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eContact! 11.3 — Logiciels audio « open source » / Open Source for Audio Application (September 2009) [Return to issue…]

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Open Source Travel Guide [wiki]: Editorial


A Free Software Travel Guide


So you want to venture into the wonderful world of open source and free software? That’s great! But when you leave your home turf for far-off countries, some preparation is due. As in the “real world”, virtual destinations that look great in a glossy catalogue can be literally infested with bugs. The natives might not seem as friendly as you’d hoped. Or you might have difficulties in locating “all inclusive” offerings.


To press the travel analogy a little further: expect a hike, not a cruise. But if you watch your step and bring some time and patience, you will be rewarded with rare gems unheard of in the proprietary software world. And you can go places nobody thought of building a road to yet. Isn’t that what art is about?


As in the real world, the most important thing to understand is money. Or rather, that there is no mandatory exchange of money involved. Which means for you that there is no excuse to ever be caught behaving like a customer. That doesn’t imply that you can’t critize open source offerings — far from that. Insightful criticism is welcome, and in some ways it replaces money as a currency. Nor does it imply that voluntary financial contributions to projects are not appreciated. But you must at all times remember that nobody owes you anything, ever. Not help, not fixes. Not even when they just personally introduced a bug that is making life miserable for you.


You may have heard people talk about the “free software culture”. Depending on where you come from, attributing this term to what is basically a software development method might seem strange. But when you factor the internet into the equation — an unlimited, if slightly impersonal, world-wide communication and close-knit special interest groups with world-wide reach no matter how weird their mutual interest — it’s pretty clear that some sort of social community with its very own customs and habits will develop. Hence, travellers may experience cultural gaps every now and then. In approaching them, you are well-advised to be as open-minded, light-footed and respectful as you would in dealing with more obviously exotic encounters.


If you look closely, the free software world sure is exotic. In the midst of free-market and barter economies, a new gift culture [1] has emerged, where your social status depends not on how much you own, but on how much you give away. The traveller will be greeted with feasts and adorned with flower garlands uncounted, but as they come in ones and zeroes, their richness, fragrance and colour is easily overlooked.


No matter how foreign the situations you encounter, resist the urge to drift into an “Us and Them” stance. Remember, the mythical “open-source community” is made up of many millions of individuals, the only common trait of whom is that they chose to identify themselves with it. That’s probably the most lenient immigration law in the world. Statistics will ensure that there are saints and rather unpleasant fellows in roughly the same proportion as in the general population. There might be a disproportionate amount of frightfully intelligent people, but as common sense tells you, that does not necessarily correlate with social skills. There are zealots and pragmatists, hot-heads and zen masters, wise people and very dumb bastards indeed.


It does happen, sometimes, that tourists and other newcomers get “flamed” (reprimanded in public, usually by email) for cultural mishaps, some very minor (such as not reading available documentation before asking people to devote their time to helping you), some akin to visiting a mosque in hotpants (such as demanding support or whining about lacking features in an unconstructive way). As always, the outcome depends on who you come across. In any case, never assume that somebody is speaking “for the community”, and that “the community” is now out to get you. “The community” as such doesn’t exist. Or rather, it exists in such an ephemeral sense that just by browsing this Travel Guide, you are already part of it…


Unlike the commercial software world, open source doesn’t have a concept of “users” as passive entities. Instead, the natives like to think of users as friends who just haven’t submitted a patch yet.[2] Or contributed in other forms. There is plenty to do, even if you don’t think of yourself as a developer, or if you have code-phobia. Here are some simple ways to get involved:


  1. Join a user community. These come in various shapes: web forums, mailing lists, chat rooms. When you start, you will have plenty of questions, and help comes your way. As you outgrow your own teething pains, don’t just leave the community. Instead, stay around, and if the chance arises, help other, less experienced users. Yes, that’s optional. But it’s also what keeps open source going. And it’s rewarding. And fun.
  2. Find bugs or usability problems and explain them to developers, i.e. contribute your user expertise directly to the development of the software.
  3. Test new releases of the software you use, frequently. Yes, that can be a hassle. But imagine this: you are a programmer who has just completed a frantic all-weekend hack, your software is now totally bug-free and has tons of cool new features. Now you want all the world to share it and rejoice. Yet, your users keep asking you to support some release that’s two years old. Not fun. However, since there is no money, what else is there to drive people but fun? Of course, nobody wants you to wreck your production machine every other day with risky updates. Still, try to track current developments: you will find that developers are more responsive to issues with releases they work on and use themselves. It’s some extra work, but think of it as your licensing fee.
  4. Contribute to documentation or help out with editing and translations. Not everyone is a programmer. But often, non-programmers are the most valuable writers of documentation, because they know how to explain stuff so that non-programmers understand it.


All this takes time. But in the open source economy, time is the money. If you’re not patient enough to pay your share, perhaps open source is not for you…


The journey is the reward. Happy hiking!


Jörn Nettingsmeier

September 2009


[1] Eric S. Raymond, “Homesteading the Noosphere,” 2000.

[2] This proverbial phrase was coined by Danny O’Brien in an osdir.com commentary (currently unavailable on the net) in 2004.




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