This post has been updated; see bottom of the page for corrections.
The OpenOfficeMouse was announced today. I’m pretty sure it’s fake, but whether it’s real is actually far less interesting than how easily people became convinced it is real.
Engadget fell for it, as did the vast majority of their commenters. John Gruber fell for it, not that anyone was expecting anything else; John Gruber would fall for a press release announcing the bankruptcy of Microsoft Corporation on April 1. A PC World blog fell for it, quoting much of the page verbatim. Thankfully, preserving our collective sanity, Slashdot seemed pretty reserved, and the commenters actually had something resembling an interesting discussion.
Let’s be serious. I own and use several ThinkPads, my phone is BlackBerry, I use Opera. I’m pretty geeky and I generally enjoy things that don’t put form over function and that might look a little ugly but work. It took me about two minutes to figure out this had to be a joke, evidently a pretty elaborate joke, but a joke nevertheless. It doesn’t matter who perpetrated the joke, or whether the mouse shown in the press release is an actual working device. Francesco Poderico and T Beale, of United Kingdom and Switzerland respectively, may well have registered for a large conference, promising to present a
revolutionary multi-button application mouse during a 45 minute presentation.
But I’m pretty sure the official affiliation with OpenOffice.org ends there.
No group actually capable of shipping an office suite is insane enough to believe an 18 button mouse that looks like that is a good idea. Not even
experts from the OpenOffice.org User Experience project think it is a good idea for the general public or even the average OpenOffice.org user. No one seems to have taken the time to check out one of only two names given in the press release, “mouse designer Theodore Beale”. Otherwise, they may have paused over the fact Theodore Beale is a WorldNetDaily writer and author of The Irrational Atheist: Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens who is on the record as saying
calling a feminist a feminazi is an insult to National Socialism. He is also a musician, a game designer, and an entrepreneur, but mouse design, or residence in Switzerland, seems to be lacking from his résumé.
Even if the OpenOfficeMouse does turn out to be real down the line, the willingness of so many to believe an announcement of this mouse, with this press release, and those quotes is pretty interesting in and of itself. It’s an OpenOffice.org related product – so the worse it seems, the more real it appears. Cue the
open source sucks,
design by committee, and
a good metaphor for Linux and OSS comments.
To be sure, the OpenOffice.org interface is not the greatest. It is also nowhere near as bad as most people think it to be. It can’t, considering it is as close of a copy of pre-2007 Microsoft Office as anyone can get without being sued.
People believe the OpenOffice.org interface is bad, so it is bad. This is the same problem Microsoft was facing with Windows Vista; it wasn’t so bad, really, but nearly everyone thought it was bad. How do you fight against that? You can’t run ads saying
we are, in fact, reasonably awesome, because everyone is convinced you suck so much, what you think is awesome by definition isn’t. You can’t run ads saying
we aren’t as bad as you think, because that’s just pathetic. You can’t keep on doing what you are doing – at least outwardly – because everyone thinks, knows it sucks.
Microsoft got around it by fixing up a few (admittedly well-chosen) things in Vista and pushing a “new” release out the door. How will OpenOffice.org? Radical overhaul of the UI is one way, but copying Office 2007’s ribbon will inevitably cause the “like Microsoft Office, only worse” label to stay firmly on. Anything new would probably be evaluated with extreme prejudice, as it came from the same open-source
hippies people that brought us such a terrible interface in the old OpenOffice.org.
So, how to fix this? I’m not sure. I think a simplifying redesign coupled with a name change might stand a chance. Really, “OpenOffice.org” is not doing itself any favours appearing non-complicated. I don’t know what the name might be; the good ones, “Office” and “Works” are taken by the incumbent, although one of them might be freeing up. Apple’s taken the next obvious ones, “iWork” with “Pages” and “Numbers”.
One of the reasons the success of Firefox is so remarkable is that it came from a decidedly hippie open-source environment – Mozilla, of all of them – with a name that didn’t actually describe what the program does (cf. “Internet Explorer”, or even “Netscape Navigator”). Will OpenOffice.org be able to pull off something similar?
Updates: The mouse is apparently real, and the designer really is Theodore Beale a/k/a Vox Day. OpenOffice.org claims they’ve never given permission to use the name; Beale says they have, but they’ll change the name to “OOMouse” anyway. The status of John McCreesh quote in the press release was not expanded upon. I’d assume it’s a real quote, though I’d question how much of it is real.
[Working] closely with experts from the OpenOffice.org User Experience project might in reality end up just using their data.
A October 15 mailing list message from Elizabeth Matthis, member of the User Experience team for OpenOffice.org, called a proposal for the mouse
[v]ery exciting stuff and said
Thank you for this innovative addition to OOo, though how much this was anything than generic praise to keep people motivated and interested in working with an open source project, I do not know. (I heavily suspect not very much.)
In the end, I was wrong in calling this an elaborate joke. Perhaps there is a new internet law modeled after Poe’s law waiting to be formulated here: without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of open source culture that someone won’t mistake for the real thing… and vice versa.
I’d like to think the willingness to believe that press release, the lack of research into the mouse’s author and not bothering to confirm with OpenOffice.org still form a pretty decent basis for my claims in the latter part of the post. But even I can see the ground got significantly shakier. Live and learn.