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Why Freeloaders Are Essential To FOSS Project Success 86

Posted by Soulskill
from the happy-to-not-help dept.
dp619 writes "Outercurve Foundation technical director Stephen Walli has written a blog post arguing that attracting users is fundamental to the ability of open source projects to recruit 'new blood' and contributors who are willing to code. 'So in the end, it's all about freeloaders, but from the perspective that you want as many as possible. That means you're "doing it right" in developing a broad base of users by making their experience easy, making it easy for them to contribute, and ultimately to create an ecosystem that continues to sustain itself,' he wrote."
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Why Freeloaders Are Essential To FOSS Project Success

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 13, 2013 @05:36PM (#43164237)

    Lure them in with promises that Linux is ready for the desktop, then force them to help fix the sorry mess. Only report a bug if you want it to coming flying back as a boomerang for you to help debug/trace/fix/that yourself. And I'm only about half trolling.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      +1 this is totally accurate.

    • by idunham (2852899)
      Odd that this is "Outercurve Foundation technical director Stephen Walli", then.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 13, 2013 @06:39PM (#43164915)

      No. You're so wrong. The time that convinced me forever that FOSS is fantastic was when I was stuck with a weird problem with a new motherboard, and in desperation I emailed the linux-users mailing list with a plea for advice. 20 minutes later I had a reply from Alan Cox saying "Aha, just the test case I wanted: try this", with a 4 line patch that fixed my problem.
      This was at 7pm on a Sunday night.

      I have had "premium" contracts from Sun, Oracle, Microsoft, whoever, and I have *never* had response like this from a commercial supplier, and this has happened multiple times to me.

      The great thing is, that I feel like a freeloader, so I've contributed where I can. My contributions have been tiny, but there have been many thousands of tiny contributions to FOSS projects, and whilst the tiny contributions by themselves are in no way sufficient to ensure a projects success, they do make a difference.

      The 4 line patch that fixed my problem presumably fixed the same problem for hundreds of other users (most of whom probably never encountered the issue); it also helped Alan to test that the patch was worthwhile and saved *him* some bother as well. Me coming up with the problem just as Alan Cox was looking into might seem like a million to one chance, but as Terry Pratchett says, million to one chances happen all the time.

      • That's one thing that pleasantly suprised me about Linux and OSS in general as well. I had a problem that I thought might be related to Linux RAID. After following the suggestions in "How to Ask Questions the Smart Way" I got a personal email from the RAID maintainer, with a fix. Try getting the lead dev of any major Microsoft aystem to personally assist you.
        (for Windows fans, Alan Cox is the Balmer of Linux, Linus's designated successor.)

        I'm reminded of when my brother first switched to free softwar
        • by Nivag064 (904744)

          Yes, I once had an exchange of emails with the developer of mdadm. He very patiently helped me explore a problem I had got myself into, and it also resulted in him adding a line to the documentation. This was essentially a PEBKAC error, with me being the one on the chair!

          I raised 4 bugs with xine, 2 trivial, 1 moderate, and one obscure - all got fixed.

          Once a new kernel had a bug which prevented my system accessing a dial up modem properly, there was an updated kernel in less than 24 hours with the fix. A

      • by Aardpig (622459)

        I had a similar experience with Russell King, who was developing the very first port of Linux to the ARM architecture way back in the 1990s. I couldn't get the kernel to boot on my Archimedes A3020 (which used the newer ARM 250 chip). After a couple of emails exchanged, the next day I packed the A3020 into my backpack and caught a train to south London where Russell lived. It only took him 30 mins or so to diagnose the problem, and thence onward Linux has supported the ARM 250. Not quite on-site service, bu

      • by Xest (935314)

        "I have had "premium" contracts from Sun, Oracle, Microsoft, whoever, and I have *never* had response like this from a commercial supplier, and this has happened multiple times to me."

        The problem is that proprietary vendors have these layers of customer support that are intended to filter out the silly trivial requests that don't require a high level of expertise (the sorts of one's that Alan Cox would see on the mailing list and just ignore leaving for someone with more time and patience to deal with). The

        • by Jastiv (958017)
          Of course, sometimes even the person at the top can't fix it that fast, once you have gone to the lead developer, if he or she can't fix it, then where else can you go?
  • True, sort of (Score:5, Insightful)

    by steevven1 (1045978) on Wednesday March 13, 2013 @05:39PM (#43164285) Homepage
    This is true in what it is trying to say. I started using FOSS because it was useful, not because I had any intention of contributing. Now, I regularly file bug reports and do what I can to help out and answer the questions of others. However, "freeloaders" who stay freeloaders forever are not actually necessary, except maybe that they will tell others who will end up not being freeloaders. The bottom line is: The expectation value of helpfulness for a "freeloader" is absolutely not negative.
    • Re:True, sort of (Score:5, Insightful)

      by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Wednesday March 13, 2013 @06:07PM (#43164589) Homepage Journal

      I think their point is, in any population of X freeloaders, there will be Y people who will, at some point, begin to contribute, so it's never hurtful to have a large population of X.

      Plus, the bigger X gets, the bigger Y gets by proportion. Hence the "More freeloaders == more developers" ideology.

      Personally, I take a bit of offense to the term 'freeloader.' If you didn't want people using the software without 'paying' in some way, either through fiscal or chronological contributions, you shouldn't be giving it away for free.

      • by bug1 (96678)

        If Y=f(x) then X arent all freeloaders by definition.

        It is correct to be offended by, story is the big troll IMO.

      • by zAPPzAPP (1207370)

        True.
        Also you can be (and most likely are) a freeloader for a lot of projects while also being a contributor for a few.
        No one can work on all projects at the same time and many will shift their attention to different projects over time.

    • It varies. I started using Mozilla in 2000 because I felt it was important - not because it was good, 'cos it wasn't, it was shit. Though at some point it crashed less than IE, and started looking a bit useful.

    • Freeloaders, *particularly* the annoying ones who whine for help or complain about limitations, are useful themselves if only for providing a broader sample of how the project works in the wild.
    • by Darinbob (1142669)

      Freeloaders who don't contribute are still useful. Having lots of them makes the project more of a success (more users), and the more popular it is the more poeple want to work on it. A freeloader who does nothing and never will do anything to help the project should never be treated as a second class citizen.

      Plus the whole point of open software is that it is not just for club members but for everyone. It is not shareware where you're guilt-tripped into helping out. The goal is to have usable software.

    • by wvmarle (1070040)

      Another thing that I haven't seen mentioned here: motivation for the developers. Having a great number of users for your project will definitely motivate you to go on. And I think it may also attract relatively more users that want to become contributors.

    • This is true in what it is trying to say. I started using FOSS because it was useful, not because I had any intention of contributing. Now, I regularly file bug reports and do what I can to help out and answer the questions of others. However, "freeloaders" who stay freeloaders forever are not actually necessary, except maybe that they will tell others who will end up not being freeloaders. The bottom line is: The expectation value of helpfulness for a "freeloader" is absolutely not negative.

      Question is - how typical would be your experience?

      Most people who are freeloaders do not contribute code, do not write documentation or file bug reports - the latter 2 of which do NOT require programming skills. And people who are freeloaders are often easy to sway w/ the newest and coolest free stuff. This is not to say that having a large user base ain't useful, but the value of that, as in this article, is way overrated.

      The biggest issue about freeloaders in software is that done early enough, it

  • by PPH (736903) on Wednesday March 13, 2013 @05:47PM (#43164391)

    ... my services along with 30 years of experience as a freeloader.

    • by bryonak (836632)

      Splendid! Your offer is graciously accepted!
      Please download all of these [launchpad.net] and then... well... I guess... just have them?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    In the UK there's a big push to get scientists, particularly young ones, to engage with the public at large and in schools. Paul Nurse [wikipedia.org] recently noted a major benefit of this beyond educating the public, is the scientists themselves found it makes better researchers. They thought they understood what they were doing, but having to rephrase for direct back'n'forth brought more focus and clarity to their work. Result being they were very keen to keep talking to people as a regular and re-energizing task.

    I _do_

  • Animal Farm (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AK Marc (707885) on Wednesday March 13, 2013 @06:14PM (#43164657)
    Orwell had a good analogy in Animal Farm. He was writing about the evolutionary process of socialism. Note, the "problem" was never the cat. It was always the pigs. The cat never caused a problem. Never harmed anyone. And didn't get in the way or drag anyone down. For whatever reason, the "freeloader" is always the enemy. But in reality, the freeloader doesn't create a load, and doesn't harm anyone. They are used by the pigs as a scapegoat, but don't themselves do any harm to anyone.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    People tend to forget that their FOSS project is meaningless if people don't use it. Calling them "freeloaders" in general does a disservice to the users. I have a feeling it derives from the fact that the only interaction that developers have with their users is as a number next to the download counter and some extra megabytes added to the bandwidth bill. If they actually got involved in the community suddenly there is a name to attach to that number. It's difficult to define what "involved in the communit

  • They don't even tolerate /themers/.

  • by fa2k (881632)

    Depends on how you define "success". If you define it as being popular (i.e. has many users), the thesis in the article is basically tautological.

  • by bmo (77928) on Wednesday March 13, 2013 @07:47PM (#43165647)

    For any amount of freeloaders, you will get people who want to fix things. This is my biggest complaint at people who dislike Ubuntu and other distros that make Linux "easy." Ubuntu and the other easy distros get fresh-meat, and eventually some of that fresh meat becomes part of the coding community.

    Without fresh-meat, Linux would regress to less than a hobbyist operating system, and one pointed and laughed at as a waste of time.

    The "elitists" are the ones who would eventually kill Linux.

    --
    BMO

    • This is my biggest complaint at people who dislike Ubuntu and other distros that make Linux "easy."

      People don't hate Ubuntu for making Linux "easy", they hate it for making Linux hard. By starting with Debian, which already twists SoP, then adding its own non-standard way of doing things, it actually makes things harder for the Linux ecosystem. Specifically, it "Window-ises" Linux, creates that two-level usage where doing something is either blindly stupidly easy or else buried in obscurity that requires special training. It removes the natural progression of difficulty that got those geeks into Linux in

      • by gl4ss (559668)

        shuttleworth wants his own lindows.

        it's pretty apparent from his recent "I'm not doing this for stinky nerds" speeches.

        and from grasping at straws at possibilities to get some money injected into the company(the mobile stuff.. tablets.. infamouse "ubuntu on android" etc are aimed at that).

      • by Rich0 (548339)

        [The solution, IMO, is to treat Ubuntu as being a OS/UI "based on Linux", not as a Linux distro. So it's not something you offer someone to "introduce them to Linux", it's a stand-alone free/free n00bs-friendly Windows replacement.]

        I posted something like this on a blog comment recently. In the past I've handed people Ubuntu CDs as a way to introduce them to linux. Now it is a way to introduce them to Ubuntu, and about as useful otherwise as handing them an Android phone or Tivo for introducing them to Linux (well, they're not quite that far along, but they're going in that direction). Whatever, if they want to do their own thing they can. I might still install it on Aunt Tilly's desktop, but I wouldn't give it to a young aspiring

        • [The solution, IMO, is to treat Ubuntu as being a OS/UI "based on Linux", not as a Linux distro. So it's not something you offer someone to "introduce them to Linux", it's a stand-alone free/free n00bs-friendly Windows replacement.]

          I posted something like this on a blog comment recently. In the past I've handed people Ubuntu CDs as a way to introduce them to linux. Now it is a way to introduce them to Ubuntu, and about as useful otherwise as handing them an Android phone or Tivo for introducing them to Linux (well, they're not quite that far along, but they're going in that direction). Whatever, if they want to do their own thing they can. I might still install it on Aunt Tilly's desktop, but I wouldn't give it to a young aspiring computer scientist.

          Sure, Ubuntu might result in lots of people using Linux (though many of them already use Linux in that sense - on their phones/etc), but it will probably lose most of the people who already use Linux in the process.

          I really don't understand this perspective. I've been using Ubuntu as my primary Linux for a long time, but I don't really get how any other distro would change things in the slightest. Between distros you just have different ways of distributing packages - or, if you don't have packages then you just have compiling from source.

          Outside of that it's all just which daemon is being used by what for where. What is so fundamentally different about Ubuntu/Debian that breaks some supposed natural order of progress

          • by Rich0 (548339)

            Outside of that it's all just which daemon is being used by what for where.

            I'm not sure this is really the direction Ubuntu is going - they're not just concerned about what daemon is used by what for where. They're moving towards having an app store model (think Ubuntu-specific APIs, GUI models, etc), their own display server, and they have essentially their own desktop environment and sysvinit system now. Right now you can still run xubuntu/kubuntu/etc and still get a more vanilla experience, but I'm not sure that will be sustainable as things progress.

            They haven't gotten there

    • by Rich0 (548339)

      The "elitists" are the ones who would eventually kill Linux.

      I doubt any "elitists" actually exist - that is a bit of a straw man.

      Most of what some call elitists are really just people who want Linux to work for them. What good is it having a million people contributing to a distro, if they're making it into a distro you don't actually want to use? There is room in the world for more than one Linux distro - if there wasn't we'd all be running Android, Tivo, or whatever powers your car entertainment system on the desktop.

      • by bmo (77928)

        >I doubt any "elitists" actually exist - that is a bit of a straw man.

        You gotta be kidding me. I've run into them since the days of when people would criticize Caldera for having an easy installer.

        --
        BMO

        • by Rich0 (548339)

          Ok, they exist. However, it is easy to just point at anybody who disagrees with the direction your project is moving in and call them an elitist.

          Do I want my OS to be easy to use? Sure, but for me. Do I mind if it is also easy to use for somebody else, not at all, unless it makes it harder for me to use. That's the gripe so many have with Unity/etc - people feel it makes it hard for them to work the way they want to work.

          • by bmo (77928)

            >That's the gripe so many have with Unity/etc - people feel it makes it hard for them to work the way they want to work.

            So what? I've used Unity and it's not bad and it's actually great for a laptop. The criticism is way out of proportion. Add to this that the people most vocal about Unity are also the ones most capable of completely ignoring it and installing another DE/WM. Listening to the critics, you'd think that Ubuntu removed all other options, which they didn't, and they're still there in the

            • by Rich0 (548339)

              I think people are concerned that those other options might not be well-maintained for long with the direction things are moving. I agree that for now the options still exist.

              Oh, as far as Xorg configs go, Xorg themselves have gotten a lot better about this. I haven't had to write modelines in the last decade, and these days you can usually get away with not having an xorg.conf at all. Usually I end up with a highly abbreviated one just to set a few non-default settings but nothing really essential for d

  • by erroneus (253617) on Wednesday March 13, 2013 @08:03PM (#43165797) Homepage

    There has been a lot of flack about changes made in the 2.8.x GIMP. The developers insist "this is how it is and how it will be, no more discussion" despite the wrongness of it all. Many users wish to support the developers out of gratitude. I understand it, but I don't agree with it. People who speak out are slapped down and it doesn't matter if they have a good point or not. They just don't want to listen to their users and have said "if you're not a developer, you are not contributing, so shut up."

    It's just wrong... and bad...

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      gimps been a lot better lately. on windows they even have one window mode which makes it actually usable in workflow(for a developer of other apps).

    • by 21mhz (443080)

      Well, the article says good things about freeloaders, not self-entitled whiners who think the developer community owes them the exact implementation of their wishes, all else be damned.

      • by erroneus (253617)

        Well said and way to show contempt.

        That's the thing. These are people who care enough about it to want to offer their user perspective. The issue (in this case) is that Save/Save As removed the ability to save as the format it was opened as. Users now have to "export." It's clumsy, unintuitive and is difficult to get used to in light of the fact that the original behavior is more normal across GUI applications. (The whole point of a GUI is that apps work the same so that learning and user comfort is ma

    • by Nivag064 (904744)

      GNOME 3 was a triumph of Fashion over Function, I was more or less happy with GNOME 2 with a few niggles about some minor losses of functionality. So I fled to 'xfce', and now I'm moving to 'mate' - 'xfce' is more mature and reliable, but 'mate' has some features I was missing ('mate' restored some of the minor, but very useful features in gedit & nautilus, that got dropped in later versions of GNOME 2).

      I just hope the GIMP developers do not follow the lead of the GNOME developers!

      • by erroneus (253617)

        Developers are pretty self-important. And when it comes to who is steering a project, I used to think "let the engineers, do what they do!" Then I met up against a company driven by engineers instead of sales and marketing and found out what happens when my ideal is realized -- an unexpected kind of hell. In the case of this company, I will say that it is huge and Japanese. They cannot deliver on customer needs and government compliance requirements because they do things "their way" (sounds a bit lile

  • I think the label "freeloader" is a major part of the problem - it is only appropriate for talking about economies of scarcity. Where a freeloader actually consumes resources that other more "deserving" people would otherwise get.

    For an economy of plenty - like free software - we need a more appropriate, more positive term to better describe what happens and to denote the positive values. The first thing that comes to my mind is "cheerleader" but there are probably better names - any suggestions?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      "User"

    • I think the label "freeloader" is a major part of the problem - it is only appropriate for talking about economies of scarcity.

      The "scarce resource" is the developers. So users who try to monopolise dev-hours are perceived by those devs as freeloading.

  • ...To figure out you were talking about regular users.
  • They are potential value add customers.

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