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What's Wrong with the Open Source Community

Are we our own worst enemy?

There's no question that the open source community has a lot going for it. Besides a staggering amount of developer power that can be turned against important problems, the open source movement also has a passion and commitment that the commercial software world often envies. But sometimes, the open source community can be its own worst enemy. Here are a few reasons why.

Too many developers 'scratch the same itch'
We hear that open source developers come up with new ideas because they "had an itch to scratch." In other words, there was some need they had for a new application, and they "scratched" it by coming up with a tool. The problem is, it's not uncommon to end up with two or three (or more!) different packages doing the same thing. For a specific example, look at what's happened with the Linux sound systems, where there are now several competing packages that have to be supported by each distribution. Or in the Java world, look at how many competing MVC frameworks there are now for JSP development.

A little competition can be a good thing. After all, Linux is all about offering a competing vision for the operating system domain. But when too many competing visions exist, and aren't winnowed down to a small number of options over a short period of time, you end up with a mish-mash of conflicting standards, and a user community that ends up having to download and install a plethora of different packages that all do the same thing.

A perfect example of the "too many itches" syndrome is the absurd number of Linux distributions that exist. There is absolutely no reason for there to be more than two or three distributions. And because each one does things slightly differently, we've ended up with the problem that applications and drivers are rarely made available in binary form, because there are too many versions of too many releases of Linux to support.

As an application developer, you would have to provide 5–10 different binary installs, one for each distribution. Now multiply that by the five or more active releases of a distribution that may be in active circulation, and you see why so few packages are available as anything but source (especially the most recent releases of packages, which have not been compiled and included into Linux distributions yet).

Why don't we see more consolidation of technology? Because...

Open source developers love a good feud
BSD versus Linux. Gnome versus KDE. Debian versus Red Hat. It seems like for every interesting open source technology, there are two bitterly feuding camps that spend as much time taking potshots at each other as in improving their own products.

It's hard to imagine how much better a lot of open source software would be if these groups cooperated and consolidated their efforts instead of acting like the Hatfields and the McCoys. Unfortunately, the downside of personal commitment to projects is that people come to use them as a measure of self-worth, and it becomes increasingly difficult for rival groups to admit the good points in each other's efforts.

Open source developers often scratch the wrong itch
The problem with commercial development is that the developers often aren't the consumers of their products, and thus don't feel the pain of their mistakes. The problem with open source development is that the development community often doesn't fix problems or develop new features that aren't directly interesting to them.

Usually, this isn't a problem, because the developers (as users) encounter the same problem set as their user base. Unfortunately, one way that open source developers are different from a general user base is that they have significantly more technical training. This means that they are willing to put up with products requiring a much higher degree of technical savvy.

Restated by example, an open source developer might think nothing of requiring users to create and configure an XML file to make something work, while an end user might require dialog boxes.

In the open source community, you're either 'with us or against us'
A typical complaint of the open source community is that proprietary software vendors use legal means to stifle criticism of their detractors. But the open source community can be as unforgiving of internal critics. Attempts to point out flaws or places where there's room for improvement in an application usually lead to defensive rebuttals, character attacks on the critic, or complete rejection of the validity of the issues.

Consider that recently I posted a story on LinuxWorld.com listing some problems I saw with the current set of desktop Linux distributions, problems I thought could severely hamper consumer adoptions of Linux in the short run. The posted responses ran in a couple of themes: "It works fine for me, you must be an idiot"; "You're nothing but a Microsoft ass-kisser"; and the ever-popular "Windows sucks too."

Until the community learns to listen to and internalize negative feedback (oops, almost slipped into "boss speak" there...), it will be staring at its navel.

The open source community has a huge chip on its shoulder
And it's called Microsoft (although SCO is also a popular target lately). It's like a bull having a red cape waved before his eyes. All reason and sense of decorum flies out the window. And while I'm first in line to throw rotten tomatoes at Bill Gates, it's harmful to the community. The reality is that Microsoft owns the lion's share of the nonserver OS market. If the first thing you tell all these people who own Windows is that they are idiots, you're not starting out on very good ground to convert them.

Like it or not, the existing Windows user base may not like the dreaded Blue Screen of Death or Microsoft's pricing and licensing, but they know how to use Windows and can usually get the applications and hardware support they need for it. Linux has a wonderful and growing suite of tools that let people migrate away, but they are going to need a lot of hand-holding to decide to make the move. They have to be told why Linux is better (and it really has to be better for them), not just why Windows is trash.

Especially unhelpful is the "who cares about X" attitude (where X is unsupported hardware, nonexistent game availability, complicated multimedia support, or anything else that Linux has or is perceived to have problems doing). Just because someone wants to do something that you don't, it doesn't mean that what they want to do is less important.

I had a number of comments when I complained that I had great trouble getting my DVD player on my laptop to view commercial films, comments that essentially said "Why are you watching DVDs on your laptop?" Some even suggested that I buy a dedicated portable DVD player. Leaving aside the hassle of having yet another piece of electronics to drag through security if I want to watch a movie on a plane, these kinds of comments are the worst kind of evasive nonsense, i.e., Linux doesn't currently do something as easily as Windows, so attack the need to do it at all.

...

To sum up, the biggest problem that the open source community faces in taking open source to the next level is not some legal challenge or Microsoft marketing campaign. It's the immaturity and insecurity of some of the members of the community. As was once said in "Pogo," "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

More Stories By James Turner

James Turner is president of Black Bear Software. James was formerly senior editor of Linux.SYS-CON.com and has also written for Wired, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. He is currently working on his third book on open source development.

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