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 Friday, April 26, 2013
On OSS and Adoption

Are you one of those developers who can’t get his/her boss to let you download/prototype/use a Really Cool™ software package that happens to be open-source? Here’s a possible reason why.

For no reason in particular, after installing Cygwin on an old laptop onto which I just dropped Win7, I decided to also drop MinGW32, Cygwin’s main competitor in the “UNIX-on-Windows” space. Wander off to the home page, grab an installer, read the “Getting Started” instructions, and…. down at the bottom, where (as is pretty hip and common these days) random visitors can leave comments or questions to be answered by the project maintainers, we find this exchange:

Re: Getting Started

On April 7th, 2009 mago says:

Hi guys.

Will mingw work on future versions of windows?

I'm upgrading to Vista in a short time and i want to know how much 'upgrading' will make me suffer.

My guess is that you guys at Mingw should develop a new version for Vista?

Or is it just the same? What about the Win32 Api? There are surely additions with newer versions of windows.

Thanks.

 

Re: Getting Started

keith's picture

On April 7th, 2009 keith says:

I find it really insulting, when someone says "you guys should...".

This is an Open Source project, developed by volunteers in their spare time. You have no right to tell me what I should, or should not do with my spare time. Why should I, rather than you do that?

AFAIK, MinGW already does work with Vista, but why don't you just try it, and see; then contribute on the basis of your experience, either in the form of patches, or failing that, bug reports?

it’s that middle paragraph that will have your boss—any manager responsible for the installation of software within his arena of responsibility, in fact—in fits.

Don’t get me wrong: the project maintainer is clearly well within his rights to express his frustration at the fact that these people keep telling him what he should do, these people (vultures!) who keep leeching off of his hard work, who take and take with no giving back, who…

… are called “customers” in other companies, by the way, and who often have perfectly reasonable requests of the vendors from whom they get their software, because if they had time to build it themselves, they wouldn’t need to download your stuff.

I’ve been having many of the same kinds of “getting started” frustrations with installing Opa onto this same Win7 laptop box, and when I Tweeted about how the Opa experience is clearly not optimal on the Windows platform:

tedneward: @opalang looks like a great idea, but I don't get the feeling they really take Windows (or Win devs) seriously.

And their response was:

@henri_opa: @tedneward We know that Opa on windows is suboptimal and would love new contributors on the windows port in the community.

Which I interpret to mean, “We get that it’s not great, we’re sorry, but it’s not a priority enough for us to fix, so please, fix it yourself and bring that work back to the community.” Which may be great community-facing mojo, but it’s horrible vendor customer service, and it’s a clear turn-off for any attempt I might make to advise a client or customer about using it. Matter of fact, if I can’t even get the silly thing to install and run HelloWorld correctly, you’re better off not claiming Windows as a supported platform in the first place. (Which still goes towards the point that “they’re not really taking Windows or Windows developers seriously as a target market.)

This is the moral equivalent of Delta Airlines telling me, “We’re sorry we lost your bag on the flight, but we don’t have the personnel to go looking for it. If you’d like to come into the back here and rummage around for a while, or make a few phone calls to other Delta offices in other cities, we’d love the contribution.” If I am your customer, if I am the consumer of your product, whether you charged me something for it or not, then you have an implied responsibility to help me when I run into issues—or else you are not really all that concerned about me as a customer, and I won’t ever be able to convince people (for whom this kind of support is expected) to use your stuff. Matter of fact, I won’t even try.

If you’re an open-source project, and you’re trying to gain mindshare, you either think of your users as customers and treat them the way you want to be treated, or you’re just fooling yourself about your adoption, and your “community focus”. You either care about the customer, or you don’t, and if you don’t, then don’t expect customers to care about you, either.


Saturday, April 27, 2013 4:55:09 AM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
This assumes that commercial vendors fulfil the wishes when customers request a feature. MS Connect is full of unresolved bugs, there are interesting examples in LinqToSQL or Silverlight being abandoned, not to mention bunch of stuff from P&P team, which have all fell out of focus when MS decided that these are not their priorities. There are similar examples from other vendors.

Isn't that also horrible vendor customer service?
I don't see how this doesn't represent a problem for managers (or clients) when they pick to choose non-OSS stuff.
Zdeslav
Wednesday, May 01, 2013 8:13:17 AM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
I'm intrigued to know what would have been the correct answer from the Opa guys, in your opinion?
John
Saturday, May 04, 2013 11:40:32 PM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
Ted, you're way off the mark here. First of all, as Zdeslav points out many commercial vendors totally *suck* at responding to customers. Second, if you are not paying you are *not* a customer. Third, there are an enormous amount of entitled a-holes out there that really contribute a lot of negative energy to open source projects.

Frankly, while I believe you have a point in the abstract, it is totally unjustified to complain about a specific project. When you're imposing your values on someone else (that you don't even know), you're being a jerk.
Sunday, May 05, 2013 12:49:37 AM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
Zdeslav and Jeroen:

I've never said that commercial institutions get this right all the time--far from it. The difference is, there, accountability ultimately comes when the company can no longer pay its bills--in an open source project, no such accountability is present, so the project leads feel empowered to ignore their customers. Or consumers, if you prefer the term. MS Connect is certainly a great example, and the P&P team's open-source projects only more or less prove my point: they abandoned their customers as they abandoned projects, leaving the people who were depending on them in the lurch. One of the very first questions I ever heard from anybody in the Microsoft technology space, when considering use of the p&p libraries, was "Will they continue to support this?", and when no ironclad guarantee (like the Microsoft "5 + 2" guarantee for their commercial products) came forth, a lot of companies chose not to use the p&p bits. Microsoft gets no pass from me; neither does Sun, who created tons of abandonware (Jini and JXTA being just two of my personal favorites).

Jeroen, quite honestly, that approach of "if you are not paying you are not a customer" holds zero water with me: if you are not thinking of yourself as a provider, a vendor, then frankly it's extremely hard to see any commercial entity--who cannot wait for someone in the community to get around to fixing bugs or implementing features that are critical to the commercial entity's use of the software you're providing--really having much faith in your product. Project. Whatever.

There are a lot of entitled assholes out there, period. Some of them are on the receiving end of the open-source community, but some are in the providing end, too. My example about the specific project was because when I talk about this in the abstract, people respond, "Oh, but open-source project leads don't really react this way." Yes, they do, and when they do, they should be held accountable.

But lastly, I'm not imposing my values on him: I'm saying that (for the general "you") if you can't figure out why OSS isn't being adopted by your company, it may be because there are a non-trivial number of OSS projects that *don't* treat their customers like customers, and that's not something that's going to be tolerated for long, just as it wouldn't for a commercial vendor, either. If I'm being a jerk by calling that out, then so be it, I'm a jerk. According to your values, anyway. ;-)
Ted Neward
Monday, May 06, 2013 6:52:38 AM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
I suspect we agree more than we disagree, but since I like to argue and think this is an interesting issue, I'll try to make my point in a different way.

Let's assume a malevolent entity that creates an open source project with the single purpose of wasting people's time (i.e. it looks interesting and useful, but after spending some time evaluating it, everyone notices that it is useless). If this malevolence is obvious (in retrospect) one is clearly justified in complaining and/or warning others about this project.

However, for any other project one must assume that the motivations are not malevolent and hence that it is either a nett positive contribution to the universe, or an unintended nett negative contribution. I feel that in both cases you are not really "allowed" to complain about the values of the project. You are certainly free to disagree with them and to point this out to others.

Finally, you end your post with:
"If you’re an open-source project, and you’re trying to gain mindshare, you either think of your users as customers and treat them the way you want to be treated, or you’re just fooling yourself about your adoption, and your “community focus”. You either care about the customer, or you don’t, and if you don’t, then don’t expect customers to care about you, either."

This is exactly right, but it misses the fact that "customers" is not a homogenous group. For some users the project may be helpful and for others not. You see the exact same thing in the commercial world, where people who are clearly not in the target audience of a product complain about its features or price.
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