A Mess Of Pottage June 4th, 2015

Ah, SourceForge. We meet again.

I blogged before about the terrible state of SourceForge. In light of recent events, let's go back and revisit our old friend again.

It's always fun to watch a train wreck. And yet strangely people refuse to learn.

I'm reminded of Gerald Ratner. In the 1980s, he ran a successful chain of jewelry stores in the United Kingdom. In 1991, his company announced that they had just made profits of £120 million. His stores took more money per square foot than any other retailer in Europe.

Then, in a now-infamous speech given at the 1991 Institute of Directors Convention, he did something a little foolish. He made a few jokes about the quality of Ratners' products. I'll quote you the most famous line here:

We also do this nice sherry decanter, it's cut glass. And it comes complete with 6 glasses, on a silver plated tray that your butler could bring in and serve you drinks on. And it really only costs £4.95p. People say to me, "how can you sell this for such a low price?". I say "because it's total crap".

This single incident wiped £500 million off Ratners' share price within a year, forcing Ratner to resign.

Many readers may remember It was designed as a way for visitors to post links they thought were interesting. In 2010 they relaunched with a new site design, which instead of providing an open platform for anyone to post anything, took that power away. The website was effectively turned from a community discussion forum into a closed clickbait site overnight. Users fled in droves, helping to boost the popularity of as a replacement. Alexis Ohanian's open letter captures it well.

Or one of the most famous cases of destroying your own product, literally: Schlitz beer. Throughout the 1950s-70s, Schlitz was one of the top two beer companies in North America. Then, to cut costs and improve profits, they decided to try and change their beer recipe. Through a series of 10 successive rounds of cost-cutting, each one reducing the quality of the beer a little, they managed to get their product to a state where it actually left a kind of mucus-like residue in the bottom of the bottle.

Reading about all of these cases, I can't help but wonder: Why would a company deliberately sabotage its core business? Surely no-one would set out with that goal, so I can only conclude it must be accidental.

My theory is that it comes down to a disconnect between the customer and the business owners. If Kevin Rose wanted to post a new link, the Digg redesign didn't affect him because he wasn't an ordinary user. And the owners of Schlitz obviously didn't care about drinking their own product. People make bad changes to their business because, due to their privileged position of being inside the company, they don't see the business the same way the rest of the world does.

Gerald Ratner didn't see his products as being high-quality, because he had inside knowledge of what they cost to make. So he didn't imagine it to be a big deal when he made his jokes, because he was not in a position to view his product as a customer. If you want to sell something like jewelry where perceived quality is important, don't tell people that there isn't any.

I wonder if the developers of the SourceForge website actually use it to develop their own software?

SourceForge's recent behavior of hijacking open-source projects for their own gain is reprehensible, and quite frankly, baffling. The value that SourceForge has is given to them by their users, for free. That's right, users are willing to permit SourceForge to host their software development, and they don't even ask for any payment in return.

There are many others places to host code. The users don't need SourceForge, but SourceForge does need its users. With the direction they're taking, once the users leave, all that will remain will be adverts, spam, and malicious download links.

You can optimize, you can improve processes, but for the love of God don't sacrifice your core product for small material gains.

Written by Richard Mitton,

software engineer and travelling wizard.

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