SXSW has transformed. Interactive has ended and everything has moved into purely Music and Film. Walking 6th street at night, which was somewhat crowded on previous nights, turned into a sea of humanity, all with their own tastes and agendas. As I was making my way through the crowd to find my own escape I noticed that the ground was littered with little cards, fliers and, most surprisingly, CDs.
Now, all week I've seen hirelings handing things out to passsers by. Much of it was some little QR-code encrusted slip of paper that pointed me to a session, or a booth, or a contest. It wasn't surprising to see these cast away. The CDs surprised me, though. To me, the CD is more like product. It has a sampling of music from a group who wants to get noticed. Obviously it was handed to the wrong person, who not only didn't listen to it, but threw it down like an old gum wrapper. I can only imagine what it would be like to be a member of a group who had worked to get that CD ready, probably scraped some money together to get them "pressed" and then found it laying in the street, scratched and covered with the filth from beneath people.s shoes.
Oddly, that turned my thoughts to mobile apps and open-source projects. The investment in making a software project is not unlike the investment in creating music. The ideas are born, shaped and preserved. Inspiration becomes tempered with technology and limited resources. In music it's the skill and interest of the band members, the instruments available, the engineering resources to record and mix, etc. In software it's... well... the skill and interest of the development team (volunteer or otherwise), the tools available (language, systems, development resources) and the engineering resources to code, test, etc. A look at any mobile marketplace or open-source repository will show a gigantic list of freely available options. When looking for an app, I'll do my search and load up the ones that look promising. I am remarkably cold-blooded with some of them, uninstalling them after only a momentary look at the interface. Others I tinker with for a while and eventually discard. If there was a sort of street of discarded software mine would be as littered as what I saw last night.
Some of this software is not really serious. It's a sort of experimental past-time where the developer doesn't have a clear vision into its future. A look for "flashlight" in the Android market shows me a number of programs that are indistinguishable from each other outside of the graphical skin. It's as though someone took their computer science homework and decided to make it available on Amazon. Some of it has much more care, but it just doesn't fit my sensibilities. If Death Metal music is just noise to you, trying it for a couple of weeks is probably not going to make it better for you. You'd want to unscrew your head!
So, is there just too much noise out there? Are we casting pearls before swine? I don't know. It does seem like there is lots of everything out there right now... much, much more than I could even begin to comprehend, let alone consume.
A recurring theme at this conference, specifically for people in the entertainment industry, is the idea of doing a better job communicating what you're doing and how you're doing it. For software this could be as simple as having a stronger description of your application (written clearly and interestingly in the language of the people you want to use it). So many projects and applications that I look at have either no description at all or something that's not useful to me in contrasting this offering with others. "Another Android flashlight" just isn't going to do it. Neither will "good for make people all do you see". If you can point me to something with more detail I can do some more digging. Screen shots are nice, but a video of the app in action is what some people need. A quick-start guide with a brief explanation of each function is good, but documentation that is more written out may be necessary if I'm really going to make the investment (of money and/or storage space, time). Sell your project short and I'll drop it like an unsolicited hand-out.
I get that sometimes people who build software don't feel comfortable with some of these tasks. I also know that there are extremely talented developers who don't speak English well. My job as a developerWorks editor is to help people with great knowledge and help them turn it into great stories The point is that if it's something that would benefit your audience then you need to get someone involved who could help do that. Thinking of open-source projects, I almost never see a request for someone to help clean up the messaging and write the manuals for these things. I wonder what would happen if groups of less technical people started to lend their expertise to help add polish to a project.
Sometimes just having more established goals will make a project better by cutting out the clutter. What if rather than trying to make your app do everything that you specifically leveraged existing projects? Then your projects support each other, creating mutual demand. MySQL was interesting, but it went off the charts when it became the "M" in LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) apps. In fact, many would install MySQL even though they primarily used another database because it was easier than trying to mess with the application to get it to work with something else.
Slightly non sequitur: I was talking about performance art with someone last night who felt that a very strongly branded niche was the best way to be successful today. He may be right. I'm not sure yet. I can certainly see how it has made a difference in his success. Does that translate into software? Maybe. It's all about knowing what you want to achieve.
My goal for writing this is to help you think about whether your projects are in use or ignored. Are you paying attention to that and are you trying to make sure that you help potential users to discriminate between you and the others? Are you innovating, or just copying without adding anything truly new to the space? Are you really using all of the resources that you need to help your project be useful and comprehensible, especially in the areas of documentation and explanation? If not, then you may be like those discarded CDs I saw on the street that were beyond rescue. The only way to correct it is to decide that it's valuable and that it shouldn't be handed to just anyone, but that you help the people who will appreciate it to seek you out.