Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On Being Open

In my most recent post over at TalkBMC, "The Secret Linux Agenda", I spent a fair amount of time trying to think out loud about some of the disconnects in the world of Open Source. I am given a pretty hard time at BMC about the fact that I write long posts, so I worked hard to keep the "Agenda" post as short as I could, but still touch on at least a few examples of some of the disconnects people have when they talk about being open. Or Open. Or open source. or Open Source. I also mentioned the negative image some of this "open" stuff has because of the behaviors of some people in the various communities.

I wrote that post before I went to my first ever Austin Social Media Club meeting. Whurley was the speaker at the event, and he made a metric ton of terrific points about this during his talk.

Open Confusion

There was one particularly ticklish question from the room at the Austin Social Media Club meeting (Anne Gentle and I there) that I think really boiled all of this down. That comment / question was:

If people are doing "Open Source", why aren't they more Open?

It was a great question and really underlined the confusion about what the term "Open" means. Given the amount of audible agreement in the room with that question, for many in a social media club, "Open" in "Open Source" had connotations of "Accessible", "Easy to get along with", and "Willing to have civil conversations".

The Rainbow of Open Source

Spend any time in an Open Source product forum, and you can easily see what the folks in the social media club were talking about. Someone asks a question. Usually it is an innocent question being made by someone that does not know anything about the product. They, for their part, feel that they are doing the right thing. They are showing interest, and willingness to learn. They are being "open".

You know what happens next: In an un-moderated forum, some will actually try to help, and answer the question. At the very least, they will tell them where the first-timer documents are located, and some might even point out how to use the search facility to find every other time that question was asked, and the answers that they got then. All of those things are classifies as what we call "signal". Useful information.

The middle ground response happens when a response is given, but the person who asked the question has no way to parse the answer. That breaks down further as:

  • The answer was given in a way that assumed the person to have knowledge they did not.
  • The answer was given in such a way as to question whether the person is actually responding in the same language as the questioner.

Either of these examples are about communications styles, and whether or not the person who is doing the technical work can enter the requisite frame of mind (empathy, if you will) to have conversations with those less technical than themselves.

I had this experience growing up when I was talking to my Dad about math. He is a EE at NASA. A real rocket scientist. They exist! He knows so much math (some of it pretty esoteric and useful largely in his speciality of antenna design), and has for so long, that my simple frustrations with things like Freshman Algebra were in some ways a mystery to him. In one particularly memorable conversation, I asked why something worked in a particular way, and after a bit of time he said that once I knew a certain higher level of math this would become obvious. I was temporarily stuck: I would never *see* the next level of math till I grokked this one!

And Then Came Maude....

Sooner or later, intolerance strikes. Someone will post a response to the new person that contains anything from mild abuse to questioning their patriotism in a time of war. Something like:

"Are you NUTS!!! Why the H*LL are you posting such stupid dumb*** question. Why do you hate our troops? Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries (From the Monty Python Phrasebook: "Useful things to tell customers when they are calling and bothering you")".

It may be more ... err... sophisticated:

"We do not tolerate fools lightly in this forum. Please remove yourself to other places, so that you do not annoy us in the future, and so that we may concentrate on real issues."

This new, trying to do the right thing, be "open" person is now deeply confused and hurt. Is this not Open source. Is this not a public forum? Even if they don't know anything about this tool or product, they still need help on it.

In a forum for a paid product, no support professional would post such a response. If they did, their career would be at an end in short order. A company would not tolerate paying customers being abused by people from their company.

There are a lot of reasons why the maladaptive response to the newbie question is occurring in the Open Source forum:

  • I am doing this "for free"
  • This is not my day job
  • I answered that same question endlessly already
  • I only have so many hours in the day. I can spent them repeating myself, or being productive
  • PUUUULEASE!!!! They asked me why this didn't work the same as Windows!!!! AS-IF!!!!!
  • I am out of caffeine, and I have no money to get fresh. I hate being poor and brilliant
  • I have not been on a date in a decade
  • Combinations of several or all of the above

The reason does not matter. In a customer support situation, if someone was thinking about trying the new "Open" thing, and gets that response, the damage is done.

Smug and Arrogant?

A post came out recently about Apple users being "Smug and Arrogant", and when I looked at it there was a poll. 2/3's or those who had read the post agreed that Applen were guilty as charged. You could take that post and change all the Apple references to Linux or other Open Source projects, and I think the poll would be about the same. And it is because of the same reasons. Well... maybe not the Apple advertising campaign part. But as smug as those ads may be, I like 'em. I think they kind of actually miss a point criticising the ads saying that John Hodgeman plays "PC" as bumbling. John Hodgeman gets all the good lines! In many ways, he is the more likable of the two. I have in fact often viewed the ads as being sort of a misstep for Apple because "PC" is more endearing in his own, can't stop blue-screening, kind of way. Maybe it's just me though...

Fedora and Ubuntu

Now I want to circle around to part of what I was trying to get at with my recent posts both here and at TalkBMC about Fedora and Ubuntu. Another aspect of "open", "closed", and the new users experience.

Fedora is a great Distro, if you already know what you are doing. Fedora, like OpenSUSE, lives in the middle of the road. It is not as challenging to install as MS Vista or rolling your own Linux distro starting with a download from Kernel.org. Fedora is easier and faster than installing GenToo. It is not as easy as Ubuntu or Linspire or Xandros. Yes: I know Xandros is in bed with Microsoft these days. See the bit above about arrogant and smug though: I know why the Xandros/MS deal is not optimal, but does the average person that just wants this stuff to work?

Fedora has an admirable stance on why they do not include any software in the Distro that is not really Open Source. My example in the other posts was Wifi cards like Intel and Atheros where even though the vendor has supplied driver code, they hold back the code to the cards driver loadable firmware and only provide a binary. With Fedora, you will have to work hard to get that card going, and their point in acting closed to closed source is to incent card manufacturers to be more open.

I love it. I think card manufacturers are wrong to think their microcode is all that splendidly different in a commodity market like Wifi, and that being more open and easier to install would be an advantage in the marketplace!


Being hard to install for the right reasons means by default you are NOT after the casual installer. The person just trying to use the computer as a tool to get something or the other done. The person who heard that Linux was really cool and was willing to try it to see what it is all about.

The Spectrum

On one end we have the Xandros / Microsoft lashup. Xandros is licensing closed protocols from Microsoft that will allow them among other things to create programs to access content on MS Exchange. They call this mash "Mixed Source". If I sound a bit leery, it is because I used to run BMC's email system, back when we used HP's OpenMail, and I watched HP make a similar deal, and then not to long after that, see OpenMail sold to Samsung, where it later died. The problem from my point of view was that having the protocols was only half the battle. Someone still had to write all the programs to use them. MS has spent years layering all this stuff together, RPC's and Protocols like MAPI and CIFS so that it is no trivial thing to create programs that use them. Ask the folks at Samba.org. There is a reason MS Vista took seven years and billions of dollars in R&D, and came out looking like a gussied up version of XP with compatibility issues.

Middle ground is Ubuntu/Mint. Closed source, binary only bits are not only allowed but supplied. A message is sent to the person at boot that "Restricted Source" is in use, and if you click on it, a display of all the restricted source bits that the OS had to load to run on this hardware is displayed. You know who is playing nice, and who still keeps their cards close to their chest, source code wise.

Then there is the completely open. And Open. Supporting only that which is fully Open, and fully unencumbered, projects like Debian, Fedora and OpenSUSE reward openness by inclusion. Open is a wide world of things, where you can build whatever you need, as long as you know what you are doing and have the time.


Stretched across the span of closed to open is another dimension. Support. Whurley likes to say that "people" (and these people include companies) have one of two things: Time or Money. I would add to that "Expertise", which came at least in part with time, and now costs money.

If you are paying for support, you probably have money, and you also expect that you will *never* have the conversation I outlined in the "Maude" section above. You are paying for the right to have a throat to choke. You can also spend money on a person who is your local expert, and whose throat you'll being squeezing. Or both.

Novell,RedHat and Ubuntu walks between all these worlds with their commercial Linuxii. Novell, like Xandros, has some sort of deal in place with Microsoft although I am not sure it is quite as "deep" as Xandros's. You can buy a Dell with Ubuntu on it, and it will be supported by Canonical. Etc. Etc.

But Its My First Time

I have been saying for a long while now that Linux is ready to take on the personal and corporate desktop. I base that on personal experience, not only of being a user personally and professionally, but in helping others to do the same thing. I watched my brother (who is not a computer person) look at an Ubuntu PC for the first time and say in some wonder "This is Linux?", clearly thinking it was going to be something much more mysterious than what it was.

If you are Open Source / Computer savvy, I'll wager someone someplace has asked you at least once: "What is the best version of Linux for me to run?". As technical people, we as a group like to answer such questions correctly, even if two minutes later their eyes are glazing over, and, like one of my blog posts, we are just warming up.

These days I just answer that question with "Mint" or "Ubuntu". If they asked me that question, they are not ready to hack device support in Fedora just yet. They may never want to. As good as Fedoras reasons are for being Open, and only Open, this rules them out for a beginner at least in my estimation.

As I was lamenting in "Agenda", that is too bad. Fedora has a ton of great stuff in it. By ceding the entry level Linux to Ubuntu, they are also ceding mind and market share. Since under the covers, Linux is Linux, Ubuntu can grow with the user. When it comes time to install their first Linux server, Ubuntu has one of those now too.

At the end of the day, it looks like to me that the way one goes about being open (or Open) is to be inclusive.


linux tip said...

Open Source products have been a great help in the minds of many who can't afford the licensed products. Thinking of Open Source and bugs are not too far apart, because of the fact that its not fully enhance to suit the needs of consumers.

Steve Carl said...

There is an angle I was focusing more on over at TalkBMC in the "Egoless Programming" post: http://talk.bmc.com/blogs/blog-carl/steve-carl/egoless-programming-open-source

Why did it take so long (in Internet years) for the GUI on Linux to mature relative to the Kernel? Probably because the people that were interested in writing cool new bits were not really interested on all things that make a user interface work: Constancy of use, logical layout, thinking about how an inexperierenced person might use a screen, etc.

This too has changed though.

Anne Gentle said...

Geez, great post Steve! You did a great job of capturing the Austin SMC meeting. I learned a lot about communities and motivations.

My favorite line from your post? "I hate being poor and brilliant " Hee hee hee.

Thanks for writing this up!

Steve Carl said...

Hi Anne!

Thanks. That was actually a pretty fun post to write. It was also a great meeting! I really enjoyed getting to know the folks in the Media Club.

I thought of that line you liked when I was talking to Whurley ... I think it was on our Podcast in fact... that some in the Open Source community think that being Open somehow means that you have sworn an oath of poverty. That may even be true in some quarters, but if you look at who for example contributes to the Linux kernel, quite a number are paid by companies to do Linux kernel hacking *as their day job*.

There are many other projects though that are exactly that: something that started as a personal interest, or perhaps an assignment at school, and took on a life of their own, growing to the place where they swamp the personal life of the author. If the tool it widely adopted and useful, it is often picked up by others. if it never had a strong following, it often dies when the author get a day job, or married, or becomes a truck driver or something. As Whurly pointed out in his talk, only a tiny fraction of the projects on SourceForge are actually active.