Sunday, August 11, 2013

Is Firestorm the Right Viewer For You?

This post was written as a companion piece to Ed Merryman's rant on the same topic. Please visit his blog for his thoughts, as well.

Audio version of this blog post is available here:

Is Firestorm the right viewer for you?

Has it ever occurred to you to ask yourself that? Most people I've known in Second Life fall into one of two or three camps when it comes to how they use viewers. Let's call them "hoppers" and "squatters."

The hoppers bounce from one viewer to another because every time something goes wrong while they're using one, they conclude that it's a problem with the viewer itself and hop along to a different one. V3, Catznip, Exodus, Singularity… each one ends up with some sorry problem that sends them hopping continuously on — and often, but not always, back to Firestorm. They don't ask anyone for help aside from their own friends. They don't report their issues on any development team's JIRA. They just hop. Hoppity hop.

Squatters, meanwhile, pick one viewer and stick with it. Some of them wait as long as they possibly can even to update the version of their chosen viewer. And as long as that viewer is working for them, hey — nothing wrong with that. Where the trouble comes in is when a squatter has an issue with it.

Maybe the squatter comes to us for help on a support issue and, for the purposes of testing whether the problem they're experiencing is specific to Firestorm or something we picked up from Linden code, we ask them to try V3. They refuse. "I'm never going to use anything but Firestorm," they say. Um, well, we appreciate your loyalty, but really, this is just a test. You can come right back and use Firestorm afterward. "No, I'm not using V3." Erm… ok then, how about one of the other fine V3-based viewers on the TPV (Third Party Viewer) list? "No. I'm having the problem on Firestorm, and you should be able to fix it on Firestorm." Okaaaay.
The French beret look will make more sense later.

Or maybe the squatter isn't actually experiencing a support problem. Maybe they've just found something about the viewer to complain about. This kind is usually a transplanted or migrant squatter. Someone who was previously squatting elsewhere but had to move on. If this makes you think of Phoenix Viewer users who stayed on two years past the viewer's prime, then give yourself a gold star. We've gotten a lot of them recently because server-side appearance (SSA) is pushing them off their land. We hear them in the support group: "So we have to go to Firestorm now?" and although we answer over and over — No, you don't have to go to Firestorm, but you can't stay here — many of them nonetheless deathmarch their way to Firestorm with their heels dragging in the dirt.

And inevitably they will be dissatisfied. This is not necessarily a problem. Dissatisfied users who submit feature requests are entirely welcome in their dissatisfaction. And I can't neglect to mention those users who make an effort to adapt to Firestorm even in their frustration and find it's not so bad as they initially thought. Rock on, o determined ones! But for some, dissatisfaction is not an impetus for productive suggestion-making but a perceived entitlement to complain. I want to focus on one particular theme of complaints:
  • "Why is this such a complicated viewer? There's so much crap in here I don't need."
  • "Classes? Really? I need to take classes to use this sucky viewer?"
  • "I've been having all kinds of problems since I was forced to move onto Firestorm." What kind of problems? "I can't find anything!"

And so for different and separate reasons, I would like to ask members of each of these three camps — hoppers as well as both the settled and migrant types of squatters — is Firestorm the right viewer for you?

Hoppers, or: Being Arsed

Just to make sure it's clear up front: The fact that hoppers try different viewers is not a problem. That's a good thing. But hoppers do the right thing for the wrong reason. Firestorm and each of the other viewers available serve different userbases with different priorities… and they're all supposed to work decently well. Speaking for myself, I am never upset when someone chooses to use a different viewer because they prefer its feature set or interface or because it gives them smoother performance. That's a matter of determining which viewer is "right" for you in just the right way.
Hoppers bounce from one viewer to the next for any
little problem: the right thing for the wrong reason.

But it is irritating when a hopper says, "I love Firestorm most, but I started having this problem, so I switched." And exactly which of our 70 support team members* did you contact for help with that problem? Which of our wiki pages did you look at? Where is the JIRA you filed? "Oh, I just asked a friend and they said they heard from another friend that it happened to someone else too. I'll just see if it's fixed in the next version." Sigh. Can someone lend me a wall? My head won't damage it too much.

Oh, and I wish I could exaggerate how often that "problem" turns out to be a setting they assumed didn't exist and thus didn't toggle. Everything from WASD keys to horizontal IM tabs. They couldn't be arsed to look into it and thus went viewer-hopping for a few months when they could have been on one that was Right For Them. Be arsed, people. Please be arsed.

Granted, viewers do vary in terms of the help resources available: Other TPVs don't have such extensive support as Firestorm, and full Linden support is only available to premium account holders. But most have inworld groups where you can get peer support. And if, after you're sick of the pogo stick method, you've decided that Firestorm is right for you, we're happy to help you with anything keeping it from working great. We're sure your friends are very nice people, but the majority of them won't compare, in terms of helping, with those who investigate problems with the viewer and in SL every day.

Settled Squatters, or: Fans and Fanatics

These are the ones who cry, "I have claimed this viewer and I shall not be moved!" There's nothing wrong with that most of the time, but the issue arises when it interferes with receiving support for a problem, i.e., when this outlook carries over into refusing to test on other viewers.
You didn't bind yourself to Firestorm in a commitment
ceremony (I hope).

C'mon now. Seriously. How many people on the Firestorm team do you think are that stubborn? Nearly all of us use Firestorm as our primary viewer, sure, but a few developers code for more than one viewer project, many of us have a text-based client or mobile app installed for non-graphical or on-the-go purposes, and most of us have tested viewer behavior on V3 occasionally as a benchmark for diagnosing Firestorm problems. It is doubtful that more than a handful of Firestorm Team members are viewer-monogamous.

You didn't bind yourself to Firestorm in a commitment ceremony (I hope). V3 won't give you cooties. Although viewer use can sometimes feel like religion, please don't lose sight of the fact that all we're talking about here is software.

In this context, the question "Is Firestorm the right viewer for you?" has an obvious answer: yes. The squatter has decided Firestorm is right for them, and I wouldn't try to change that. But if you're having trouble with your favorite viewer, it would be rational to do what you need to do to help support and/or developers figure out the issue. Doing so quite often means testing against the viewer that Firestorm is based on and from which it gets most of its code.

Or to put it another way, fan loyalty to our viewer is commendable until it starts to become unhelpful. At that point, it's merely fanaticism.

Migrant Squatters, or: In France, They Speak French

It is for migrant squatters that the question "Is Firestorm the right viewer for you?" is most important. They prefer to settle into one viewer for the long haul like settled squatters do, but for one reason or another they find themselves uprooted, and their natural impulse is to find a new viewer to cleave to in the same way.
We've gotten a lot of Phoenix squatters recently
because SSA is pushing them off their land.

It is not surprising that a lot of Phoenix users trudged their way over to Firestorm for this purpose. They're familiar with the project and possibly with the support team, and more than likely they know a ton of people already using it. And as I said above, many are happy with the migration. Others are not, but their quibbles are fixable and they take the steps necessary to communicate to our team what they are. Both of those early experiences with Firestorm are awesome.

However, there's a final camp of migrant squatters who, first, believe they're being "forced" to use Firestorm (yes, we hear that word at least once a week) and, second, complain not about specific bugs or desired functionality but about aspects of the viewer that are inherent to it. This is kind of like going to France and then complaining that everyone there speaks French.

Specifically, a surprising number of people are annoyed — sometimes seemingly offended — that Firestorm has approximately a gazillion preferences, menu options, different ways to find the same thing, interface choices, font choices, colorability choices, buttons, windows, gadgets and gizmos aplenty, and even hippos and cookies. Understandably, it leaves them feeling overwhelmed.

The inclusion of all these options is not an incidental characteristic of this viewer, however; it is the point. Providing users with options so that they can make their viewer do what they want it to do is the purpose of Firestorm's existence. Of course, this creates some drawbacks as well as benefits in the viewer:
  • It means that it takes a bit of searching and experimenting to locate what you're looking for sometimes.
  • It means that there will be a number of options that simply sit there because they don't interest you. This will be true for everyone, as no one uses everything in the viewer, but you can be sure that someone out there is using the very same options you're ignoring.
  • It means, alas, that the preferences in particular are a bit of a jumble. Every so often, the developers attempt to shift them into a more logical order, but that task has its drawbacks, as well, when a setting is suddenly no longer where you're used to finding it.

We provide resources for learning about those settings and getting more familiar with them, both written and in person. The documentation sections of our wiki are like a big owner's manual. And why shouldn't software come with an owner's manual? Classes generally work off of the same material as the wiki but offer a more personal and interactive context. So do you need to go to classes to use the viewer? Of course not, but we have a lot of regular students who say it sure does help. There's a lot of functionality in Firestorm; taking the time to learn about it will help you get the most out of the viewer.
Firestorm classes generally work off of the same
material as the wiki but offer a more personal and
interactive context.

If the presence of so many options is really a dealbreaker for you, if it is that onerous for you to simply (or not-so-simply) find what you need and ignore the rest, then I would say unequivocally that Firestorm is not the right viewer for you. Sorry. We will not stop speaking French (metaphorically, that is — I don't actually speak French).


I'm going to conclude this post by addressing the flawed understanding of the Firestorm Project that underlies the following two questions that we often get asked:
  • Will there ever be a Firestorm-Lite?
  • Will there ever be a mobile Firestorm app?

The problem with both of these questions is that they are oxymorons. What the questions actually mean is: Would the Firestorm team ever develop one of these? The answer in both cases is "Probably not," but key to this discussion is that in the unlikely event that the team did develop such a product, it would not be Firestorm Viewer. It would be a different client produced by the same team, like Phoenix and Firestorm are different clients produced by the same team.

So why is this distinction so important? Isn't it just semantics? Not really, because the questions stem from the assumption that our team can do stuff better than other teams. Aw shucks, that's too kind of you. Stop. No, really, stop. You're flattering us.

Our developers are indeed pretty darn awesome. They're great at achieving the goals of the Phoenix Firestorm Project: to provide feature-rich alternatives to the official viewer compatible with Linux, Mac OSX, and Windows. That's what the team does. A different goal would be someone else's goal. Other teams produce more scaled-down viewers, and other teams produce mobile apps. The belief that the Firestorm team ought to fill those needs when other people are doing a fine job of it themselves is based on a misunderstanding of the team itself. It is, once again, expecting to go to France and speak, like, Russian or something. Which some French people undoubtedly do, but you'll be better able to practice it in, oh, let's say, Russia.

It's also an over-reliance on the Firestorm "brand" name. It is, moreover, a failure to recognize Firestorm as cornering a niche market the way that all other viewers do — it just happens to be an uncommonly large niche, which makes it hard to see as a niche. But "Feature-rich alternative compatible with Lin, Win, and OSX?" Yeah, that's a niche.

To tie it more firmly into this post's main point, the questions about "Firestorm-Lite" and "Firestorm Mobile" stem from a belief that Firestorm is so emphatically the right viewer for the curious questioners that instead of seeking out other viewers/apps that actually exist, people start inventing new Firestorms that probably never will.

You're looking for "Firestorm-Lite"? Use V3. That's exactly what you'd have if you took Firestorm and removed all its special features. V3 is not just for newbies and Linden Lab fankids. It's a perfectly adequate baseline viewer that simply doesn't possess all the bells and whistles that TPVs include to enhance functionality. Linden Lab's niche is the streamlined, minimalistic viewer.

Oh, but by "Firestorm-Lite" you don't actually mean bare bones, you mean a viewer with exactly the features you use, and no others? Um, well, you can see if the other TPVs coincide better with what you're looking for, but to be honest, no one gets to have such a narrowly customized viewer except for the developers who create their own. So… get cracking.

You're looking for "Firestorm Mobile"? You do realize that a mobile app would bear nothing in common with the one you use on your computer, right? Although things could easily change in the next five or ten or twenty years, you cannot at present jam the equivalent of Second Life's minimum system requirements for running a "real" viewer into a phone. You have two options here. 
  • You can take a gander at the mobile apps in the second half of the TPV directory (Lumiya for Android comes particularly recommended; iPhone/iPad users have Pocket Metaverse). This will let you access SL through apps that are meant for the purpose.
  • Or you can use your mobile device to connect remotely (using TeamViewer, LogMeIn, or another mobile app) to your own computer at home. This second option will let you view Firestorm on your mobile device while it is running on — and the heavy lifting is handled by — your computer. Of course, you might be missing some functionality, but this is the closest you're gonna get to using Firestorm itself on a phone or tablet in the forseeable future.
  • Oh, here's a third option: You can enjoy rewatching our April Fool's Day 2013 video.

So, finally, is Firestorm the right viewer for you? It would be pretty nifty if it is, but if it's not, you should not feel obligated to stick with it. Every blessing is simultaneously a curse when it comes to flexibility and options. Thank goodness the range of viewers available is itself a source of options.

* This number includes support team members across all nine supported languages, though only the English and German groups are fully listed on the linked page.


  1. Firestorm its the never used, still always present, viewer i use to compare performance versus graphics quality with lighting and shadows on, on my computer versus other viewers!
    is the benchmark that allows me to choose and use the one that i found it fits better for me!

  2. "And exactly which of our 70 support team members* did you contact for help with that problem?"

    Usually if you ask questions in the support group one of those smug, self important "support team members", (such as yourself, for instance), who'd rather give a user in need of help a ration of crap than a helping hand. And then blog about it.

    I am sure there are several of your team who complain that many ask them questions in IM rather than going to the group? Know why? Because they are so good, kind and professional at what they do that many would rather go to them directly instead of putting up with all the garbage in the group, that's why.

    Clean out all the rude morons who belittle and mock everybody, even those who ask legit questions and see how your user base soars.

  3. I have to say, that was an extremely unfair post by "anonymous". The Firestorm support team group chat (which I watch daily) does an incredible job of answering the residents questions. I think the "belittling and mocking" must be coming from the frustration of the residents seeking help or semantic misunderstandings of the people seeking help. We don't all have english as our first language.
    I admit sometimes there are someone that crack jokes or make odd remarks, but most of the time they are not support but regular residents who are in the group chat, like me.
    Maybe it was unwise to vent your frustration like this in a blogpost, I don't think so. I can totally understand your frustration with people not wanting to do anything themselves but just want to be served a solution or have a quick-fix without doing anything themselves.

    Thank you.

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