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Supersmall Me – the open source column

Simon wants things shrinking down to manageable sizes...

Any Superman fans in? Any Superman fans who sat through last summer’s Man Of Steel, wishing they’d paid a bit extra for earplugs on top of their 3D glasses?

What about Doctor Who viewers? Or followers of pretty much any big science- fiction TV show? You ever noticed how when your show of choice trundles to the end of its season, that the stakes have to escalate, that worlds have to be put in peril, and that people generally have to stroke their chins and furrow their brows in a deeply concerned manner?

Bigger, we’re frequently reminded, is better, after all. Isn’t it? That visuals become more impressive, that special effects become more impressive, that more and more worlds find themselves facing certain doom? After all, even Linux User & Developer finds itself part of a media obsessed with the biggest number, or the next big breakthrough, or how many downloads were recorded on a day. And even if publications like these choose not to play by those rules, there’s little doubt that the rules are nonetheless established.

There’s little denying that Linux sometimes falls foul of this too. The excellent DistroWatch keeps an intriguing page-hit ranking as a permanent fixture on its front page, that lists the hits per day on the various assorted Linux distros. To the site’s credit, it’s gauging interest more than anything here, as it’s not recording the number of downloads. And it’d be folly to say that it’s not a useful snapshot of the Linux OS in its many flavours. The rise of Linux Mint over the past years has been notable, for those who have followed both Mint and the DistroWatch top 100.

But it’s the small stuff that matters, whether we’re talking movies, television shows, music or Linux. The best moments in the aforementioned Man Of Steel were those when someone turned the volume down and let the characters just have some form of conversation with each other. Television panels at conventions salute individual moments, and characters, over big-ticket moments.

With software, it needs to be the same. In a dim and distant past, I interviewed the chief of the then Cosmi Software, who explained that his business had thrived because he broke all the tasks that Microsoft Office undertook into individual applications, which he then packaged and sold. You might think this a bit cavalier, and a bit against the spirit of things, but his thinking was actually sound: he realised that people didn’t go searching for a mass suite of bloat when they wanted something for their computer. They searched for a tool to do an individual job. In much the same way that you go to a DIY store for a specific item, he tapped into that way of thinking and put out smaller, more compact, yet friendlier software tools. And he built, for a while, a big business off it.

I’m not suggesting that we all cut down LibreOffice into chunks and cover it in shrink- wrap. Rather that the ethos of computing works best when it’s small things first, big things last, rather than the other way round. Other media are fighting a losing battle on that front. Software doesn’t have to.