET, so I did. Someone suggested having live examples of UI components, so I built those. Someone thought a tutorial would be helpful, so I made an interactive tutorial. (Which many people complimented. Thank you!) One person’s key complaint with the entire framework was that the home page didn’t have icons; if the framework was to be successful, the home page needed little icons to indicate which browsers were supported by the framework. I did that. I received many, many other suggestions, and I incorporated almost all of them.

    None of it mattered. The feedback was actionable, and probably much of it was accurate, but even addressing (nearly) all of it wasn’t enough to make the project successful.

    The fact is that most people are unwilling to invest the time to understand, analyze, and articulate what’s really wrong with your project. Of the people who gave me feedback, few of them actually looked hard at it, very few had actually tried it beyond the online tutorial, and very, very few were willing to speak directly to their key concerns. This is all understandable — people are busy, spending time on a framework of unknown value is potentially wasted, and most people want to be nice to you — but feedback on a project should be accepted with these phenomena in mind.

  4. Paradigm shift is prohibitively expensive. Early on, one person told me that building UI in a component-oriented fashion represented a significant paradigm shift — and that represented a potentially insurmountable obstacle for QuickUI.

    The problem with a paradigm shift is that it’s hard to even have a conversation with someone whose conceptualization of the world doesn’t even allow them to recognize the problem they have. I spoke with many developers who viewed the undifferentiated pile of JavaScript generating their UI as the way things had to be done. They were more concerned with getting their UI to work across multiple browsers than to worry about componentization — even though a good component library is exactly the sort of thing that would have made cross-browser work more manageable. (The cross-browser hacks could have been folded into the components, allowing them to work at a higher level of abstraction, etc.) Interestingly, these same developers would carefully factor their code into classes or functions with clear lines of responsibility. They applied good factoring to every other thing they coded except their web UI.

    Over the past year or so, Google and others have been evangelizing a component-oriented paradigm for web development. At some point, we’ll go through some phase-change where that paradigm will suddenly become dominant. I’m betting that change will happen before late 2015. By then, it will be hard to find a good web UI developer who doesn’t think of their UI in terms of components.

  5. People are only interested in something if others are already using it. This is true for both seasoned developers and novice developers — but for different reasons. The novice teaches themself jQuery or Backbone or LESS because experienced people use those things, which means they’re probably interesting and useful. The seasoned developer picks up a new tool that others are using because the alternative — using something with a tiny user base — represents unacceptable risk.

    This last point was made to me by the most abrasive person I ever spoke with about QuickUI. In fact, I think it’s because they were untroubled by politeness that they could speak the truth. They said: “I would love to use this, but I can’t. If something were to happen to you, I would be stuck having to fix your bugs. I made a bet like this in the past, and was stuck supporting someone else’s framework. I won’t do that again. Come back when lots of other people are using this.”

    So this developer had, at some point, found a great piece of technology, developed by someone else, and they staked their own reputation on adopting this technology, only to have it completely fall apart when the other party went away (went bankrupt, was acquired, whatever). It’s probably safe to assume that most seasoned developers have had a similar experience. For every open library, there must exist some critical mass at which the library’s community becomes self-sustaining.

    At that point, if you find a bug in the library, someone else in the community has probably also found the bug, and maybe even fixed it. Enough other people are invested in the library that, even if the original developer disappears, the remaining investors will keep it going for as long as that makes technological sense.

    I’d be very interested if someone could pinpoint the size of that critical mass. I’m guessing the number is pretty small: perhaps 10 active contributors might be sufficient to create the perception the library is well-maintained and not going away. Whatever that size is, I couldn’t grow QuickUI to that size.

  6. Google could publish a JavaScript library for cloud-based ham sandwiches and a thousand people would immediately star the repo on GitHub. For much of my career, I focused my attention almost entirely on the value a product created, and gave very little thought to how a product would be distributed. Distribution is, in fact, at least as important, and maybe more important, than underlying value. That’s certainly true in the short term. And, over the long term, well, maybe technology changes quickly enough that the long term never comes into play.

    I’m not saying individuals can’t launch successful open source projects, but rather that doing so within the context of a company with name recognition and a developer outreach program makes it much, much easier. The people working within such a context may not realize it. I once heard someone describe people who work at big companies as “basketball players on the moon”. Those people can jump very high, but they may not realize the extent to which their performance depends on that context.

    I have deep respect for a person who can launch something entirely on their own, without relying on the backing of their company (or industry name recognition predicated on work they launched previously at some earlier company). If someone can make a disruptive technology successful entirely on its own merits, both that tech and that person are impressive indeed.

Ah, well, live and learn. I’m still looking forward to watching the web’s UI component ecosystem take shape, because we’ll all get to make awesome stuff together.

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2 thoughts on “Some lessons from an open source project that never gained critical mass

  1. Thanks for the post! It’s important to learn from successful projects as well as not-so-successful projects. How did you go about getting the first, second, and third adopters to use your tool?

  2. As a veteran of open-source endeavors, from both start-up and 900# Gorilla (e.g. Google) perspectives, I say there is wisdom here.

    Should be required reading for library developers, kudos.

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