Open Source: Why You Care

There are many ways besides writing code that open source community members contribute to an open source project and show why they care!

David Murphy wrote a piece over on MaximumPC on Friday titled, "Open Source? Who Cares!" Murphy covers a number of topics that speak to what is holding back open source adoption. I don't see open source being held back, so that puts me at odds with his basic assumption. Open source is flourishing like never before and not just on traditional computing platforms either. Everything from hardware to phones, cars to missions to space are using the open source model.

Not agreeing with his basic assumption it follows that I don't agree with a lot of what he writes based on it. But there are some things David says that I do agree with.

David's claim that the average user doesn't care if the solution they use is open source or not is only partially correct. Yes most users first and foremost pick a solution that solves their problem in the most efficient manner. Whether that solution is open source or not is at best a minor factor. Usually the issue of total cost of ownership and support are the factors regarding open source which come into play.

The facts are that something like 93% of open source consumers will never even look at the source code of an open source project. Of the remaining 7% at best 2 to 3% will actually change any code and contribute it back to the community. Most open source projects are made up of a handful of actual code contributers, while the rest of the members are just consumers. This doesn't mean though that they don't care and they don't play a role in the open source ecosystem. They play an essential and invaluable role. In fact without them, there would be no open source community.

Murphy laments the fact that there are no "GUI-laden tools that take care of the background coding for me". First of all there are some open source solutions that do make it easy to make tweaks and changes to code, but that is besides the fact. There is more to a successful open source community than code developers. The developers are just one constituency in the open source community.

It starts with the users. If no one is using the open source solution why bother? I guess there are some developers who don't care if anyone uses the code they have developed, they do it for the sheer joy of it. But really by just the mere fact of using the open source code you are supporting the developers and contributing to the vitality of the community. But consuming the code is not the only way that non-code developers can contribute. How about feature requests? How many of us have gone on to an open source wiki or message board and asked if anyone had thought about or done "so and so". Low and behold sometimes in a few hours or days someone else will post back that either the functionality you are looking for has already been developed or that it was easy and someone else just banged it out for you? Both of those have happened to me.

What about bug testers? I am sure many of you have signed up for a beta version of software and promised to report bugs in the software. The sad truth is many of us do that and don't bother reporting any bugs we find. We are just happy to be using the latest version of the software. But bug reports are a very important part of the development process. Especially in open source. Open source developers don't have huge QA labs to test the code in umpteen different environments and use cases. Only by users actually putting the code through its paces in their own test or even live environments is the QA process possible.

Of course one of the greatest strengths of this model is the "many eyes" on the code. By the community providing such a wide variety of test environments and reporting bugs, the open source code is refined and improved in a rapid manner.

Helping newbies, answering questions on forums, advocating and supporting the open source project are all ways that non-code developing open source users contribute to an open source project.

Open source has been as successful as it has exactly for these reasons. It has succeed because Mr. Murphy, yes people do care!

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