Getting the hobbyist back

community, gimp, gnome 22 Comments

When I first installed a Linux distribution in 1996 or 97, it was a horrible experience. My friend who had started a few months before me thought it was great, though – I remember, it was Red Hat 5, the first version that had an ncurses installer that helped you through the process.

I was confronted with dozens of questions I knew nothing about and wasn’t equipped to answer. Did I want to create a primary or secondary partition? What was its mount point and filesystem type going to be? What was the manufacturer of my video card? What resolution & refresh rate did I need for my monitor (WARNING: the wrong answer can make your monitor explode!)? What was my IP address, netmask, gateway, DNS server? What keymap did I want for my keyboard? Was my NIC using ISA or PCI? Was it 10baseT or 100baseT? Which driver did it need? Was my mouse a PS/2, serial, Microsoft or “Other” (there was always an “Other”)? And on and on it went. How the hell did I know? What did I care?

But it was a learning experience. Installing Linux was the period in my life where I learned the most about how computers worked, hardware and software. Back then, if you wanted to try out an application you heard about, there was only one way to do it – download the source code and compile it. I had a wad of software in /usr/local, including MySQL, the GIMP, Scilab, and a bunch of other stuff I’ve forgotten. There was no online distribution channel. Free software developers didn’t do packaging, there were no PPAs. If it didn’t come on the install CD, it needed compiling.

It wasn’t better. There were fewer of us. Linux had a name as a hobbyist’s toy for a reason. Those of us that there were had a certain minimum knowledge of our systems. You knew shell commands because there was no other way to do anything. Everyone knew about fstab and resolv.conf and and compiling kernel modules, because you had to. And every time you installed software, you had the source code – right there on your computer. And you knew how to compile it.

I don’t know if I would ever made a patch for the GIMP if I didn’t have the source code and had already gone through the pain of compiling & installing all its dependencies. I doubt it very much. And yet that’s the situation that the vast majority of Linux users are in today – they have never compiled any software, or learned about the nuts & bolts of their OS, because they don’t have to.

I remember Nat Friedman talking about this in a presentation he made a few years ago about how to become a free software developer. Step 1 was “download some source code”, step 2 was “compile and install it”, step 3 was “Find something you want to change, and change it”. And I recall that Nat identified step 2 as the major stumbling block.

We have bred a generation of free software users who have never compiled software, and don’t particularly care to. Is it any wonder that recruitment of developers appears to be slowing, that prominent older projects are suffering something of a demographic crisis, with hoary old 30 year olds holding down the fort, with no young fiery whippersnappers coming up to relieve them?

Is this a problem? It seems like it to me – so I ask the question to a wider audience. With a second question: how can we get the hobbyist back into using free software, at least for some part of our community?