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Listen to your users!

This entry is part 8 of 13 in the series The Cathedral and the Bazaar

The 8th part of The Cathedral and The Bazaar by Eric Raymond.

“The only way to try for ideas like that is by having lots of ideas—or by having the engineering judgement to take other peoples’ good ideas beyond where the originators thought they could go.”

“most science and engineering and software development isn’t done by original genius, hacker mythology to the contrary.”

“if you’re writing for the world, you have to listen to your customers—this doesn’t change just because they’re not paying you in money.”

8. Fetchmail Grows Up

There I was with a neat and innovative design, code that I knew worked well because I used it every day, and a burgeoning beta list. It gradually dawned on me that I was no longer engaged in a trivial personal hack that might happen to be useful to few other people. I had my hands on a program that every hacker with a Unix box and a SLIP/PPP mail connection really needs.

Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux) and Andy Tanenbaum (creator of Minix)

Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux) and Andy Tanenbaum (creator of Minix)

With the SMTP forwarding feature, it pulled far enough in front of the competition to potentially become a “category killer”, one of those classic programs that fills its niche so competently that the alternatives are not just discarded but almost forgotten.

I think you can’t really aim or plan for a result like this. You have to get pulled into it by design ideas so powerful that afterward the results just seem inevitable, natural, even foreordained. The only way to try for ideas like that is by having lots of ideas—or by having the engineering judgement to take other peoples’ good ideas beyond where the originators thought they could go.

Andy Tanenbaum had the original idea to build a simple native Unix for IBM PCs, for use as a teaching tool (he called it Minix). Linus Torvalds pushed the Minix concept further than Andrew probably thought it could go—and it grew into something wonderful. In the same way (though on a smaller scale), I took some ideas by Carl Harris and Harry Hochheiser and pushed them hard. Neither of us was ‘original’ in the romantic way people think is genius. But then, most science and engineering and software development isn’t done by original genius, hacker mythology to the contrary.

The results were pretty heady stuff all the same—in fact, just the kind of success every hacker lives for! And they meant I would have to set my standards even higher. To make fetchmail as good as I now saw it could be, I’d have to write not just for my own needs, but also include and support features necessary to others but outside my orbit. And do that while keeping the program simple and robust.

The first and overwhelmingly most important feature I wrote after realizing this was multidrop support—the ability to fetch mail from mailboxes that had accumulated all mail for a group of users, and then route each piece of mail to its individual recipients.

I decided to add the multidrop support partly because some users were clamoring for it, but mostly because I thought it would shake bugs out of the single-drop code by forcing me to deal with addressing in full generality. And so it proved. Getting RFC 822 address parsing right took me a remarkably long time, not because any individual piece of it is hard but because it involved a pile of interdependent and fussy details.

But multidrop addressing turned out to be an excellent design decision as well. Here’s how I knew:

14. Any tool should be useful in the expected way, but a truly great tool lends itself to uses you never expected.

The unexpected use for multidrop fetchmail is to run mailing lists with the list kept, and alias expansion done, on the client side of the Internet connection. This means someone running a personal machine through an ISP account can manage a mailing list without continuing access to the ISP’s alias files.

Another important change demanded by my beta-testers was support for 8-bit MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) operation. This was pretty easy to do, because I had been careful to keep the code 8-bit clean (that is, to not press the 8th bit, unused in the ASCII character set, into service to carry information within the program). Not because I anticipated the demand for this feature, but rather in obedience to another rule:

15. When writing gateway software of any kind, take pains to disturb the data stream as little as possible—and never throw away information unless the recipient forces you to!

Had I not obeyed this rule, 8-bit MIME support would have been difficult and buggy. As it was, all I had to do is read the MIME standard (RFC 1652) and add a trivial bit of header-generation logic.

Some European users bugged me into adding an option to limit the number of messages retrieved per session (so they can control costs from their expensive phone networks). I resisted this for a long time, and I’m still not entirely happy about it. But if you’re writing for the world, you have to listen to your customers—this doesn’t change just because they’re not paying you in money.

Series Navigation<< The Truth Behind Genius“What Language?” – For humans or For computers? >>

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