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Should We All Be Contributing to FOSS?

By Katherine Noyes
Dec 16, 2014 9:55 AM PT

It's surely a testament to the shocking nature of the recent news about Devuan that the Linux blogosphere has been a rather quiet place of late.

Should We All Be Contributing to FOSS?

Yes, there was last week's Turla news, and yes, the holiday season is looming large, likely dampening more than a few spirits.

Still, the atmosphere definitely has been subdued down at the blogosphere's seedy Punchy Penguin Saloon, as Linux fans have pondered this dramatic development in the ongoing Systemd saga. How, bloggers seemed to be wondering, did things get to this point?

'Developers Won't Provide Assistance'

Linux Girl

It's perhaps no great surprise that what conversation there has been has tended toward self-reflection.

Case in point: "Non-Coders, Why Aren't You Contributing To Open Source?" is the name of an Ask Slashdot post that emerged soon after the Devuan news, and it clearly struck a nerve among coders and noncoders alike. Blame and recrimination soon followed.

After nearly 500 comments were logged, patrons at the Punchy Penguin couldn't help but jump in with thoughts of their own.

"I'm not contributing because I'm not a programmer, and nonprogrammers can't meaningfully contribute to documentation when they can't figure out how the program works without reading the code and the developers won't provide needed assistance," offered Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza, for instance. "In my experience, this is the typical state of affairs."

'Needless to Say, I Left'

Similarly, "all too often the projects don't make an effort to bring people in," Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien suggested. "They say they want collaborators but don't take the steps necessary to include people."

O'Brien illustrated his point with an example from his own experience.

"I once offered to help with documentation on a project because I do a lot of that in my job, and I'm good at it," he recounted. "But when I asked where the information was to put into the documentation, I was just told that it was my job to find it.

"When I write documentation in my job, I sit down with the developer to get the data and then use my talents to turn it into something an actual user can follow," O'Brien explained, "but this project basically wanted documentation to be something they could make 'someone else's problem' and not put any effort into it. Needless to say, I left."

'It's a Tough Sell'

Time was the bigger issue for Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone, he said.

"I would love to contribute!" Stone told Linux Girl. "I write some code as part of my job, but I find that I don't have the time to spare to do all the things that I would like to do.

"My job usually requires 50 to 60 hours a week, and I'm married with three kids," he explained. "Maybe it's selfish of me, but I do want to spend some of my time for myself."

In many ways, FOSS' biggest weakness is also its greatest strength, Stone suggested.

"Many people who spend a huge amount of time working on it never see a dime for their work," he explained. "They've managed to create some of the best software in the world, but philosophically speaking, it's still a tough sell to convince people to work so hard for free. I'm glad they do it, though, and we don't say 'Thank you' nearly enough."

'A Limited Commodity'

The LedgerSMB project gets contributions from "a large number of sources in a large number of ways," said Chris Travers, a blogger and contributor to that effort.

"Coders often contribute code; noncoders may contribute bug reports, on-email-list help to other noncoders, documentation, discussion and more," he explained. "Even feature requests and discussions of feature requests are appreciated."

At the same time, "it is not really right to expect everyone to contribute to everything they use," Travers opined. "Even as a coder, there are tons of programs that I use and don't contribute back to. Nobody contributes to everything, and a lot of people don't contribute to anything."

Bottom line: "There isn't anything really wrong with this," he said. "Time, after all, is a limited commodity."

'I Contribute Every Day'

Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol contributes to the PCLinuxOS project in Brazil.

"I'm actually contributing a lot," Ebersol told Linux Girl.

"I manage the country's community of PCLinuxOS, I assist my fellow PCLinuxOS users with their problems, I make eight different PCLinuxOS localized versions, I package programs and send to PCLinuxOS and I give support in the international PCLinuxOS forums too," he explained.

Similarly, "I have contributed with funds for almost a dozen projects," said Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. "Also, I contribute every day by using, presenting and installing FLOSS -- notably GNU/Linux in full, or at least LibreOffice, VLC and Firefox for Window$ users -- and being a kind of GNU/Linux activist.

"From my modest point of view, that is already a lot," he said.

'Why Would I Contribute?'

"The reason why I don't contribute is VERY simple: FOSS is simply not suitable for any purpose I have," SoylentNews blogger hairyfeet asserted.

"If you run Web servers or are working in embedded projects I'm sure it's fine, but I am not a server admin nor do I work on embedded projects," he said. "In the field where I DO work, FOSS is simply awful, from 'update foo broke my drivers' to major subsystems getting ripped out every time it looks like Linux is getting stable."

In short, "if FOSS disappeared from the planet tomorrow it wouldn't affect me in the slightest, so why would I contribute to some movement which offers me absolutely nothing?" hairyfeet said.

'A Hairy Language'

"I'm a coder, but I don't do C," blogger Robert Pogson began. "C is a hairy language from the Cro-Magnon era.

"If Linux and most other FLOSS were written in a proper language, like PASCAL, we could quickly learn what it means and not have to tweak the code with every release of the compiler," Pogson said. "Instead of having humans mentally compile code to figure out what it does on the fly and using robots to find the errors humans make, we could have the humans just read the code as they do ordinary text."

The other thing that prevents "ordinary mortals" from contributing code is that "in order to test software, one has to compile and run it," Pogson added.

'Like Apple Pie Without Cheese'

"A lot of FLOSS has dozens of libraries of certain versions that have to be linked in before the code will run," he noted. "Next week, someone will tweak one of those dependencies and the latest version of someone else's software won't work.

"It's long past time for developers of FLOSS to decide a package they've been using a few months is done and leave it alone so that it's not a moving target for others," he asserted.

"What can we non-athletes do? Test software. Install it. Try it every-which-way," Pogson advised. "Make suggestions. Make choices. Write documentation. Teach folks how to use the software. Write bug reports.

"All of these are every bit as necessary as the code-jockeying that's done," he concluded. "Software without users is like maths without an application, apple pie without cheese, a kiss without a squeeze."

'A Prime Directive'

Indeed, "you don't have to be able to code to contribute," agreed consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack. "You can contribute with bug reports, by writing documentation, helping others to learn (LUG etc), by donating money to your favorite project or by joining the Linux Foundation."

However it's done, "we must get involved contributing to Open Source," Google+ blogger Rodolfo Saenz said. "If there should be a Prime Directive for Linuxers, it should be this one. We must support FOSS -- it's part of our lives, both professional and personal, and it's also part of our collective way of thinking."


Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered journalist by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


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