Open Source will scale

I’ve always been a bit scared about the day when 99% percent of the world uses GNOME. It’s always been said that there will be huge amounts of people that will come and post questions to the mailing lists or filing bugs and the current developers won’t be able to handle the load. This sounds like a very convincing argument. If currently 1% of the world uses GNOME and it suddenly were 100x as many, we’d be at 40 million bugs right now. Even Andre wouldn’t be able to keep up anymore.

Since the last few days I’m not scared anymore. We’ll easily scale to much more than 100% of the world’s users. And the reason for that is easy: Most people won’t come to us. Most people won’t know or care that there is a way to complain about something and will instead moan about missing features in their favorite internet forum. I’d even go so far as to say that the amount of bugs wouldn’t increase at all if we suddenly had 99% market share, because everyone interested in working on GNOME already does.

What made me say this? The online forums of/for distributions. I tend to google Swfdec regularly – particularly after releases – to see what the public perception of it is; it helps a lot in identifying issues. Lots of people talk in those forum, but even though they are really close to the distro (as opposed to a WoW forum), there is a huge disconnect between the forum communities and the distro community. It almost never occurs to the forum members to file bugs, check the homepage of upstream projects or otherwise interact with the distribution. Instead, they spend most of the time with anecdotal stories of how they fixed problems and hearsay about what they think happens in the Linux world. In shot, they’re as well informed about their distro as the tabloid press is. What makes this even more interesting is the fact that this seems to be by choice. Noone is discouraging them from participating in the Free Software world. At least they don’t sound bitter. They seem to be content the way it is. And I see no reason for why the remaining 99% of the world will be any different.


#1 Giacomo on 04.07.08 at 13:07

There’s something worst: outdated workarounds still lifting in forum threads.
I can’t possibly quantify how many times I’ve seen someone asking for help on a specific problem and people suggesting obscure unrelated workarounds who aren’t needed anymore for the original problem because it has been fixed for the last three stable releases and in the new context all they could do is worsening things…

Tsk, tsk.

#2 Jeff Bailey on 04.07.08 at 17:08

It goes further than that – many upstream projects want the bug reporters to be running pristine sources from upstream. A major role for the distribution is to handle and triage those bugs.

So the question is: How do we scale the distros?

An early concern with Ubuntu was the loss of users from Debian. What actually happened was that Ubuntu picked off the less technical users, and then built a community around the forums, and ultimately commercial support through Canonical.

(obDisclosure: I was the one who started the support department at Canonical)

It would be interesting to look at the other popular distros and do an analysis on how they would handle growth.

#3 William Lachance on 04.08.08 at 09:37

Some of what you say is true, but you ignore the fact that:

1. It’s often difficult for someone unfamiliar with Gnome or Ubuntu to find the right place (usually a mailing list) to ask questions. bug-buddy is not a support tool.
2. Many people are easily intimidated and afraid of looking stupid on an official project forum.
3. People following the “blessed” community policies _still_ get ignored. See, for example, the beginning of this rant:

“This is, I think, the most common way for my bug reports to open source software projects to ever become closed. I report bugs; they go unread for a year, sometimes two; and then (surprise!) that module is rewritten from scratch — and the new maintainer can’t be bothered to check whether his new version has actually solved any of the known problems that existed in the previous version.”

None of this may apply to Swfdec, but it certainly does to much of Gnome (or Ubuntu) in general.

#4 Mace Moneta on 04.11.08 at 16:34

I have to agree with everything William Lachance said.

I have tried to “do my community duty” and report bugs, and I still do. However, whether it’s a cosmetic bug or a kernel panic, they bugs rarely even get an acknowledgement (let alone a fix).

This isn’t a rant; I’ve been a developer for over 30 years, and I understand the issues of triage and resource limits. However, looking from the perspective of and end-user that goes to the effort to find the bug reporting tool and actually files a bug, the processes is intractable.

Mailing lists and IRC channels don’t exist. If the interaction doesn’t occur in a web-based forum, it isn’t going to happen. It’s not that people are happy with the situation, it’s that they are not interested in learning what they see as archaic communication techniques. It’s the reason we don’t send smoke signals when we want to go to lunch with a friend, or use Morse code when we want to chat with our aunt across the country. By clinging to these old user-unfriendly technologies, projects intentially alienate users and set the bar – you must “learn this much” to talk to us.

That’s OK, if that’s the intent, but I keep seeing projects ask why users don’t interact more with the community. It’s almost as if the developer community is psychotic in some rspects.

#5 Murat Güneş on 04.12.08 at 15:17

Vincent Untz has a piece that deals with this split of media, where he calls on developers to take the initiative in building bridges: